NWF View: A Grandfather’s Lament

Commentary from Larry J. Schweiger, President & Chief Executive Officer

  • Larry J. Schweiger, President & Chief Executive Officer
  • Jan 15, 2010

ON THE 9TH OF SEPTEMBER, I witnessed the birth of my third grandson Sutton. My daughter Carolyn gave me the honor of cutting the umbilical cord, and I confess that it was a tearful and bittersweet moment. It was sweet because I witnessed the arrival of a grandchild with whom I hope to spend a lot of time outdoors in the days we have together, and because I know Carolyn will be a great mom. But as I severed this newborn from the final vestige of security, I knew he was leaving his mother’s womb to enter a world that is increasingly warming and more uncertain with intensifying storms, deepening droughts, massive forest fires and overheating cities. He deserves to live in a safer world.

What are we doing to Sutton and his generation? I know no parents or grandparents who would intentionally harm their offspring. Yet we are collectively failing to heed strong scientific warnings from the world’s top climate scientists. We are failing to enact carbon pollution controls, and we are failing to respect and respond to firm deadlines established by international leaders who seek a shared solution to this greatest global threat that will affect us all. It is not enough to lament our failures and thoughtless acts; we must find a new way forward.

You see, in the end, it’s about the common property that is all around us: the air we breathe. It belongs to everyone on Earth—and no one—at the same time. It certainly does not belong only to polluters, even though they continue to act like it does. We each must assert our interest in this matter and end global warming pollution.

When I was a senior in high school in 1968, I read a provocative article in the journal Science titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin that greatly influenced my thinking. Hardin described a number of herdsmen who were sharing a public grazing land called the commons. Each sought to get the most grass for their animals without limits and collectively they destroyed the commons. One line in his article has long haunted me: “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Global warming may soon be seen as the penultimate tragedy of the commons. If the nearly 7 billion people on the planet are free to continue dumping billions upon billions of tons of carbon dioxide, soot and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will surely destroy the atmospheric commons that gives and protects all life.

During the same time that I read “The Tragedy of the Commons,” I was privileged to have a wise mentor and scout director, Ralph Abele, who was a conservation leader in my home state of Pennsylvania. When I face tough choices, I often ask myself: What would Ralph do at this moment? I find my answer in his writings or in the words he spoke to me long ago: “Mankind is not an island … in respect to other men or to other living things, nor even in respect to the nonliving or inorganic creations.

Without an appreciation of our relationship to nature, without the idea of living with nature, not merely upon nature, we must sooner or later live (or perhaps die) in a world where man will have paid the penalty for doing what he cannot do successfully … that is, think only of himself.”

Ralph died many years ago but his wisdom transcends time. Are we thinking only of ourselves? Does climate change have to become the ultimate tragedy of the commons? As rational beings dependent on the same shared air, can we commit to doing our part by demanding that Congress find a way to phase out carbon dioxide pollution? Can each of us become dedicated to giving our offspring this last chance?

We must each strive to leave a sustainable planet for the next generation. This is our moment and perhaps our last opportunity to right a grave wrong. Sutton’s birth reminds me once again that I cannot think only of myself; rather, I must be drawn to a higher duty to leave an inheritance to our children’s children.

You can help me today to take that most important first step to end the threats posed by carbon pollution. Join me and the National Wildlife Federation in this fight to protect our children’s future. Visit www.nwf.org/globalwarming.

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