Digging for Democracy

Digging for Democracy

COLLEGE FINALIST: The range of options that my generation has to choose from has been whittled to a handful of bad ones. I am coming of age not in the land of the free, but in the land of the dependent.


We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s sixth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation.. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Bryan Wilson Stucki of Virginia Tech University and Hannah Moon of Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, New York. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. The Editors

One bitter day in January I stood on a Louisiana beach, facing the Gulf of Mexico. The view was haunting. From beach to horizon drilling platforms dotted the silvery expanse, crouched like spiders atop the waves. The rhythmic whir of a helicopter sounded overhead. ATVs trundled along the beach in solemn convoys. Color-coded stakes dotted the sand. I was in the battle zone of the BP disaster, the largest oil spill in America’s history. Legions of workers swaddled in camouflage jumpsuits, ski masks, and sunglasses were busy scrubbing its legacy from the beach.

Perhaps the only thing clean about the spill was the neatness with which the disaster tied together the many challenges that my generation faces. The Mississippi Delta is like the end of a giant funnel, collecting the dirt and chemicals that are rinsed by the rain out of middle America. I came to think of coastal Louisiana as the place where our future washes up, too. It’s a testing ground for the outcome of the American lifestyle, and the results are sobering.

At a time when we are unable or unwilling to confront the realities of climate change, the spill provides a catastrophic reminder of how dangerous our addiction to fossil fuels is—regardless of whether the oil reaches the pump or gushes into our oceans. The spill also speaks to the problem of unregulated technological adventurism. My generation will soon assume responsibility for the chaos wrought by misused innovation, be it environmental degradation from deepwater drilling or fracking, economic crises caused by mysterious financial dealings, or the murder of civilians by aerial drones. The desperation that followed the spill, which brought fishermen to their knees, weeping, in crowded town hall meetings, illustrated how the rewards of such recklessness are unevenly distributed among a few, while the damages are apportioned out to the already-struggling.

In the end, what I saw washed up on the Louisiana sand was that the most serious threat to my generation is the increasing dominance of the corporate voice. Of course BP isn’t solely to blame for the oil spill. Our habits of consumption have brought us to this point. My generation, and those above us, seem to freely choose unsustainable ways of living. So why blame corporations for collective short-sightedness?

Because the range of options we have to choose from has been whittled to a handful of bad ones. I am coming of age not in the land of the free, but in the land of the dependent.

Recent events like the sweeping wave of anti-union sentiment and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen’s United case, which permits corporations to buy our elected institutions, have given corporate power a political bullhorn. Increasingly the agenda of the top rung of the economic ladder drowns out the opinions, needs, and ideas expressed by the people below. 

Appalling economic inequality in America, where the top 1% controls 40% of the wealth, translates into inequality in political power and of opportunity. Young adults get a bad rap for apathy and cynicism, but in my opinion we are loaded with conviction and compassion. It’s just that our voices, and the voices of 99% of Americans, count for less and less.

One of the seemingly small things I remember my mother repeating to me is that my education would give me the power, the opportunity, and the knowledge, to make my own choices in life. It’s no surprise that education is one of the institutions that has come under the ax lately. As corporations and their executives gain power and influence—through tax breaks, lax regulation, and by manipulating financial rules—we’re losing the transparency, systems of accountability, and critical thinking skills that let us exercise informed free will. When our economy suffers, politicians cut the programs and institutions that make ordinary Americans healthier, wiser, and more free, rather than trimming the overfed gut of their corporate patrons. Haven’t we run the experiment of trickle-down capitalism long enough to conclude that it doesn’t work? I turn again to the Mississippi River watershed: what washes down from the high mountain peaks isn’t fresh air, wildflowers, and gold. It’s pesticides and debt.

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