When an Oak Falls

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Being short-sighted can be deadly. I once flew to Greece in the days when airlines allowed you to smoke. Shortly after takeoff, a steward announced that someone who had suffered a heart attack needed oxygen. "Please extinguish your cigarettes." Two Greeks refused, endangering the lives of 185 others. The cabin staff had to physically subdue them.

Not that short-sighted selfishness is peculiar to Greeks. Whether it's the individual, the family, the tribe, the clan or the nation, there has always been some reason to exclude concern for other people or other generations when considering a course of action. But in a world where everything affects everyone else, we no longer have the luxury to think only in terms of ourselves and only for today.

Recent events in Greece threaten the financial health of Europe and most likely the world. There is no vision on either side. Even when Europe grudgingly comes to the rescue to save its own hide, Greeks violently refuse to accept the finger-in-the-dike measures that give lenders some hope that their money is not going straight into the Aegean. Again, this does not set Greece apart -- if we want to see short-sighted recklessness, we have plenty of that at home. But we don't want that. We want intelligent, far-seeing policies and actions.

In the 14th Century, at New College, Oxford, the builders used huge oak beams to support the dining hall roof. Five hundred years later, the beams became infested with beetles. How to replace them? Oak was expensive. Besides, all old growth was gone. A search of the college land holdings, however, revealed that at the time of construction some real visionaries had planted a grove of oak trees in Scotland just for replacing those roof beams! When contacted, the present forester said, "Well sirs, we was wonderin' when you'd be askin."

This may be an anecdote. A long line of foresters might not have said, "You don't cut them oaks. Them's for the College Hall." Nevertheless, it was common practice to let some oaks grow for hundreds of years in anticipation of similar needs. Of course, that was a long time ago.


With a Perspective, I'm Richard Friedlander.