The week between Christmas and the New Year someday will be researched by brain scientists as the time when change is welcomed most easily. The lingering good cheer and generosity of the December holiday, mixed with the intent and determination of the January holiday, combusts and propels us in unexpected ways.
We look back and we look forward. The odometer of our days rotates from a string of nines to a string of zeroes. Whether it’s a diet, or a habit, or a relationship, we declare space for a new beginning.
And so, this week, let us consider marriage equality and climate change. They have more in common than you may have supposed.
At the beginning of 2013, approximately 14 percent of Americans could legally marry a partner of the same sex. The year ends with that number nearly tripled. But, more significantly, New Mexico and Utah are described in popular media as the “latest” states to bring this equality to its residents.
The states making changes to their marriage rules this month are now being fit into a larger and accepted narrative. Any state refusing to reconsider the now-outdated consensus will be judged as retrograde, on the wrong side of history. Once scientists established that homosexuality was the biologic and mathematical equivalent of left-handedness, the outcome could not have been different.
We’ve traced these same steps toward racial and gender equality, which is not to say that either destination has yet been reached. In each debate, there comes a time when the opposition no longer engages. The case for change becomes understood as a moral imperative.
In fact, a single moral imperative has shaped our land’s social history — equal rights for all people. You can study the separate social movements and find plenty of peculiarities for each, but beneath each is this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….”
From that equality flows certain “inalienable rights.” We simply fill in the blanks from there. It’s a Mad Lib view of history, but it’s elegant and it’s true. And it can be used for shaping our future as well as understanding our past.
Scientists have agreed so far about these facts regarding climate change: it’s happening, it’s caused by human behavior, and it will require adaptation or intervention to avoid humanity’s extinction.
There’s not yet enough consensus to tell us exactly what to do, but enough to convince us to do it.
Remember that each moral imperative is in fact the same moral imperative, over and over again. So for whose equal rights should climate change activists be advocating?
The population most imperiled and defenseless is a group that the political right usually loves to defend: the unborn. If tradition is humanity’s way “to let dead people vote,” then sustainability can be understood as “giving votes to those not yet born.”
University of Oregon Law professor Mary Wood makes this case in her new book, “Nature’s Trust,” but she wrote the book with judges and litigants in mind, providing them a legal framework. She argues that the air we breathe and the water we drink are not commodities for us to consume. Their cleanliness has been entrusted to us by the generations that will come after us.
Once we put “Equal Rights for the Unborn” on our protest placards, the lure of short-term economic gain will dissipate. The moral imperative can be delayed but not denied.
As it happens, this obligation for the future was first or best articulated from this continent as well: “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future.”
Historians date the Great Law of the Iroquois from about 1400. Centuries before the European wisdom that shaped our nation, a deeper version of the same truth was rooted in our continent.
I’m guessing they crafted it after their harvest feasts and before the beginning of their new year.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs