Does it feel like our history is unspooling before our eyes? Like most in my generation, I grew up before a woman’s right to an abortion was ensured. Friends told me about getting back-street abortions, about the shame and fear they felt. I heard third-hand stories about women using clothes hangers to get rid of unwanted pregnancies. So when Roe V. Wade was decided in 1973, it seemed like the horror stories would end, that the world had finally come to its senses. Instead, the recent Supreme Court decision and the ensuing laws by some states to restrict women’s freedom to make their own decisions set women’s rights back to where we started.
The environmental news is equally depressing. In 1969, I remember the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching on fire because it was so polluted. In those early days of the environmental movement, we were starting to hear stories about whales becoming extinct because of over-fishing. Eagles were dying because of the overuse of the pesticide DDT. Those of us who identified ourselves with a new word, “environmentalist,” were overjoyed when President Richard Nixon, not a progressive in anyone’s book, started the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. We thought we were on an upward course to save the Earth, especially when the astronauts took a photo from the moon that showed a dazzling blue planet. After seeing this, how could anyone not want to protect what looked like paradise?
Yet, since then, we’ve suffered worsening environmental damage, especially from climate change, in many cases reversing any gains we made 40 or 50 years ago. Although there have been victories—the outlawing of DDT, certain species of whales returning and rivers less polluted—you only have to look at the dried-up lakes of the West during this unprecedented drought to get that sinking feeling that we are losing the race to save the planet.
In school, we learned about the horrors of the Holocaust and about ruthless dictators such as Stalin and Mussolini. We thought that fascism was something in the past and that the new world, one ushered in by the Aquarian generation, would bring more peace and love. Instead, today many countries are embracing fascism led by autocrats.
I grew up in the Cold War, under the cloud of MAD—mutual assured destruction: the fear that the Soviet Union and the United States could set off their nuclear bombs—either accidentally or intentionally—and destroy the whole world. But those fears lessened over the decades, as both countries backed off and assumed some kind of détente. But now, we have a Russian president who is covertly reminding the rest of the world that he has a nuclear arsenal that can be used if things don’t go his way.
For those of us who have lived long enough, there is a lesson to be learned. When I was young, I had the naïve belief that civilization was on an upward course: that people would never again engage in bloody, destructive wars, like World War II or the Vietnam War; that poverty would decrease; that nature would be restored; that blacks and other minorities would be treated better; that misogyny would end. We’ve come a long way—in the civil rights struggle and in women’s efforts for equal pay and equal standing. But in my older age, I can see that the same battles—for peace, equality and justice—must be fought again and again.
The cycles of civilization are not smooth. We take two steps forward and then one step backward. As older folks, we’ve been privileged to see the long arc of history—all the surprising twists and turns. For me, it started with the assassination of President Kennedy, an incomprehensible tragedy. For those of us who have been a witness to history, there is no rest, only more battles to fight. Even if we’re old and tired.