What should a celebration of American independence in a post-Brexit, terrorism-laden, Hamilton loving, and ecologically suffering world consist of? Will fireworks still be the way we honor John Adams’ call for “Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more” in future Independence Day celebrations?
What did “Independence” mean to our founding fathers?
The Broadway musical Hamilton has inspired a new awe in the historical path to our nation’s independence – and it seems the timing couldn’t be better. Our current state of affairs has inspired fear and calls for isolationism, with the Brexit vote indicating a trend towards a different sort of Independence, vastly different from the event we celebrate each year on the Fourth of July. In fact, one of the main focuses of the American revolution was to allow for increased immigration and trade. The founding fathers were not calling for isolationism, rather they were asking for the freedom to have open borders and evolve as a nation through the creation of new laws that the “old-school” King wasn’t fond of. Independence meant room for positive change, welcoming people, goods, and ideas from around the world, and abandonment of outdated customs that didn’t make as much sense in the new world. That was 1776 – what makes sense in 2016?
Should our Fourth of July customs evolve as well?
“I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine. So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane. You want a revolution? I want a revelation, so listen to my declaration.”
– Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton the Musical
In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote and widely distributed Common Sense in pamphlet form to make a case for Independence. Knowing his words wouldn’t be “popular” he introduced the pamphlet with the following statements:
“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
I know my thoughts below may not be popular, and I wouldn’t expect a huge shift of this sort in the near future. But a combination of open-mindedness and time may lead to a slightly different outlook on future Fourth of July celebratory customs.
Bombs Bursting in Air
I began writing this post at 10:45 AM on June 30th (i.e. 5 full days before Fourth of July), and intermixed with chirping birds, I heard fireworks blasting in my neighborhood. What emotions are triggered in the person lighting off this “safe bomb” in our neighborhood? Is he or she celebrating the second amendment? Is it nostalgia from a time when they were a kid in awe of the power trapped in this tiny device? Are they excited to pass on the custom to their children?
For me, this misplaced cacophony reminds me of my first year of college reading the headline “Bombs over Baghdad”. My mind flashes to the livestream on CNN last night (14 years after I first saw that headline) showing real-time air attacks on an ISIS convoy outside of Fallujah. I feel lucky that our primary concerns for drones are vastly different than civilians living in the midst of terror in Syria. I remember how far removed I am from veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I think about the wild animals (big and small) not having someone to explain the “harmless explosions” popping up all around them.That’s where I’m coming from – I know I’m not alone, but I also know the majority of people out there don’t think this way during one of America’s favorite holidays.
Ecological Impacts of Fireworks
We all look at the world through different lenses. Mine is through the lens of an environmental engineer, which sometimes, I’ll admit I wish I could remove. My lens also views fireworks as an ecological distribution of perchlorate or nitrogen-rich explosive material for 5 seconds of amusement. I think of the surprisingly persistent perchlorate groundwater plumes I analyzed for the military and the unfortunate amount of synthetically derived nitrogen already plaguing our ecosystem. I visualize the piles of exploded plastic shards ending up in a landfill, or worse, our water bodies. Instead of seeing the diverse rainbow of colors, I see an array of heavy metals sprinkling the sky in unnatural ways. A Scientific American study showed the levels of harmful particulates in the air increases by 42% and remained for a few days following fireworks shows. Particulate matter doesn’t just disappear – it dissipates and deposits on our soil, plants, and lungs. Other studies have demonstrated increased contaminant concentrations in areas with repeat fireworks displays.
Fireworks may not be our biggest environmental concern, but is there another way to celebrate in this ever-changing world?
In the words again from Thomas Paine:
“And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and reason will say, ’tis right.”
Alternatives for Future Independence Day Celebrations
I get it, fireworks are exciting. I was once a bright eyed kid that couldn’t take my eyes off of them, and part of me does still perk up when I see a large display in the distant skyline. However, given the current state of our ecosystem and the overdose of news stories regarding real displays of “bombs bursting in air” should they really be the celebratory focus? In interest of nostalgia, would it be enough to limit them to the Fourth of July holiday only rather than a full week surrounding the fourth and many other random days of the year? Do we need to each have our own displays, littering our streets and waterways, or should we celebrate our “right to gather” by saving the experience for community shows put on by a professional providing for a somewhat more focused cleanup area afterwards? Can we replace the nostalgia with silent but still awe-inspiring alternative light shows, such as those put on by lasers (currently used in Monterey, California), friendly drones, or even pigeons?
Can we rejoice in the other benefits of our independence? Fourth of July is a special holiday devoted to rest and spending time with loved ones. We have beautiful public lands that have been set aside to fulfill our ever-growing lack of a connection to nature. We all have the ability to vote – not only in our elections, but to vote with our dollar – supporting causes, initiatives, and even consumer products we truly believe in. After all:
How do you envision future independence day celebrations? Remember
History has its eyes on you