State historian, and occasional Gunnison speaker, Patty Limerick likes to use history to get young people today to think about the future.
Specifically, she told us in a recent Denver Post commentary, she uses examples of societal flaws of yesteryear — such as erecting all-wooden Main Street structures that were one tipped kerosene lantern away from an inferno, or locating the town’s drinking water intake next to its sewage leach field — as a lens with which to view issues of today.
In 50 or 100 years, what will our children and grandchildren look back on and say: “Boy, I know grandpa and his fellow citizens were reasonably smart and well intentioned, but why on earth did they (fill in the blank)?”
That’s kind of a scary, yet fun, scenario to think about. From the sounds of it, Limerick’s students were able to identify a fairly sizeable list of regrets in no time — much of it centered on environmental degradation in one form or another.
Speaking of scary and fun, acclaimed author George Saunders’ new novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” offers a haunting and hilarious perspective on one way motivation finds people, be it of the evil or benevolent variety: They become inspired, shall we say, by the spirits of those who’ve come before, yet haven’t fully departed.
At the risk of giving too much away, let’s just say the book postulates that our 16th president’s resolve to see this country through the biggest crisis of its history — the Civil War and the foundational role slavery played in it — was heavily (yet weightlessly) influenced by an evening spent in the cemetery following the tragic and devastating death of his son, Willie.
In a strange and utterly unintentional way, perhaps Limerick and Saunders are reminding us of a forgotten and, I’d say, sorely lost practice: To see ourselves, and the world around us, through the perspective of others. You know, the old “walk a mile in their shoes” exhortation — be it literal soles or figurative souls.
Relatedly, a new study conducted by the Rand Corp. provides analysis of a troubling and paradoxical trend. It seems the more we are connected to one another technologically, via the ubiquity of social media, cable TV, talk radio and the like, the less willing or able we are to appreciate perspectives inconvenient to our own.
Certainly, the blurred lines between fact and fiction in today’s opinion dominated digital media landscape is contributing to this “silo” or “echo chamber” effect.
Commenting on this report, longtime columnist George Will wonders if the explosion of daily Tweets worldwide and decrease in standard newspaper subscriptions aren’t related in this erosion of society’s “shared set of facts.” The virtual elimination of barriers of entry, he argues, has lead to an increasingly intemperate or ignorant — “or both, in the the service of partisanship” — public discourse.
Back to Limerick’s course correction based on historical mistakes. As always, I tend to look at things through a hyper-local lens. What have we done right in the Gunnison Valley? What are we doing wrong?
It’s easy to come up with list of big decisions that have been made over the years — the formation of Western State Colorado University and the ski area, the protection of open space and water resources — for which we are, and will continue to be, proud and thankful.
What about the opposite side of this coin? Our current debate of the attainable housing conundrum might be the issue tomorrow’s historians and community leaders look on with particular interest.
If, for example, the highly contentious Corner at Brush Creek development goes through as proposed, will the collective chorus of the community in a few decades bemoan its existence? I doubt it. Do we look that way upon CB South or Skyland? No. Yet, can you imagine if those developments were just being proposed today?
I think how we go about reaching decisions like the one facing us at Brush Creek — or any other of the myriad of issues facing us locally, nationally or globally — might actually be more critical at this crazy juncture in the world’s history, than what those decisions actually are.
(Chris Dickey can be reached at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com.)