On Watching Eden Burn

In my dad's office in Tigard, there are four giant, framed posters covering the walls. One is of Oneonta Gorge, one is of Mt. Hood, one is of the Oregon Coast, and one is of Oregon farmland. They’re gorgeous. At the bottom of each one, it reads: “Keep Oregon, Oregon. Keep Tom McCall.”

They're re-election posters from a time when giants walked in Oregon.

In the war to keep Oregon, Oregon, we keep losing battles. Last year, it was the destruction of Pedestal Rock from its sanctuary on Cape Kiwanda. Today, it's death by firecracker for thousands of acres of forest.

Cook Park Tigard Oregon

I drove the length of Oregon on my way to Palo Alto today and I hated it. The entire drive was through a thick cloud of smoke and ash. And I couldn’t stop thinking about a class I took in college, taught by John Davidson, called “Intergenerational Justice.”

228 years ago yesterday, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison and said, “the Earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” (Usufruct just means the right to use or enjoy something without damaging it). Putting aside the legal arguments about private property, it’s poetic and beautiful and selfless idea: that future generations ought to be able enjoy this place – and its public lands, air, and water – as much as we have.

If Jefferson was right, then we are awful tenants.

All I could think about today is how we’re not doing enough. We're not doing enough for Oregon or for each other or for posterity. We're not keeping Oregon, Oregon. This – “keep your windows shut, don’t go outside,” worse-than-Beijing air quality – isn't normal, but I’m scared it’s being normalized.

We crave a reason to feel better, to believe everything will be okay – especially on days when we look outside and can’t see Mt. Hood. We hear "the gorge still looks like the gorge," and we feel a little better. And maybe it does look the same – from the highway or the trailhead.

But how many firecrackers and smoldering acres and air pollutant parts per million does it take until Oregon isn't Oregon anymore?

Last month was the hottest August in Oregon history, and scientists say it's likely to become the trend. This isn't going away, and it's not going to solve itself with serendipitous rain showers or celestial trade winds. So even if you believe that this particular summer, with over two dozen wildfires burning hundreds of thousands of acres in the Northwest, isn't too big of a deal -- how many consecutive summers like this can we take?

I am reading attempts to absolve ourselves from guilt with two claims: 1) Wildfires are naturally occurring, and 2) Climate change is too big for Oregon to solve. To the first point, a staggering 84% of forest fires are caused by humans. Additionally, according to Fire Ecologist Jennifer Balch in an NPR interview, fires are increasing in size and "fire season" is growing. To the second claim: perhaps it is, but that's not the point. Pedestal rock crumbling, the "loving to death" of Oneonta Gorge, firecrackers along the Eagle Creek Trail. Those aren't caused by climate change, though their damage is magnified by it. Those were caused by us.

I don't know how to fix this. But I know we're not doing enough.

I keep coming back to this idea of intergenerational justice. We are operating under this faulty cultural paradigm that's hyper-focused on the short term (our own lifetimes) at the devastating expense to the long term – and posterity.

It seems to me that we need a fundamental cultural and political shift in the way we think about Oregon. And we have to start talking about it and teaching it differently, too. More like Jefferson's frame. Or, preceding Jefferson, the 7th Generation Principle of Native American culture, where decisions are judged by their impact in seven generations.

That seems like a worthy lesson to fit into public school curriculum, maybe between rounds of The Oregon Trail game in the computer lab. It also seems like an appropriate lens for considering legislation.

Here's the thing: even if I live to be 110, I'm pretty confident that Oregon will always be Oregon for me. I'm much less confident about the next three or five or seven generations -- and that puts a knot in the pit of my stomach.

Right before Tom McCall died, he was campaigning hard to defend Oregon's land use planning system (a public policy that would surely pass the intergenerational justice test). His words were ringing in my ears as I drove south today.

"You all know I have terminal cancer -- and I've got a lot of it. This activist loves Oregon more than life. He can't have both very long, and the trade off with me is perfectly okay. But if the legacy we have helped give Oregon, which made it twinkle from afar, well if it goes -- I guess I wouldn't want to live in Oregon anyhow."