For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. Iowa City Press-Citizen (October 15): 23A.
Imagine this: You’re driving along an interstate highway, coming to a bridge you’ve crossed hundreds of times before. You vaguely recall hearing somebody warning a few years back that the bridge was unsafe. But, focused on the daily challenges of taking care of your family and job, you didn’t pay any attention. Now, as you glide onto the bridge you catch the eyes of another driver on your right. Your neighbor’s eyes suddenly flare wide open as both of you feel the bridge disappearing beneath you. You plummet downward in a fearful free fall.
Now that the Dow Jones industrial average has fallen by 18 percent in the past week alone, do you not feel that the bridge is crumbling beneath you right now?
The question is, what should we do when a key bridge on our journey is turning into dust? We could let ourselves become immobilized by fear and despair, or perhaps respond with a panicked flurry of button pushing and cell phone calling. No doubt many of us will follow one of those routes. I will not, and I encourage you not to as well.
Instead, at this transformative moment, we can take inspiration from an extended passage in Robert Fagle’s wonderful recent translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid, as read by the British Shakespearian actor Simon Callow.
We all know the basic story. Hidden inside the now famous “Trojan Horse,” Greek soldiers pass through Troy’s well-protected walls. Scrambling out of the wooden horse under the cover of darkness, they open the gates to a flood of bloodthirsty comrades. Greeks pour into the city, and death and mayhem follow.
It’s a tragic narrative about the destruction of a great city and people. But, understanding that his city has been lost, Aeneas transforms the tragedy into a heroic quest by leading a band of Trojans out of the city and on a journey to found a new home and future.
What I find most interesting and valuable in Aeneas’ tale is that he grieves but does not succumb to either panic or fear. Instead, starting from where he is at the time he is there, Aeneas acts very pragmatically: he makes discriminating use of available ideas and skills in light of moment-by-moment changes in conditions, knowing that every action will set other actions into motion and produce results that cannot be fully predicted.
While I’m no Aeneas, I can imagine what he would advise us in this moment: If a key bridge in your path is collapsing, then do not blindly “stay the course” (as your President urged you four years ago). Turn onto a new path. You cannot know what specific challenges will confront you after you make that turn, but do not fear. Deal with those challenges as they arise, knowing that you have set out on a profoundly important journey. Care for those who have been harmed; they are your brothers and sisters. And if the bridge is truly important to you, begin the process of its reconstruction.
What new path should we take? Simply put, we need to transform our economy in a much more sustainable direction. Such a transformation will have to be based on awareness of systemic interconnections among the key structural features causing the collapse of our “bridge” today: excessive reliance on coal and risky foreign oil, a war in Iraq that has undermined our credibility around the world, a climate that is changing because of excessive consumption of fossil fuels, spending far beyond our means, abandoning millions of our young to lives of poverty and marginalization, a bloated health care system that treats diseases at the molecular level rather than preventing them through concerted societal action, and the absence of trustworthy institutions for regulating economic behavior at the international scale.
By tying these structural features together persuasively, inspirational leaders at every scale of action and every sector of society can give us good reasons to believe that we can, if not permanently solve our problems, at least deal with them in a way that will enable us to pass along a healthy world to our children and grandchildren, and to theirs.
Take heart, brothers and sisters. The old order may be collapsing into dust, but we can build a better world.