From greatness to gratuitousness
The decline of American prestige and the burden of the millennial generation
Fewer than 100 years ago, a generation of Americans persisted through a Great Depression and World War to establish the United States as the preeminent country in the world across multiple dimensions: economic productivity, elementary- and university-level education, and military capability. Many of our grandparents contributed to what has been called the “Greatest Generation,” one exemplified by personal responsibility, humility, work ethic, and prudent saving.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy announced that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Undoubtedly, we often romanticize the America of that day and age, but the hope and optimism in President Kennedy’s rhetoric were clear. His vision for America was one of progress, one where every generation feels a duty to strengthen American achievement and preserve our moral leadership among the community of nations.
Since then, the torch has been passed once more to the baby boomers (my generation), and I’m sad to report we have hardly been able recipients. The world we leave our children pales in comparison to that which we inherited from our forefathers. It’s a world that’s more than one degree warmer, about which we have done little despite being one of the highest per-capita emitters of carbon dioxide. The United States is now a country where, compared with 1960, we live in homes more than twice as large, consume 25 percent more calories, are 30 pounds heavier, and spend 30 times more on durable consumer goods.
Even those who preach the value of restraint and give of their money and time to benefit or educate others seem unable to escape the vice of the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, whose moai serve as a testament to the excesses of material glorification. The mansions occupied by the likes of Al Gore and Bill Gates may well be run by solar power, but that hardly offsets the environmental cost of home construction (in one case a home of 66,000 square feet — 56 times larger than the average home of the greatest generation) — to create shrines that authenticate their personal wealth.
So, what term describes us? The “Worst Generation” seems too easy. Maybe, to continue in the spirit of alliteration, we should acknowledge the title of the “Gratuitous Generation,” one that has glorified unwarranted excesses. Our careless pursuit of the superfluous has manifested in a manic, consumer-driven culture, fueled by an indefensible high level of carbon emissions. It is these self-inflicted wounds that put our entire American experiment at risk.
In both repairing America’s reputation and sparing our planet from further harm, the MIT community possess a powerful voice to drive positive progress. Our students and alumni must remain on the frontlines of devising technology that addresses the root cause of our changing climate and adapts vulnerable people to worsening climate impacts. But more than that, we must set an example and new expectation for the American lifestyle, because a worship of the material and a carbon neutral existence cannot go hand-in-hand.
— Charles Theuer ’85