Last Clear Chance

My wife and I have been helping our daughter and son-in-law keep our grandchildren during the pandemic.  Since the children are 2 and 4 and the pandemic and our self-quarantine have been going on for many months, this arrangement of living together has been an adventure, at times a misadventure and, in general, a blessing.  As my wife reminds me when we hit the rough patches:  We will never again have an opportunity to be together like this.  While I’m certain she intends this to be a reminder for me to adjust my attitude, put a smile on my face and show patience, tolerance, understanding, kindness and love, it isn’t always easy to live all day, every day in harmony with so many different personalities. 

One of the blessings of being in continuous close contact is the opportunity to have impromptu conversations about important issues.  Fortunately, my daughter and son-in-law share most of our values and political views.  This is particularly true of concerns about the environment.  In fact, my daughter is probably even more of an advocate for the environment than I am.

My daughter and I went on a pre-dawn fishing trip recently.  Conversation in the boat eventually turned to the environment.  My daughter asked me, “Do you ever feel bad about what your generation did to the environment?”  She followed that zinger with:  “What am I going to tell my children about what your generation did to the environment?  How am I going to explain to them that they are suffering from the consequences of what your generation did?”  I suppose these questions are a variation on the old “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” question.  Taken aback by these penetrating questions, I did what any good lawyer would do:  I hesitated, stammered, deflected and misdirected.  She wasn’t buying it.  She knew she had scored and didn’t intend to let me off the hook for the sins of “my generation.” 


She had been cagey with the question in that she was careful not to accuse me personally, but she genuinely wanted to know how I thought my generation could possibly excuse itself for knowingly and selfishly ignoring climate science and indulging ourselves by maintaining our manner and standards of living at the expense of future generations.

Her questions continue to bedevil me.  The truth is that we can’t defend our inaction.  The truth is that we have known about global warming for decades and did nothing.  The truth is that we have known for a very long time that millions upon millions of tons of plastic were being dumped in the ocean and we didn’t stop it.  The truth is that we have known that polluting streams, lakes and the oceans was wreaking devastation upon fisheries and wildlife since the mid-1800s.  The truth is that we always knew deforestation was destroying wildlife and harming the rivers and streams that fish depend upon.  The truth is that we knew damming the spawning rivers of migratory fish such as salmon would put an end to these fish stocks, yet we did it anyway because we wanted industry and cheap power and then we kept the dams in place long after they had served their purpose.  The truth is that we have known for many decades that global warming and air pollution were primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the uncontrolled and unnecessary emission of methane gas by the oil and gas industry.  The truth is that we have always known open-pit and mountain-top removal mining was extremely harmful to the surrounding environment, particularly creeks, streams and rivers.  The truth is that my generation has known all of this and much, much more for a very long time and, for the most part, did nothing or didn’t do enough because we placed a higher value upon maintaining our lifestyle and, most of all, because of money.

When the question of what we knew and when we knew it is asked, we can’t honestly say we didn’t know or knew it too late.  We can’t wish it away or wash it away.  We knew more than enough, soon enough and we failed to act.

Worst of all, the truth is that enough Americans voted for Trump to make him President even though he promised to undo every possible environmental regulation.  This he has done.  The timing of his election could not possibly have been worse for the environment and, by extension, my grandchildren.

There is a legal doctrine called “last clear chance.”  This means that a prudent (careful) person has legal duty to use their last clear chance (opportunity) to avoid a foreseeable harmful incident such as a car wreck.  The coming election is our last clear chance to get rid of an enemy of the environment before it’s too late, if it’s not too late already.  The environment cannot withstand another Trump term.