Thoughts on an Overheard Conversation

We were sitting in a cafe in Boston the other morning, enjoying the sunshine that flooded through the window by our table. Outside, two suavely dressed older men, apparently long time friends, chatted intently over coffee. At the table next two us, two twenty-somethings spoke energetically about their world of high finance, and the importance of maximizing growth and wealth. 

When we returned to our room, I picked up the book I’m reading, Passage Through Crisis, by Fred Davis. The author was a sociologist who studied the impact of Polio on survivors and our families. Fittingly, I picked up the book as he was writing about the ways parents utilized the American bias towards optimism to minimize, and adapt to, the ravages of the virus.

That set me to thinking about the optimism, and apparent blinders, of the young people in the cafe. There was real damage caused to most kids, and adults, who “caught” Polio, yet most of us went on to create meaningful, happy lives. Researchers have suggested that optimism, although often hard to muster, contributed greatly to that, as did selective attention, or blinders.

Still, my training in ecology, and my upbringing with Indigenous values and worldview, argue strongly that economic and population growth, as we know them, are likely to have severely negative long term consequences, as will extreme resource inequality. I imagine most of us put on “blinders” some of the time, but in the face of the challenges we collectively face, to live with them on is an exceedingly risky strategy. 

Most Polio survivors and our families learned to balance the need NOT to know, with the necessity of paying attention to the reality of living with the after effects of the virus. I wonder whether we, as a culture, can learn to curtail our impacts on the planet, while nourishing enough optimism and creativity to build a society that works within the limitations imposed by being a part of a natural system. As one does when living life post Polio, we might benefit form balancing reality and optimism, making difficult choices, and working towards a brighter future for ourselves, our progeny, and all creatures. It might be a difficult path, but, to choose otherwise will create unimaginable suffering.