In many respects, the United States is in decline, and I believe there are two principal reasons. One is that we no longer provide the essentials for millions of our children, the other that we humans have for five centuries laid siege to the planet we live on.
Regarding American children, almost a fourth of those under eighteen live in “food-insecure” households (according to the Dept. of Agriculture). For such households, there is often an inadequate supply of healthy food and it is hard to know what will be available tomorrow. Compounding this problem and its consequences, 8-10 million, or about 15%, of American kids are not covered by health insurance, many of them in food-insecure households.
Further, the American Society of Engineers reports that 28% of all public schools are in disrepair, conditions that greatly reduce the possibilities for learning. Recently, most states have found it easier to degrade the schools than to increase taxes, particularly those of the rich. Of course, we are choosing this disastrous path by spending the money elsewhere. A prime example is that since 2000 we have spent approximately $2 trillion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with funds that might have been used to build thousands of new schools, train and hire thousands of new teachers, and subsidize generously the college education of all kids who need it. We will be paying for these choices for many generations and in many ways.
What about Mother Earth? The current most dangerous assault on the planet by human beings is global warming, and the two principal culprits are China and the U.S. China emits annually over 7,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and the U.S. over 5 million metric tons, together responsible for over 40% of the world’s total emissions. Carbon dioxide is but one of thousands of hazardous chemicals in our air and water, and all are most damaging to children.
So, why are we behaving this way? The answer is rooted firmly in the arrival of the Europeans in 1492. At that point, there were between 5 and 10 million natives—Indians—in what is now the United States. The Native Americans had migrated to our continent from Asia perhaps as long as 20,000 years before the whites arrived. They had spread southward and eastward, and constructed a way of living in harmony with the land, if not always with each other, over all those years.
The Europeans might well have nurtured their own chances for long-term survival had they learned from the natives about how to treat children and Mother Earth. However, the whites followed another calling. Over the next three centuries, they systematically eliminated almost all natives with warfare, disease, and by seizing all the land and denying the natives a way to provide for themselves. This genocide was so thorough that by 1900 only 240,000 Indians still lived in America, and whites owned 97.5% of all the land.
As whites destroyed the native culture, they also were enslaving four million Africans. This destruction of native culture and slavery established a cultural structure that, at enormous costs to them and to us, has long restricted the relative opportunities of millions of brown American children.
In the native culture, children were, as the Sioux put it, “Wakanisha,” meaning “sacred.” Parents considered children’s welfare their principal obligation, knowing that healthy, wise children would become adults best able to protect the tribe’s future. Try to imagine a Plains Indian tribe with one hundred children choosing to deny a fair share of food to twenty-five of them and limit ready access to the tribe’s healers to fifteen of the children.
The crucial lessons we failed to learn from these natives are embodied in the following two proverbs, the first from an unknown Indian elder, and the second from the Cree Indians. They go like this:
Honor the Earth, our Mother.
Honor the Elders.
Honor all with whom we share the Earth:-
Four-leggeds, two-leggeds, winged ones,
Swimmers, crawlers, plant and rock people.
Walk in balance and beauty.
when all the animals have been hunted,
when all the waters are polluted,
when all the air is unsafe to breathe,
and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught
will we realize we cannot eat money.
Rather than provoke suggestions about “what is to be done,” all of this led me only to recognize a powerful irony: the way of living that failed to protect Native Americans from genocide is now the only one that could lead us away from the cliff toward which we are so blindly marching.
Charles Sackrey is a retired professor of Economics, an active member of Organizations United for the Environment and a member of the Spilling Ink Writer’s Collective.