Monday, March 29, 2010

“A Nighttime Letter to the Grandchildren” by Stewart Udall

I was moved to read a letter that the late Stewart Udall wrote to his grandchildren at the beginning of this century.

Stewart Udall was perhaps the most influential U.S. Secretary of the Interior ever. He served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1969, and played a major role in some of the nation's landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. I hope you find it as moving as I have... BEN

My dear ones, your generation will face a series of environmental challenges that will dwarf anything any previous generation has confronted. I'm hoping to add some insights of my own based on things I learned as a policymaker in the 1950s and '60s, when I observed and participated in some monumental achievements and profound misjudgments. As a freshman congressman in 1955, I regrettably voted with my unanimous colleagues for the Interstate Highway Program. All of us acted on the shortsighted assumption that cheap oil was super-abundant and would always be available. This illusion began to unravel in the 1970s, and it haunts Americans today. Oil lies at the epicenter of a critical energy crisis. Petroleum is a finite resource and is the most precious, versatile resource on the planet. Cheap oil played a crucial role in the development of American power and prosperity, and sustains the military machine that dominates the world today. Oil is now nearing a historic transition that will alter the civilization Americans have come to take for granted. As world oil production reaches its apex and begins its inevitable decline, it will have a radical impact on everyday American life. It will take bold political leadership and awareness on the part of individual citizens to craft a full-scale, creative response. I watched with admiration in 1974 as my friend, President Gerald Ford, persuaded Congress to adopt a 55 mph speed limit to reduce our reliance on imported oil. He also got a law passed which mandated production of more fuel-efficient automobiles.

I am convinced that the American people will tighten their belts if a president forges a national strategy to stretch the life of our oil reserves and to adjust to a long-range plan of energy conservation. Energy efficiency must be the rallying cry. Higher oil prices are already serving as a wake-up call. Despite an utter lack of leadership from the White House, a few progressive states and cities are building light-rail systems to serve urban residents and commuter trains to connect their communities. I urge you to be stalwart supporters of any projects that promote fuel efficiency and conservation for all citizens.

You also must contend with the carbon dioxide problem. Once it is released into the atmosphere, this gas has a long life (approximately 100 years), spreads over the entire globe, and acts as a blanket that warms all parts of the earth. The United States and China are responsible for producing over 40 percent of the CO2 that is altering the earth's atmosphere. Consequently, these two nations have a moral responsibility to be in the forefront of any global campaign to develop new technologies to cut the emissions of this damaging pollutant. I have recently proposed that these two countries join together in a 50/50 research venture, and assemble teams of engineers and scientists to work together to develop technologies to capture carbon as it emerges from coal power plants. These teams would perfect technologies to isolate the carbon and transport it through pipelines to storage sites in the deep ocean or in depleted oil and natural gas fields. The success of such international cooperation would set an example that could spur development of new supplies of renewable energy. All climates would benefit from advances produced by such an enterprise. Today, China has the most polluted air in the world and suffers the most premature deaths from gross air pollution. These same teams of scientists could also devise technologies to capture the deadly pollutants that shorten the lives of millions of people in all parts of the world.

Even though scientists can solve many technological problems, a word of caution is in order. I learned during my government service that even the most gifted researchers couldn't perform technical miracles. The skilled engineers at the Interior Department built the first direct current line to transmit huge blocks of electricity from hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River to Los Angeles by simply flipping a switch. But the same engineers couldn't develop a cheap technique to desalinate seawater. One further example will dramatize my point. In the summer of 1969, after our astronauts completed their round trip to the moon (a brilliant but narrow feat), most Americans were overwhelmed by the promises that became the mantra of that exciting moment. The slogan, "This proves we can do whatever we want to do," influenced the mindset of Americans and generated a vision of a future with no restraints or limits. President Richard Nixon, quickly rebuked for his wild rhetoric by the Rev. Billy Graham, characterized the accomplishment as "the greatest week since the creation of the earth." A gusher of extravagant prophecies followed, predicting that a new planet of superabundant resources had magically come into existence followed. Though scientists regarded such predictions as Alice in Wonderland speculation, they were generally ignored; dissent was not welcome during this moment of triumph.

Meanwhile, Americans' vision of the future was warped; they believed, falsely, that technologists could perform miracles that would solve any future energy problems. Ignored was the nation's ever- increasing dependence on oil produced by other countries. Worse yet, this new vision offered assurances that our own oil wells would never run dry, and it has persuaded many of the current leaders of our nation that global warming is a myth. Having said that, technology may yet help solve our current problems. Some of the world's best architects and designers are already working on changes in the design of buildings and cities, which will reduce requirements for electricity by as much as 50 percent by 2050. Such advances won't be enough, however. Americans must finally cast aside our notion that we can continue the wasteful consumption patterns of our past. We must promote a consciousness attuned to a frugal, highly efficient mode of living. In closing, I leave you with these thoughts, and hope you will hold to these ideals throughout your lives: Foster a consciousness that puts a premium on the common good and the protection of the environment. Give your unstinting support to all lasting, fruitful technological innovations. Be steadfast enemies of waste. The lifetime crusade of your days must be to develop a new energy ethic to sustain life on earth.

