I have what may seem kind of a cosmic question: Are we experiencing the contraction of a sense of community, in the broadest meaning of the term, that had been expanding for the last 50 years or more? I had come to believe, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., that the long arc of history was bending toward community – that as the world was becoming a smaller and more interconnected place, people understood the need to replace barriers with bridges. I saw – or liked to think I saw – this development taking place at three levels:
- Here in America we have witnessed a significant expansion of our national community since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It did not come without struggle and it encountered fierce resistance, but the inclusion of those once defined as outcasts had come to seem irreversible: African Americans and other minorities; women; gay people and the broader LGBT community; native peoples; immigrants; the intellectually challenged and physically disabled. So much of what some facilely dismiss as identity politics has really been the demands of growing numbers of people to take their rightful place at America’s increasingly diverse communal table.
- Internationally, in the ashes of the Holocaust and the carnage of two world wars that left over 100 million dead, there arose the idea of a community of nations, in which national borders were defortified and nationalism itself deemphasized. For all their shortcomings, the creation of the United Nations, NATO, and the European Community embodied that ideal, and a host of organizations seeking to alleviate world hunger and advocate for universal human rights underscored the belief in our common humanity.
- Lastly, as John Muir’s quote makes clear, we must extend our understanding of community to include the earth itself and all its inhabitants. Our first Earth Day in 1970 celebrated the growing recognition of how interconnected – and interdependent – all life is.
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”
To me, that enlargement of community, from tribe to nation to world to the earth itself, has long seemed our greatest story and our best hope – and while the last 50 years have seen many setbacks and much resistance, the future seemed to be on our side. Maybe I believed that because I was young then and had the optimism of youth. So I am saddened now as I watch the simultaneous unraveling of that story at all three levels – national openness to diversity, international cooperation, and an environmental ethic – an unraveling led by my own country. That sadness, though, is not surrender. It’s a call to action.