An open letter to our son as he graduates from medical school at George Washington University in Washington DC
May 19, 2019
As you graduate from medical school this year, I trust you know how proud your family and friends are of your hard work and many sleepless nights. OK some of those were the result of “clubbing” (or whatever your generation calls getting wasted), but the forced march through books, libraries, lectures and dissecting a cadaver are evidence of how much of your life has been dedicated to your chosen profession, one that will make the world a better place for decades to come.
Knowing that you’re now entering the field of healing, a more hopeful future of cures and of far less human pain and suffering, I had to write this letter to apologize for the fixer-upper planet you’ll inherit. But I want to do more than ask forgiveness. I want to offer a pledge in small measure of redemption.
My generation can’t fix it all before we head off to what Shakespeare calls “the undiscovered country, from whose shores no traveler returns”, but I can pledge to do a few things that will prevent climate change and rising seas from wiping out your shores. Here goes:
I pledge to never again buy or lease a gasoline or diesel fueled car, because anyone who does so today is locking in a generation of carbon pollution and more harm to the planet (cars typically stay on the road 25 years).
I pledge to never again eat beef, because every pound of the stuff takes exponentially more water, land, and resources than other meats or vegetables. Rainforests are being wiped out to grow food for cattle, so eating meat is locking in at least a generation of damage to the planet (it’ll take a loooong time to replant those trees, even if we stop doing this crazy shit today).
I pledge to never again buy a beverage in a plastic bottle or use a plastic straw or bag. The process it takes to march armies around the globe to kill people to secure and extract a barrel of oil, refine it into plastic, and to handle the waste dumps carbon pollution into the atmosphere that will be there for a century. And we know where at least two-thirds of plastic bottles, lawn flamingoes, and ridiculously over-packaged crap that lands on our doorstep from Amazon will end up - - lasting for centuries - - in rivers, the ocean, on those Shakespearean shorelines, in the stomachs of dolphins, birds, and buffalo (yes, we hunted them to near extinction in the 1800s and we’re now using plastic garbage to finish the job).
I pledge to vote in every election I possibly can, even when it means crossing preferred party or candidate lines, to support leaders who have serious policies to tackle climate change before it’s really 100% out-of-control too late. And I’ll pester everyone I know to do likewise until they commit (or until I’m no longer welcome at Passover and Thanksgiving dinners).
There’s much more I’ll try to do, but these are the big ones, because these are the kinds of short-term decisions that have very long lasting consequences on your generation and even on that of your kids (no pressure, but you know your mother is hoping).
Now I’ll admit that giving up beef and voting for serious climate candidates are easy for me (I stopped eating beef a dozen years ago and my Democratic self voted for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger twice and together we put some serious climate policies in place in California, so I’ll never regret it), but now you know why I’ve done both.
Finally, I’ll come clean to you on a few things I probably won’t do. I won’t give up flying while I still have a job working on climate solutions with governments and NGOs all over the world, but I will buy carbon offsets equal to at least double my carbon footprint for those trips. I won’t turn off the air conditioner when I visit my sister in Florida in summer, but I will ask her to set the thermostat to 78. Also, I'm not the best at doing laundry and need a little extra help to get it done, but no matter who does it – it’s always done in cold water (all detergents work fine in hot or cold water and you can cut your carbon footprint by about 20% with that simple change).
Jake, you’re going to be a great doctor, because you’re smart, empathetic, funny, and James Bond good looking (ladies, are you reading this?), so I know you’ll leave humanity and the world a better place than you find it today. I wish I could say the same about me and my generation. Our parents didn’t know better, but my generation has no excuse. Please forgive us anyway and remember that other thing Shakespeare said - - “we are such stuff as dreams are made of.” My dream for you is for a healthy planet worth living in.