A world of too many things is where I live. It’s an American world in which multitudes huddle alone together surrounded by their iClutter and omnipresent screens that rain a constant barrage of inane or negative images onto our minds … and our children’s. As Admiral Robert Byrd stated in the Antarctic long ago, “Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.”
Most American kids endure incessant lessons and electronic visions about the imminent demise of our “civilization” — witness the constant forebodings of the culture’s ultimate failure, from riots in Ferguson, Missouri, to endless bombings of insurgents in Syria or Taliban in Afghanistan, to the increasingly aggressive homeless on the streets as our grotesque inequalities mount. The first black president may also become our first president impeached and convicted.
Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar discusses none of these troubling issues, yet in subtle ways the small Midwestern town opening the film symbolically reflects a growing hopelessness over the inevitable decay of world civilization. Bedrock American values, stick-to-it-iveness and courage in the face of environmental disaster … all rot as the sickening dust settles onto everything. Even our hardy American corn will finally succumb, and the stoic farmers and their children hack and cough, just as we metaphorically suffer fear of ISIL, hopeless inequality, and fruitless gridlock in Congress.
Nolan cleverly keeps micro-gizmos humming and life fairly normal while our once-glorious civilization suffocates from a planet-wide emphysema — coffee beans are still available for grinding, and Matthew McConaughey’s former astronaut repairs trucks and tractors that continue to harvest dwindling crops. You dwell in the same home, on the same street — and the baby boomers barely notice the stench of the inevitable decay.
But the young, canaries in the coal mine, are both more resilient and more aware of the decline of the West, and they see the hopelessness of the environmental blight represented by the encroaching dust. Despite, or perhaps because of, our plenitude of things, we uneasily embrace a plethora of troubles today; we vaguely realize all these parasitic machines divert our focus from the simple but enormous problems facing our time. Eric Garner dying in a chokehold. Putin attacking Ukraine while the European Union buys his oil and NATO dithers. The Senate report acknowledging that the U.S.A. tortured prisoners during the Iraq War.
Children in contemporary America face grossly underfunded public schools, a Common Core curriculum emphasizing standardized testing and limiting texts, public spaces jammed with screens filled with hyper-kinetic sports, and endless products many cannot afford and most do not need. War images, stupid ads, slanted news, and electronic infoglut bombard their highly absorbent minds, while their smartphones emit constant messages about meaningless actions by people they don’t actually know or care about. So much of their reality is either boring or scary — is it any wonder their idealism has been sapped, and smokin’ some weed or shoving a storekeeper around feel like fine things to do? Is anyone surprised by the tremendous rise in ADD/ADHD among the young, or that 95 percent of this “illness” is socially caused?
I’ve been teaching children and young adults since the 1970s, and my research data base of over 3,500 students leads me to agree with Nolan’s symbolic obsession with a dystopian future.
In our actual world, affairs are simpler and even more sordid. Kids wonder why we elected a black president and then constantly slap him around. Children cannot understand why in such a wealthy land so many are hungry and hopeless. A lot of our young people are desperately “down” — socially helpless and depressed — because of a GOP/Tea Party combine that offers nothing except a maudlin return to a lost golden age that never was. Baby boomers need to hustle out of the way so that younger humans can take over, attempt to forge a better future for themselves, their offspring, and their shared planet.
The young realize there are too many distractions in our world of too many things, too much data, and too little wisdom. Their elders flee into gated communities of the mind and abandon vision and inspiration; older people accept that bombing the bejesus out of “bad guys” will fix everything, when in truth it merely staves off the barbarians at the gate. It’s a time when large numbers of voters won’t accept the reality of global climate change and an epoch when an Israeli prime minister will again order the army into Gaza in a couple of years to administer another “lawn mowing” and slaughter another 500 kids.
In this litany of negativity you’ve just read, there is no Matthew McConaughey character who will save us, no tech-solutionism, and our aging leaders have no answers except “Please vote for me again. I need this job.”
How little do we really need? We don’t need the latest gizmo or these senescent leaders. Older adults need to step aside, and filmmakers need to stop focusing on dystopia, to stop amusing themselves to death at our expense while the “dust” inexorably approaches. We need a healthy planet, a standing down of armies, and we need vibrant public education with equal emphasis on the arts and scientific literacy. Americans need to consume less and spend more on education, and offer inspiration to the young.