Published: Jan. 19, 2018

Original article can be found at The Denver Post  
Originally published on January 19, 2018 By Patty Limerick 

Ordinarily, if a person who is 66 years old declares that she can tell you what young people today are thinking, escaping that person’s company is your obvious course of action. 

But if that person is the state historian, and if the state historian is also a classroom teacher, flight may not be in order. 

In the first meeting of Center of the American West introductory course at the University of Colorado this past week, I took a distinctively historical route to finding out what is on the minds of young people. 

I began by telling the students about an almost universal pattern of 19th century town founding. Western settlers initially built stores and homes out of wood, and in short order, those structures caught fire. Settlers were frustrated and vexed by these losses, but they were also resilient and persistent. They got more wood and rebuilt the structures. And then another round of fire would race through those buildings. At long last, the settlers would say to themselves, “Maybe things would go better if we tried brick or stone.” 

On the chance that this unsubtle point needed reinforcement, I told the students about another habit of many Western town founders. They often placed their facilities for the intake of water very close to the pits and ditches designated for sewage. And then, after several rounds of illness, the settlers finally made arrangements to keep drinking water distant from human waste. In many Western locales, Americans adopted a surprisingly slow pace before figuring out how to hold off these infrastructure-delivered assaults on the digestive tract. 

The settlers of the past were, more often than not, smart people. But they were in a rush and thus proportionately slow to recognize and minimize undesirable consequences. 

Launching from these historical reflections, I asked the students, “What are people doing today that will mystify the people of the future, making them wonder why we didn’t pay attention to the consequences of our actions?” 

The students wrote down concerns about the careless and wasteful use of resources, particularly of energy and water. They declared their uncertainty about the reliable production of food and the excess of many Americans in consuming food in a way that induced obesity and poor health. They felt dismayed over the pollution of soil and water, and they expressed alarm over threats to public lands. They lamented the inability of their fellow citizens and the nation’s leaders to consider climate change in reasoned ways. And they expressed sorrow over the multiple failures to communicate that afflict our society. 

And now, inspired by my recent visit to the inner world of the young, here is a request from the state historian: 

Fellow old-timers, please take every opportunity to ask the question, “How will my actions affect the well-being of the people who will outlive me? How might I steer my choices and decisions toward better outcomes for the people of the future, while persuading my demographic cohort — people who have already had a good run of it on the planet — to join me in that cause?” 

And, if anyone reading this would like to spend time in the company of smart young people who may well become historians, and to buckle down on courting their good will and good opinion, believe me, I can make that happen.