I flirt with the imagined horror of hearing Captain Sullenberger’s announcement to the passengers and crew of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, shortly before he ditched the plane in the Hudson River last week: Brace for impact. Although the terror of those words dissipates in light of the miraculous outcome of this accident, the phrase still nags at me because it applies to the plummeting trajectory of our financial and environmental condition. As Barack says, speaking of the economy, things are likely to get worse before they get better. We haven’t yet hit bottom. Brace for impact. Which can mean either preparing for the worst while living in fear and resignation, or rejoicing in the freedom that permits us to hunker down and do what we can, today, to prevent the worst from happening. Let us, like Captain Sullenberger, hone the skills that will enable us to execute so radically perfect an emergency landing.
I sit on the board of my sons’ private school. Last week we reviewed and approved our budget for the coming year, and though our endowment fund has suffered substantial losses in market value, we’re in good shape. You could even say we’re sitting pretty, having approved raises in teacher salaries, continuity in our level of tuition assistance and only a modest tuition increase. The reason we aren’t reeling from the loss of endowment income is that we’ve spent the past year working hard to trim and restructure a school program that we ascertained – prior to the economic downturn – to be prohibitively expensive.
The discussion around the future economic health of the school was interesting exactly because we’re financially stable at the moment. I sensed myopia among some board members who were focused on achieving the best balance for the near term. There was disagreement regarding our future prospects. One of my colleagues felt we would weather the recession well, given that our school fills a unique niche, a position that should guarantee high enrollment. However, another colleague argued that we should not be complacent. We are, he stated, as a country and a world moving into a whole new reality. We should not think in terms of weathering the storm while expecting life to return to the fat normal to which we’re accustomed. “We’re facing the necessity of losing twenty pounds,” Michael said. Losing it and keeping it off. Now is the time to dance on our toes and sharpen our abilities, creatively pursuing all avenues for fiscal responsibility to ensure that our school stays afloat and never hits bottom.
Likewise, it’s clear that our world has crossed into a new era in which the health of our planet is endangered. Just as our school’s board of trustees should think outside the box in order to navigate dire economic straits ahead, our society has got to consider all options and others not yet conceived in order to disperse the weight of carbon emissions that is suffocating the earth.
I’m still haunted by my dream about the final day on earth when our oxygen supply would expire. Maybe I’m like the passengers on U.S. Air Flight 1549, praying in those brief moments for anything but the end. I would gladly embrace fear, a brutally bumpy ride, mental anguish and physical pain, if only to avoid the worst, if only to land hard and smart with a view of daylight glinting across the surface of the river.