Saturday, June 20, 2009

Respecting the Earth

The Quiet Crisis by Stewart L. Udall

To my way of thinking one of the greatest tragedies of modern American politics has been the increasing polarization on a wide range of issues which focuses more on who is right rather than what is right and in the public interest. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of environmental policies. We endlessly debate issues which have grave importance for the future only paying heed to the demagogy of the left or right and ignore the true moral, historical and scientific issues at hand

The author of this book is Stewart L. Udall, a distant cousin a couple times removed from me on my father’s side. He was a Democrat (I know! I have relatives who are donkeys!), and JFK’s Secretary of the Interior. This book has had a profound impact on the way that many Americans think and feel about the environment. For this reason I am writing a review of it by itself rather than with a companion book like usual for my blog. I think it is important enough that it needs to be considered on its own

The book chronicles the history of the United States from the perspective of the land. The first period is the era of contact between Native Americans and the European settlers and the contrast between their respective views of the land. To the Natives the land was something owned by everybody in the same way as the ocean, air, sky and stars were the property of no single individual. To the Europeans, however, land ownership was the entire basis of their society and, for the English especially, the entire reason for their being in America.This land ownership, however, was fundamentally at odds with the Native concept (and indeed the older medieval concept of land ownership in Europe) which stressed the claim of future generations on the land and allowed for the use, but not abuse, of the resources available from the land. I could elaborate on the late medieval/early modern shift in concepts about ownership, but I will spare all of you this lesson for now!

This new concept of land ownership was coupled with a new idea arising from the sheer size and overwhelming wildness of the American continent which Udall calls the “myth of superabundance.” In short the idea is that there are so many buffalo, beaver and deer, so much fertile soil and forests and so many mineral deposits that conserving them was counterproductive and uncompetitive. The final critical element added to this mix was the rugged individualism which helped to create the essential elements of American democracy but also contributed to a lack of civic mindedness among some classes. Thus the few who made massive fortunes at the public expense were often seen as good examples rather than the pillagers of the future that they were.

Gradually some people began to see that this system was unsustainable and ethically lacking. Diverse characters like Davie Crockett, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Boone, and other began to see the effect on the land that our unthinking policies were having. Eventually as we began to have massive extinctions on our own soil (there were more than five billion passenger pigeons in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but shortly before the start of the twentieth century the last surviving member of the species died in a zoo in Ohio), and people like Audubon and other conservationists and scientists began to take action. Eventually people like Teddy Roosevelt were able to make political gains in breaking up the Iron Triangles (a political science term for the relationship between business, regulation agencies and congressional committees which all deal with a particular subject and often scratch each others backs) which had allowed so much of this legal pillaging to happen.

Now as a country we have made a good start, but there is still a lot to do. The balance between using resources and preserving land is a delicate one (one person quoted in the book says that the boundaries between the workshop and the temple of nature is inevitably going to be a contentious issue) and has not been fully resolved. However the scientists, politicians, farmers, hunters, activist, philanthropists, and voters of the last century have done some wonderful things to try and help preserve for us large areas of wilderness.Now we have challenges involving overcrowding, littering, pollution, and a lack of planning- all brought on because we still lack a sense of reverence for nature and our environment. As the author put it:

The quiet crisis demands a rethinking of land attitudes, deeper involvement by leaders of business and government, and methods of making conservation decisions which put a premium on foresight. With the acumen of our scientists we can achieve optimum development of resources that will let us pluck the fruits of science without harming the tree of life. Once we decide that our surroundings need not always be subordinated to payrolls and profits based on short-term considerations, there is hope that we can both reap the bounty of the land and preserve an inspiriting environment.

I wish that we would all take a step back and reevaluate our opinions and activities in light of an increased respect for the earth and for the future generations that are going to inherit it. Maybe this is all a little too utopian and impractical, but if we are only thinking about here and now how can we claim to be any better than the people who came before us? It is easy to be critical of the slaughter of the buffalo as a short-sighted policy, but are we any better? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.


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