Steam Shovels Went Away . . . but Our Enviro-Trendiness Never Will

You don’t expect to find profound political lessons in preschool, but of course they’re there. I found one yesterday, buried in the breezy prose of the 1939 classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. If you haven’t read it in a while, you should.

I was reading to my daughter’s class, trying to keep a double handful of four-year-olds focused on Mike’s struggle for relevance in a changing world. You may recall his dramatic race against time—his calculated bet that he could dig a courthouse basement before sunset with his antiquated steam shovel, Mary Anne. He and Mary Anne had been standing against the onslaught of newer “Diesel” shovels, and are trying to prove a point. They make their point (spoiler alert: they won their bet), but only after having dug themselves into a beautifully excavated pit they can’t get out of.  A little boy saves the day by suggesting they remain in the basement while the courthouse is built over the top of them, repurposing themselves (before there was such a word) as the building’s steam boiler duo.

The larger point is that they were in fact out of their epoch. Mike amicably concedes, retiring comfortably in his rocker with a newspaper and a pipe while Mary Anne works her thermodynamic magic. It’s a happy, comfortable ending as all preschool books should be.

I was struck, however, by how distinctly off-key Mike Mulligan’s earth-moving triumphalism sounds to the modern ear. He hearkens back to an era when “progress” meant altering the status quo (damming rivers and building highways were favorites). How strange to realize that today’s “progress” is defined entirely differently.

Particularly in environmental circles today, “progress” is always regressive: tearing down the dams, returning landscapes to their “pristine” (that is, somewhat earlier) state, and generally erasing our species’ tracks. This message runs deep in our modern culture, and it was downright awkward to come across a bygone view, in which “flattening hills” and “straightening roads” in clouds of choking coal smoke were unabashedly glorious marvels. For children today, altering our environment is a mortal sin rather than any sort of accomplishment.

Consider that today’s environmental issues, though cloaked in moral absolutes, are in fact perfectly relative, a function of ever-changing taste rather than a reflection of an unchanging normative system. My pilgrim forebears were horrified at the “darke and forbiddingg” forests of the Eastern Seaboard, and busily set to clearing them at public expense. Their posterity is now busily engaged in its own form of civic duty by replanting and protecting those same (now less forbidding) forests, also at public expense. Whatever climate change we’ve seen in the physical environment over the centuries is clearly dwarfed by the political climate change we’ve undergone in our own minds.

This all sounds rather self-evident; times change and of course tastes change. But so often an obvious truth gets forgotten in the stampede to declare that today’s preferences (“natural” rivers, “protected” lands) are, as if miraculously revealed, now well and truly “sorted out.” We seem to steadfastly forget that much (most?) of what we deplore in environmental excesses are themselves the result of a previous generation’s best thinking. Our reliance on coal-fired power generation, our profligate water use, our tortured grazing and timber policies, our land-development protocols—all were instituted by earlier generations that were, like us, convinced of the primacy of their own concerns.

This would be perfectly appropriate if we didn’t persistently harness the power of government authority to do our dirty work for us. Milton Friedman liked to say, “most of the energy devoted to political work is devoted to correcting the effects of mismanagement of government.” The activities of the state, ostensibly reflecting the preferences of the day, are slow to evolve and often create enormous challenges with which later generations will contend. Friedman is correct: Whenever you co-opt the force of the state to create your dreamscape, you invariably create a nightmare for the next generation that won’t share the same set of concerns.

We live in a world of change. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel were sidelined by newer technology. My daughter’s preschool teacher uses a spooky voice-enhancing electronic necklace to speak above the din. When my kids enter their classrooms, they sign in on an electronic chalkboard. These are weird, new-fangled things to be sure, but that’s one of the odd realities about accepting changing tastes: it’s both difficult and inevitable.

We only make the inevitable more difficult when we succumb to the temptation to invite the coercive power of government to create our ideal visions. By doing so, we stifle the dynamic and freely evolving expression of our tastes. Our posterity will probably not thank us.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see if I can find a pipe and a newspaper.