In the 1960s, when the carbon problem and the exhaustion of the world's petroleum were still beyond our gaze, I advocated a new ethic to guide our nation's stewardship of its resources. I realize now this approach was too narrow, too nationalistic. To sustain life on our small planet, we will need a wider, all-encompassing planetary resource ethic based on values implemented by mutual cooperation. This ethic must be rooted in the most intrinsic values of all: Caring, sharing, and mutual efforts that reach beyond all obstacles and boundaries. Go well, do well, my children. Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth. Carry our love in your hearts....

Stewart and Lee Udall

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The End of Democracy As We Know It

TEODAWKI -- The End Of Democracy As We Know It. That's the period that we're living in at the moment. Democracy -- rule by the people -- is on its way out (if it was ever really in?). How do we know this? It's obvious when you look at the underlying structure of how our country works right now. For the first rule of systems thinking is, structure influences behavior. So while we still supposedly have a democratic government, structurally we have something quite different, which leads to behavior which is anything but democratic.

Sure, we still hold elections where people vote in representatives, who in turn are supposed to listen to what their constituents want, and then argue with each other about what the best legislation is to give the most people what they mostly want. That's how it's supposed to work. But of course, it doesn't work that way any more. Thus democracy is evolving... but the big question is, what is democracy evolving into?

There are a number of structural shifts that are taking place. Lawrence Lessig wrote a recent blog called "Systemic Denial" that articulates one of these, which is basically that, because of the current structure of how elections are financed, politicians are basically addicted to raising money for their reelection campaigns. A significant percentage of a politician's time is spent raising money so they can continue to be a politician. That structure, which can be easily changed, is at the core of why democracy is on its way out. The solution, of course, is a simple one -- public financing of all elections, including judicial as well as congressional and presidential. Lessig's comment on his blog is that while this solution is the obvious one that we should be talking about, even when you bring a serious group of high-thinking experts into a room to talk about how to make things better, the concept of public financing of all elections isn't even brought up for discussion.

Without public financing of elections, what we end up (and what we have) are lobbyists and mega-corporate money flowing into the coffers of elected officials so that they can spend that money on their re-elections, in exchange for preferential treatment from the sources of that money in the legislation that is created and ultimately voted into law. This is such a common idea that no sane person doubts this is true. Yet the idea of questioning whether it's actually a good thing isn't even brought up for discussion, except among the vast majority of U.S. citizens who don't think it's a good idea, but who, for obvious reasons, don't have any control over changing it.

Here's another structural issue that's at the root cause of the problem: the politicians who are reaping the benefits of the current structure of financing are the only ones who can change the structure. We certainly can't rely on the Supreme Court, as we have just had a 5-person majority ruling that corporations -- legal entities with limited liability -- are deemed to have the same rights as people do, especially when it comes to "free speech" in giving money to political campaigns.

Bill Moyers, one of the greatest champions of democracy in the last century, did a recent segment of his Journal where he covered this very topic, but from a very different, and less known, perspective... that of the corporate influence not only in congressional financing, but also in the financing of the election of judges in 39 states. Entitled "Judges for Sale," it reveals that most of the judges in this country, including the  Supreme Courts of most states, are elected by public vote. They, therefore, are also immersed in the addictive structure of needing to raise money to be (re)elected. This is a serious, serious problem in our country, because the one branch of government which must be seen as being impartial is our judicial system... and that system is becoming as corrupt and subject to corporate influence as the rest of our political system. For it is very clear that the vast majority of elections are won by those who spend the most money. And it is far, far easier to raise a lot of money from a relatively small number of large donors than it is a relatively large number of small donors (the internet not withstanding). Thus the downward cycle of democratic destruction perpetuates itself, and democracy loses more and more of its structural reality, replaced with a corporate-political marriage that leaves the average citizen left out of the decision-making process.

The problem is that we know what the solutions are. We know how to fix the structural problems that are slowly but surely destroying democracy, and destroying most of America. But we simply don't have the power and influence right now to implement those structural changes, because the entities that need to enact those changes are exactly the ones that are most benefitting from the current system, and they have basically rigged the system to keep it that way. All of the major players, including the corporate media, are involved in this structural inertia, and that's simply the way it is.

This is the way evolution is heading at the moment. That much is clear. This is what is. The big question is, what can each of us do about it? My current thinking is similar to the thinking of many people who see this as just one of many downward spirals that are reinforcing themselves, getting stronger and stronger as the days go by... start designing lifeboats. Recognize that strengthening local communities is one of the most empowering, and effective, ways to avoid relying on any governmental structures to "do the right thing". Set up your own small communities, start to grow your own food, design your own systems of thrival, and practice local resilience... I can guarantee you that you'll never be sorry you did.