Rome burning? Then it's time for the impossible

Economist M. Scott Taylor and actress Emily Blunt– or rather the character she plays in The Adjustment Bureau– are peas in a pod.

Recently, while The Adjustment Bureau was arriving in Charlottesville theaters, Calgary-based Taylor was addressing a crammed Darden Business School classroom on whether green power can "save us.”

According to movie reviews, Ms. Blunt’s free-thinking character in the film loosens up a congressman (Matt Damon) who is simply too serious.  Like so many Hollywood lessons, the overall message is that we should aspire to a happier-go-luckier existence.

Meanwhile, tallying all the facts, figures, and possibilities of solar, wind, and biomass fuels against the minimum two-degree increase in Celsius which scientists think might be low enough to stave off disaster, Taylor answered his own question February 23 at Darden with a resounding, “No; green power cannot save us.”

Dr. Andrea Larsen, who for years has promoted innovative sustainability at Darden, UVA's graduate school of business, all but begged Taylor to leave his audience with some sense of hope. She pointed out that mankind is an innovative animal and that many times throughout history solutions have arrived through human brain power.

Dr. Taylor’s model, however, didn’t address innovation. Consequently, I asked him about behavioral change; about whether we humans are capable of changing our lifestyles enough to mitigate the coming issue.

His smiling answer:  “I don’t deal with solutions. I’m an economist."

And with that we left Classroom 50 wondering if, à la Emily Blunt, we should just giggle our way through to the collapse.

From both ends of the spectrum– information and entertainment– we Americans today are bombarded with the idea that the world revolves around our happiness; that we shouldn’t worry our little heads; that we aren’t a part of addressing the issues which befuddle us.

I’m old fashioned, I admit; but there used to be an American concept that when you’re aware of a problem, you deal with it. You deal with it.  You don’t depend on others while you pretend the problem doesn’t exist or hope it goes away.

Today, we need more serious people, I submit, not less.  Matt Damon must communicate the depth of our issues to Emily Blunt. Not vice versa. We need people and media to explain the many versions of the hard truths even if we don’t want to hear them; even if it’s outside our quantitative models.

Not that we shouldn’t laugh and enjoy but that we must learn to minimize the trivial, like American Idol, the potential NFL strike, Charlie Sheen, tattoos, and what Michelle Obama is wearing and upgrade discussion– as opposed to shouting– about our debt, our oil dependency, our water issues, our lost manufacturing  base and our struggling educational system. Our world, and all the issues in it, is too complex for the screeches of paid pundits, TV soundbites, and especially laughing off of our problems.

Though these happened before my generation, Americans used to be the people who built the Panama Canal, who landed a man on the moon, who defeated the state evils of Hitler and Tojo, who kept the world (or perhaps just a part of it) safe for democracy, who cajoled other nations into major arms reductions, who threw off the horrors of slavery, who “could do” whatever it was that needed to be done. Difficulty didn’t faze us.

Just a generation– my generation– after we praised the Seabees' motto (“the difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a bit longer”), we seem today to have convinced ourselves that we must laugh because we’re too self-involved to even be conscious of complexity and complications.

We seem to be washing our hands of issues as serious as American oil dependency and global warming.  Are we fiddling while our Rome is burning?
A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is the Charlottesville transportation researcher who, last spring (before BP's blunder), penned the prescient essay predicting a massive underwater oil platform leak.