This I Believe

Tim - West Chester, Pennsylvania
Entered on January 9, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe all Americans should try to be more like Superman. For decades he’s been a top pop hero in comic books, on TV, and in the movies. Of course, Superman has superior strength—he can crush coal to diamonds and bend crooks’ guns into pretzels, as well as the traditional leaping of tall buildings. Over the years he gained the ability to fly, to use x-ray vision, to make time go backward and other ‘super’ abilities.

There have been other superheroes with equally formidable powers. What makes Superman special is his morality. Originally, he was the defender of “truth, justice, and the American way” and was always the protector of the weak and helpless against the depredations of crooks and dictators. His moral balance attracts us: he’s powerful enough to do anything he wants to but moral enough to not take advantage of his powers, or even to use them carelessly. His ethics, not his strength, is his essence.

Kryptonite can weaken Superman or cause him to lose his powers, but can you imagine him losing his moral compass? – robbing banks to join the ranks of the super-wealthy? Knocking down a child who’s in the way when he’s in a super-hurry to get to the liquor store? Killing someone in a super-rage? I can’t even imagine Superman yakking on a cell phone in a restaurant.

Superman’s morality extends beyond deliberate abuse, though. If you’re more powerful than a locomotive and can move as fast as a speeding bullet everything you do is potentially harmful to others. He evidently has super self awareness and is super careful along with all his other ‘supers.’

In the 1930’s, Superman had the strength of 200 men while the average American consumed energy at a rate comparable to the power output of 10 human laborers, and the effects of much of that power occurred within our sight. Like Superman crushing a crook’s gun, the limits of ethical responsibility for our own power often lay no farther than an arm’s length away.

Thanks largely to the magic of fossil fuels, Americans now rely on more power than Superman did. Imagine the work done by a laborer in an 8-hour day; every single day the average person in the U.S. depends on an amount of energy equal to that produced by 300 such workers. And our superpowers extend much farther than an arm’s length. We conjure oil from Nigeria into our gas tanks, manufactured goods from China onto our shelves, food from Brazil onto our plates. We can fly around the world. We are supermen and superwomen.

I believe it’s time to rein in our personal superpowers with comparable superethics. We need to ask, “What would Superman do if he saw the billions of very poor, vulnerable people around the world?” Would he see the amoral workings of geography, economics, natural disaster, and history? Or would he ask us to be accountable for our super-consumption?

As Spiderman put it, “With great power comes great responsibility.”