In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation

mhagandefaultMichael Hagan ’15

Op-ed columnist Dana Milbank is taking a lot of heat for his piece in this Sunday’s Washington Post, and understandably so. He checked the pride of many a middle-aged American when he wrote:

“Tom Brokaw justifiably called the cohort that survived the Great Depression and fought World War II the greatest generation. I’m afraid that my generation will someday be called the weakest.”

Critics can tell Milbank to blame his “hippie parents” for his “inferiority complex” all they want, but his concern is built on sound historical interpretation. Since the generation that endured the Great Depression and won the Second World War, no generation has endured the same degree of shared hardship and triumph. Complementary to this is the fact that since the two-decades after the War, no age cohort has set out on as ambitious a course to realize American potential as the Greatest Generation. In the decades following the War, the survivors of the Depression and heroes of WWII invested in the veterans who had so invested themselves in the American cause, strengthened national infrastructure tremendously, landed the Eagle on the moon, abolished de jure segregation, declared war on poverty, and enfranchised millions that Jim Crow had shut out from public discourse. Some achievements were born of top-down presidential and congressional leadership, and others were the product of grassroots initiative. Some were nearly universally accepted while others took the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of activists to bring to fruition. All were ambitious, but the men and women of the Greatest Generation didn’t buy into the notion of “impossibility.” They shared in common the formative experience of overcoming “impossible”… twice.

The Greatest Generation saw injustices it knew it could conquer, and was better disposed than any previous generation to see the injustices in the American status quo. The post-war decades were a unique window in American history when, to a large extent, what was just was also politically expedient; the people voted for it. This is the difference between then and now. GenX’ers and Millennials of far greater character than I act selflessly in the name of justice and the general welfare every day, yet we struggle to do so cohesively. Is our lawmakers’ debilitating failure to find common ground a symptom of the splintering of common goals forged through common struggle? Has time extinguished the victorious post-war spirit? For all its achievements, did the Greatest Generation fail to pass that spirit on? Must we experience hardship on as great a scale as Depression survivors and WWII veterans before we can lift the torch left to us? Perhaps I romanticize the Greatest Generation more than I ought, but I share Milbank’s frustration. We are weak when we bicker in the shadow of giants while we ought to stand tall on their shoulders.

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“I Cannot Do Everything, But Still I Can Do Something”

LexiThumbnailLexi Moubarak ’15

So, I spent all of last semester campaigning for Providence College to go bottled water free. It was draining. The other members of the campaign and I got little sleep, constantly sent emails to students and the administration, and spent most of our time getting fellow students to sign our petition. Finally on April 2, Congress officially passed a piece of legislation stating that clubs and organizations cannot use allocated funds to purchase bottled-water for their events. Instead, pitchers and coolers of tap water will be provided. All of our hard work had paid off and was worth it. Summer came, and we all got time to rest.

I have always been environmentally friendly and enjoyed spending my time outside, but all this sustainability momentum further affected my personal life. I stopped forgetting to bring my reusable bags to the supermarket, I forced all my friends to recycle their bottles (and even did it for them when they were too lazy), and I also caught myself sometimes picking plastic out of the tops of garbage cans to put in the nearby recycling bin. I will never understand how people can still choose not to recycle when there is a recycling bin right next to the garbage can!

I moved up to Provincetown, MA about a week after school ended. For anyone who has never visited Provincetown, you should. It is the greatest place in the world. In the summertime I work at the Harbor Hotel as a receptionist, waitress, and bartender. Getting back to work this year was harder than I expected. I remembered from the summer before how much it bothered me that the hotel did not recycle, but I did not realize how much more it would bother me this year. I could not believe that I was throwing out beer bottles during my bar shift or scraps of paper while working the front desk. It was only a few weeks prior I was pushing my peers to reduce the amount of plastic they use.

It was only a few weeks into work and I was already so discouraged. I loved my job and all the people I worked with, but I did not want to be a willing participant in something in which I really do not believe. Part of me wished I had taken a job offer I recieved in Providence for the summer. I could have worked on a campaign in Rhode Island to ban plastic bags from being handed out at stores during checkout. Plastic bags easily fly into the ocean and can get caught in the bellies of birds and fish. Also, plastic never actually degrades. It just breaks apart into tiny particles and is spread throughout our atmosphere.

I was able to rally some coworkers around the issue of the hotel not recycling, but we never got into doing any research. It was always on my list of things to do: CALL TOWN HALL. Quite honestly, I compromised my values for environmental sustainability for a summer full of work, money, and too much partying. Not working in an environment where recycling is a priority only led me to brush it off and care less. I felt empty a lot of the summer because I knew this behavior was out of character for me. I would faithfully recycle in my condo and pick up trash off the beach, yet I could not take that extra step to organize a recycling bin for the hotel. I found it extremely difficult to stay focused and disciplined in a place where everyone was not fighting for the same thing. Unfortunately, I left Provincetown without getting the hotel to recycle. It has not been accomplished yet.

The Think Outside the Bottle Campaign was successful because of our dedicated team. We each did our part of researching, talking to students, and emailing the administration. Being away from the momentum and encouragement of my fellow activists at Providence really hit home how valuable our team is. I would like to challenge myself in the future to create a team of dedicated environmentalists in places where there are none.

I spent the last two weeks traveling Alaska. I was in awe of the untouched beauty of the largest state in the Union. Between Glacier Bay, the Tongass National Forest, and all the bears and seals we saw, I fell in love with the environment all over again. While I was there, the desire to protect our environment hit me like a ton of bricks. My family and I went on a few bottled-water free hikes. Working to help a campaign that is requesting all the National Parks to stop selling bottled-water, we took pictures with a homemade sign. Click here or on the photo if you would like to learn more about the campaign. 

MtMcKinleyAnd yes, that is Mt. McKinley in the background!

Sometimes, it is not going to be easy or readily accessible to create a team of people to work with me on making environmental changes. Helen Keller said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” I am not always going to have a group of fellow tree-huggers by my side encouraging me everywhere I go. I am going to have to learn to encourage myself.

I guess I could have worked in Providence this summer campaigning to ban plastic bottles. I sure would have felt better about how I was spending my time. But that would have been too easy!  I would have been surrounded by environmentalists whose first priority is to help protect our beautiful Earth. I needed to be surrounded by people that didn’t care about protecting the environment in order to remind myself that the real fight is about getting out there, educating people and showing them that small actions in their daily lives can have a “mountainous” effect on the environment. I needed to be reminded that I am one person, but with a little personal motivation, one person can be enough to set change in motion.