New day promises chance to do better

December 30, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

This last column of 2007, like most of the others that appeared in the Sunday Sun, was written between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. on the day before publication, a work habit of mine that developed during the past two years. It wasn't exactly doctor-recommended - more sleep is - but I've grown comfortable with writing at this hour; I feel as if I have the whole world to myself.

As you might imagine, the wee hours are breathtakingly peaceful. I step through the kitchen door into my Baltimore backyard and even the din of traffic, which seems to never stop anymore, is gone, and there are never police helicopters in the sky, and I seldom hear sirens. I am more likely to hear the odd sound of a bird singing in the dark, perhaps in its sleep.

I don't wish this on anyone - being awake at these hours if you don't have to be - but you might want to check it out sometime. In the hours between 2 a.m. and dawn, the world seems perfect, with nothing ahead of it but another perfect day. There's no violence in the world at this hour, no corrupt human enterprise, no shouting, no greed, no bigotry, none of the ugliness that infests the rest of our days.

The world just outside my door at 3 a.m. is at full rest, and I wish the day ahead could be as serene, from Rawalpindi to Rogers Avenue.

Of course, we are humans, more than 6.6 billion of us now, and we cannot sleep all the time. We rise and go forth. We are up and about in the world for two-thirds of each day, the vast majority of us productive and engaged. A minority causes most of the grief and mayhem, committing crimes large and small, damaging our world in ways that cannot be cured by sleep.

I sometimes imagine, in these early hours, that the world is being renewed during them, that we will wake to a fully healed ozone layer and a cooler planet, that rivers and bays have been flushed of their poisons, that the air has been cleared, that glaciers have grown again, and that all human hatreds died with the night.

Of course, we wake to the world that was there when we went to bed and to the reality that, minus bold and positive actions by the humans who inhabit this planet, Earth will never be renewed to its historic best levels of environmental health, and our societies will never reach full potential.

That takes work, not sleep.

We have to fix today what was broken over time. We can't just raise a New Year's glass and make a wish. It takes human energy, resolve and determination to make the world a better place.

I resolve to use the time and news space left for me to look at problems and propose solutions, but, more than that, to get you and the leaders around us (elected, appointed or ordained) to think in big, imaginative and idealistic strokes again.

There doesn't seem to be much of that going around these days - not among the presidential candidates, not among elected leaders in Maryland, and not from the business and political leaders in and around Baltimore. They might think grandly of themselves, but not much of what they say resonates anymore.

It has been a long time since we heard men and women championing outrageous ideals and setting breathtaking goals - affordable health care for every American, shared prosperity and an end to profound poverty, decent housing for the physically and economically impaired, public schools that produce the world's best-educated students, more public transportation to reduce reliance on the automobile, cities with rising populations and life-quality that make the further loss of open landscape to suburban sprawl unnecessary. Making global warming, stabilized population growth and development of alternative energy sources a matter of international urgency - it would take an extraordinary American leader to pull that off in our generation.

It would be good to hear such a leader call for sacrifice and public service, nostalgic concepts we associate with a previous generation that endured depression and war. We have inherited so much, but we risk losing what was given if we don't change our ways. It takes leadership to recognize this and challenge Americans to sacrifice for the greater good, to act as citizens and not just consumers.

"The ideal is terrifying to behold," Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, "lost as it is in the depths, small, isolated, a pin-point, brilliant but threatened on all sides by the dark forces that surround it: nevertheless, no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds."

When I am up early, with dawn approaching, I think there are a million things that could happen for the good in the coming day, week, month, year, decade. I think of all the young people around me - the ones coming through high school and college now - and I envy them their youth and their sense of wonder. I want them to believe in a world of opportunity and progress.

At the same time, I feel utter dread for their future, if in the time that remains for us we don't leave the planet and our human societies better than we found them.

All of this sounds grandiose, I know. Life is achingly complex and the world too vast; we tend to think of these things - poverty and violence, global warming, corporate greed and selfish politics - as things impossible to fix or end. But we can't just write off the future for the next generation, assigning to it more of the same or even worse. We can't just raise a toast and do nothing. We can't give up. Rise in the darkness tomorrow and watch the dawn. You'll see what I mean.

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