On June 6, 1944, the day of the great Allied Forces D-Day invasion of France, many historians agree that something unusual in the annals of war occurred on the beaches of Normandy. Despite a host of errors and setbacks – landing in the wrong places, being pinned down initially by murderous enemy fire, losing scores of vital commanding officers in the first moments of the battle, just to name a few – American troops managed to pull themselves together and win the day.
By many accounts, one of the keys to victory was the fact that American troops acted independently and without waiting for orders. Seeing the mess they were in and the desperate need to advance or die, soldiers of various ranks across the battlefield took it upon themselves to improvise and solve the problems that confronted them.
Down through the decades that have followed, the story of the D-Day victory has helped feed a kind of mythology about Americans and their “stubborn independence” and “rugged individualism.” Just like those troops on the beaches of France, goes the story, Americans don’t need a “big government in Washington” to issue orders. If we merely get out of the way and unleash the genius of free people to solve the problems in front of them, all will be well.
On some levels, it’s hard to deny the power of this argument as there is no doubt that Americans remain among the planet’s best problem solvers. Here in North Carolina, we need look no further than the countless heroic and often improvised Hurricane Florence rescues that have taken place in recent days to confirm this truth.
There is, however, a lot more to the story.
Yes, it’s true that American troops displayed astounding levels of heroism, inventiveness and initiative on that terrible day 74 years ago, but it’s also true that none of their actions would have been remotely possible had not their nation backed them with vast amounts of treasure and collective sacrifice. For every soldier with the basic tools (training, transportation, weapons, ammunition, food, communications gear) at hand to act, there was a war bond sold, a congressional appropriation made, and a vast military infrastructure constructed.
Simply put: there would have been no defeating Nazism (or successful moon landing or any number of other amazing national accomplishments of recent decades) if America had merely relied upon private volunteers or independent actors. Yes, individual initiative and creativity are always essential in such endeavors, but to address truly massive societal challenges – especially when time is of the essence – also requires strong, coordinated, collective action.
And so it is in 2018 with respect to the most significant existential threat to human survival and wellbeing: global warming and the climate change it is breeding. Certainly, we can confront and find ways to adapt to this challenge. And, yes, individual human ingenuity, initiative and inventiveness will play crucial roles.
But it is folly to pretend that such dramatic change can or will ever take place without a massive societal commitment to alter how and where we live. For humans and the millions of other species at-risk to continue to survive and thrive in the centuries to come, we simply must adapt to a warmer and stormier planet that will repeatedly inundate areas that we once thought were fit for human habitation.
This means rethinking where we permit construction of and support for human settlements through things like roads, public services and insurance. It means dramatically enhancing public emergency response capabilities and infrastructure and relocating hundreds of toxic waste sites. And it means acknowledging the reality of sea-level rise and planning for more regular floods of rivers and lakes.
Even more importantly, however, it means doing our utmost to slow climate change by rapidly winding down our use of carbon fuels, converting to a sustainable energy economy and attacking other contributors to global warming – such as deforestation and livestock production.
Surely, there are brilliant inventions and innovations in our future that will aid us in this effort that we cannot predict or command from a distance. But just as was the case on D-Day and in so many other past instances of national and international achievement, success in this realm will inevitably require a broad, intentional, and sustained public effort to create an environment in which such inventions and innovations can arise.
The bottom line: There are a lot of Hurricane Florences ahead and as long as there is a human will to survive, there will be moments of great individual heroism and sacrifice. But if we’re going to make it as a species, we can’t leave such matters entirely to chance. Instead, humans must stick together and properly equip their public institutions to tackle the threat that confronts us. If we fail to do so, we will surely sink separately.