What we leave behind matters

Published 2:34 pm Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Last weekend the Bradley Education Fund, of the Polk County Community Foundation, sent me, plus three other local people to New York City to the 30th-annual lectures of the Schumacher Society, most recently merged with the New Economics Institute.
It is difficult for me to describe what we heard in a few lines, but suffice it to say current progressive thought is that economics as we know it will change drastically in the next 50 years.
It would behoove the brightest among us to start thinking out of the box. As for the environment and conservation, the past 100 years’ profit has been largely possible through exploitation of our natural resources.
These resources are “externalities” in that they are not counted as costs on the financial balance sheets.
An honest assessment of the long-term economic choices ahead means we can either continue to believe that we can have unlimited growth in a finite environment, or we can change. That’s simpler to say than do.
On Sunday, the day after the lectures, we went to the Frick Art Museum.
Henry Clay Frick was a ruthless industrialist from western Pennsylvania who made his fortune with the conversion of coal to coke for making steel. It would be safe to say he exploited both people and the environment for financial gain.
Frick was one of the founders of US Steel, and was also the most hated man in America for a while thanks to his ruthless tactics against unions. But he was also an avid art collector who left his entire art collection and home to the citizens of NYC. I saw my first Rembrandt painting there, and it was absolutely beautiful.
While in NYC, I got word that my mother, living in PA, was not doing well.
The news permeated my thoughts throughout our stay, probably because I was very close to my mother.
This is the mother I’ve talked about in this column often. She was raised just after Mr. Frick, in western PA also. Her father started a natural gas drilling company on horseback, a company later purchased by Standard Oil of New Jersey, now Exxon.
Mother was of the generation that thought there would always be more natural resources to support our lifestyle and allow us to travel wherever we wanted to go.
I remember her telling me when I was very young that there would always be enough because America was ‘so big.’ We were fortunate to have such abundant material and natural wealth. But she was also one who loved being outside, and she sent me to camp.
This weekend my family has come to my mother’s birthplace (and mine) in western Pennsylvania to bury her.
All week I’ve been thinking about that centuries old question, “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here, and what is our purpose?”
The answer must have to do not only with how we live our lives, but also with what we leave behind. In this life we learn from the accumulated mistakes of our forefathers and from our own mistakes. Sometimes we try to make our amends after death, as did Henry Clay Frick. For many of us, however, life’s meaning is explained though our children and the knowledge we leave with them after we are gone.
Our purpose may be to raise the level of consciousness of humankind, generation by generation. My mother’s generation pushed the limits of exploitation of our natural resources, and they also started the national parks system after they witnessed the deforestation of most of our nation.
Our generation is faced with an economic crisis where we can choose to enhance and refine our exploitation techniques, or try something different based upon improving quality of life rather than increasing financial gain.
My mother owned only one kind of stock, Exxon. It was what her father left her.
She in turn has left that stock to my brothers and me. I think my mother will send some little girls to summer nature camp with that Exxon stock even after she is no longer here.
She would approve, even though she did not think of it. Our hope is in our children. If they love nature, then they will take care of it. They will choose life over money. Without them, our world is lost.

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