The Melting of America: The Story of a Can’t-Do Nation

Orville Schell

Lately, I’ve been studying the climate-change induced melting of glaciers in the Greater Himalaya. Understanding the cascading effects of the slow-motion downsizing of one of the planet’s most magnificent landforms has, to put it politely, left me dispirited. Spending time considering the deleterious downstream effects on the two billion people (from the North China Plain to Afghanistan) who depend on the river systems — the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya and Tarim — that arise in these mountains isn’t much of an antidote to malaise either.
If you focus on those Himalayan highlands, a deep sense of loss creeps over you — the kind that comes from contemplating the possible end of something once imagined as immovable, immutable, eternal, something that has unexpectedly become vulnerable and perishable as it has slipped into irreversible decline. Those magnificent glaciers, known as the Third Pole because they contain the most ice in the world short of the two polar regions, are now wasting away on an overheated planet and no one knows what to do about it.
To stand next to one of those leviathans of ice, those Moby Dicks of the mountains, is to feel in the most poignant form the magnificence of the creator’s work. It’s also to regain an ancient sense, largely lost to us, of our relative smallness on this planet and to be forcibly reminded that we have passed a tipping point. The days when the natural world was demonstrably ascendant over even the quite modest collective strength of humankind are over. The power — largely to set an agenda of destruction — has irrevocably shifted from nature to us.
Another tipping point has also been on my mind lately and it’s left me no less melancholy. In this case, the Moby Dick in question is my own country, the United States of America. We Americans, too, seem to have passed a tipping point. Like the glaciers of the high Himalaya, long familiar aspects of our nation are beginning to feel as if they were, in a sense, melting away.
The eight years of George W. Bush’s wrecking ball undeniably helped set our descent in motion. Then came the dawning realization that President Barack Obama, who strode into office billed as a catalyst of sure-fire change, would no more stop the melting down of the planet’s former “sole superpower” than the Copenhagen summit would stop the melting of those glaciers. After all, a predatory and dysfunctional Washington reminds us constantly that we may be approaching the end of the era of American possibility. For Obama’s beguiling aura of promise to be stripped away so unceremoniously has left me feeling as if we, as a country, might have missed the last flight out.
And speaking of last flights out, I’ve been on a lot of those lately. It’s difficult enough to contemplate the decline of one’s country from within, but from abroad? That — take my word for it — is an even more painful prospect. Because out there you can’t escape an awareness that what’s working and being built elsewhere is failing and being torn apart here. To travel is to be forced to make endless comparisons which, when it comes to our country, is like being disturbed by unnerving dreams.
In the past few months, as I’ve roamed the world from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Beijing to Dubai, I’ve taken to keeping a double-entry list of what works and what doesn’t, country by country. Unfortunately, it’s largely a list of what works “there” and doesn’t work here. It’s in places like China, South Korea, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, and (until recently) the United Arab Emirates — some not even open societies — that you find people hard at work on the challenges of education, transport, energy, and the environment. It’s there that one feels the sense of possibility, of hopefulness, of can-do optimism so long associated with the U.S.
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