By Keith Roulston
It’s often said that the President of the United States is the most powerful person in the world, but even if our command pales by comparison, most of us in Western societies possess power few people in history have experienced.
I’ve been thinking of this since we had a tree-removal crew in recently to cut down some trees that I’d foolishly allowed to grow too close to our house. Two men with chain saws – one using one of those long-handled machines to trim off limbs, the other who climbed the swaying trees where the bucket truck wouldn’t reach, to remove limbs overhanging the roof – cut down three trees in about an hour. A third man made all the limbs, branches and leaves disappear by feeding them through a powerful chipper.
Because of a writing project, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the pioneers who cleared Ontario’s farmland a few acres each year with back-breaking effort over many years. Imagine if they could have seen what these men accomplished with today’s technology.
Now I, personally, didn’t have this power. I didn’t have the specialized equipment that did the job. And even in my younger, more-macho days, you wouldn’t have caught me scaling a tree with a saw. But I could afford to hire these experts, something my parents wouldn’t have thought of.
Recently we watched the little-known movie The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio and it brought back memories of the hard times of the 1950s. Julianne Moore plays a mother of 10 children who sometimes couldn’t even scrape together enough money to pay the milk man. But she had a talent with words and, in those days when many companies offered prizes for jingles and slogans promoting their products, she kept her kids fed and a roof over their heads.
We had our own cows so milk wasn’t an issue, but other necessities were hard to come by during my childhood. My dad bought the cheapest cars he could find, repaired them himself, and when they were beyond repair, he abandoned them before buying a new, less-than-dependable clunker. The grocery store often provided credit for our weekly shopping trip.
With their large equipment, farmers literally have immense power these days. But nearly all of us in Western countries have the ability, through our relative affluence, to affect the health of the planet we live on.
When we drove those old used cars, we seldom made long trips because we didn’t want to break down in the middle of nowhere. Heck, I was six or seven before I was baptized because the car never seemed to start when arrangements were made for the minister to conduct the sacrament.
Today, with the comfort of a car I bought new, we can confidently take off at a moment’s notice to a nearby city or plan a cross-province or cross-country trek – burning carbon-dioxide producing gas all the way. Pre-pandemic, we could jump on an airplane and fly anywhere in the world to see such things as the pyramids or climb a mountain.
We can replace a TV or computer to make sure we’re up on the latest in gadgets.We can throw out food that’s still perfectly good but is nearing its best-before date, or because we don’t like leftovers.
A modernized version of a New Testament verse states: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
We affluent Westerners have a lot more power to influence the future of our climate and environment than someone living in a hut in the Amazon rain forest or the Kenyan plains. That power brings a responsibility that can be a burden, for while those people aren’t going to have much of a worldwide effect, the choices we make every day can have a life-and-death impact on people in less protected locations.◊