Thursday, April 12, 2007

On the Work to be Done, by Kurt Vonnegut

Image taken in 1952 by Vonnegut's wife Edie-- image and text from

(i apologize that this is a bit long-- but only long in computer screen terms! Approx reading time-- three minutes, and it's well worth it!)

On the Work to Be Done
Acclaimed writer Kurt Vonnegut ruminates on the American Dream and the fate of the planet in the dawn of the twenty-first century


This article originally appeared in the May 28, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.

The only specifically American inventions that have made this a better world are Alcoholics Anonymous and jazz, and jazz has no bad side effects.

But one piece of AA's advice to recovering addicts, that they live one day at a time, so infects the brains of those who are wrecking the planet as a life-support system nowadays, recovering addicts or not, that it might as well be Hong Kong chicken flu or mad-cow disease. To have gotten through Tuesday, say, with an atmosphere still breathable and water still potable at bedtime is for those so afflicted to be as happy as pigs in shit, so to speak.

Some accomplishment!

Rolling Stone has asked me to discover what the American Dream looks like in the mind of some young person of my acquaintance, with the year 2000 hanging over his or her head by a thread, like the sword of Damocles. Without even looking into such a mind, I can offer at least this much comfort: The year 2000 has come and gone, and damned if we didn't survive it!

Listen: The best information we have today is that Jesus was born in 5 B.C., or five years before Himself. Chalk that up as another miracle! Yes, and that means that the 2,000th year of the Christian era was what we mistakenly called "1995."

What apocalypse, what test of our determination to go on living, did we endure back then? Friends and neighbors, young and old alike, think a minute, think TV.

It was the O.J. Simpson case!

As for our young:

Those who graduate from high school or college this spring are not Generation X or Y, as envious middle-aged baby boomers have been pleased to tag them. They are as much Generation A as Adam and Eve were, as the middle-aged baby boomers, their parents, used to be.

As I read the Book of Genesis, God didn't give Adam and Eve a whole planet.

He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let's say 200 acres.

I suggest to you Adams and Eves that you set as your goals the putting of some small part of the planet into something like safe and sane and decent order.

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There's a lot of cleaning up to do.

There's a lot of rebuilding to do, both spiritual and physical.

And, again, there's going to be a lot of happiness. Don't forget to notice!

What painters and sculptors and writers do, incidentally, is put very small properties indeed into good order, as best they can.

A painter thinks, "I can't fix the whole planet, but I can at least make this square of canvas what it ought to be." And a sculptor thinks the same thing about a lump of clay or marble. A writer thinks the same about a piece of paper, conventionally eleven inches long and eight-and-a-half inches wide.

We're talking about something less than 200 acres, aren't we?

If not you, then surely your children will see the day when not one drop of petroleum and not one whiff of natural gas is left to power any sort of machinery, or cook or heat or light anything, and precious little coal. Junkyard!

Chilblains in the wintertime, and darkness indoors and out when the sun goes down? Light a candle made from the fat of a lower, dumber, deader animal? Who's got a wooden match when there are no trees? Our century should be called this: the Age of the Planet Gobblers. We, the ancestors of all Generation A's still to come, inherited an aromatic, juicy blue-green planet, and we ate it up!

In our defense, we can only say, "We never asked to be born such prolific, voracious creatures in the first place. It would have been much better for all concerned if we had been sea lions instead, provided, of course, that nobody else got to be a human being, or a great white shark, or a killer whale."

Meanwhile, there is jazz, which, as I've said, has no harmful side effects. And I am put in mind now of a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical manufacturer years back, in which the plaintiff's lawyer had this to say about a certain pill, a nostrum that might be likened to our indifference to what we are doing to our environment: "Death is not an acceptable side effect."

This article originally appeared in the May 28, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.


Quitmoanez said...

As you often quote Roberts:

"Change is not necessary, but survival isn't mandatory either."

Anonymous said...

(quote from where?)

And Thanks for posting that Roberts. It made me happy and sad all at once.

Leonard Cohen died too right?

Lorne Roberts said...

WHAT? Leonard Cohen?!

oh... even more sad now.

that quote is from demming or something like that.

j. edward demming?

"you do not have to change. survival is not mandatory."

Anonymous said...

No Cohen is still alive.

Anonymous said...

Phew, 72.

This is funny though...

Ted said...

Time Quake...

See ya buddy!