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Udall: A Letter to My Grandchildren, Pt 1

My generation’s mistakes, your generation’s epic challenge

December 24, 2010 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Carl Ganter
  Stewart Udall, one of America’s great environmentalists, visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which he helped to establish, in 1998.

Part One of three parts

To My Grandchildren—

This is the most important letter I will ever write. It concerns your future—and the tomorrows of the innumerable human beings who share this vulnerable, fragile planet with you.

It involves changes that must be made if environmental disasters are to be avoided. The response to this challenge will shape the future of the entire human race.

Two interwoven energy trends are converging to define the parameters of a different world. The first involves the peaking of world oil production and the impacts it will have on our nation’s vaunted “most mobile society on earth.” The second relates to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—which are already altering the climates of continents.

In the past year our country has had a rude introduction to what happens when the price of crude oil escalates. Since America’s auto-mania began 50 years ago, cheap oil has been viewed as a birthright. That illusion must be discarded as Americans struggle to cope with this oncoming crisis.

Where the atmosphere is concerned, irrefutable evidence is rapidly accumulating. The carbon in the atmosphere is increasing every day and little is being done to slow this insidious trend. There is no dispute about the huge contribution the United States has made—and is making every day—to the overall problem. Our country, by itself, is burning fossil fuels that emit 25 percent of the heat-trapping carbon now building up in the planet’s atmosphere.

Although the problem is global, and it will take unprecedented global cooperation to develop effective programs to curb carbon emissions, the United States is the world’s economic superpower. So it is obvious that a concerted campaign of countermeasures can’t be mounted as long as this country continues to pretend the world’s scientists should be ignored.

Haunted by Misjudgments
Operating on the assumption that energy would be both cheap and superabundant, I admit, led my generation to make misjudgments that have come back and now haunt and perplex your generation. We designed cities, buildings, and a national system of transportation that were inefficient and extravagant. Now, the paramount task of your generation will be to correct those mistakes with an efficient infrastructure that respects the limitations of our environment to keep up with damages we are causing.

A myopia that paralyzes thought is the belief that a miraculous “technological breakthrough”—hydrogen fuel is a current favorite—will preserve the status quo.

What came to be called “technological optimism” was initially fostered by the awe generated by the super-bombs created by atomic scientists at the end of World War II. This development had a profound impact on American thought. These scientists were revered as wizards, and everyone assumes that they could accomplish similar “miracles” if the nation confronted any monumental problem.

Optimism about the world’s seemingly boundless sources of energy reached an apex in 1955, the year I went to Washington as a freshman member of Congress. President Dwight D. Eisenhower convened an international Atoms for Peace conference in Geneva where our scientists offered to share such new technologies as fusion and breeder reactors. They promised such technologies would provide the world with electricity “so cheap it won’t have to be metered.”

The same year, wanting to share nature’s largesse of cheap oil with its constituents, Congress passed a far-reaching law authorizing a network of high-speed highways called the Interstate Highway System. The debate was superficial and none of us in Congress fully grasped the long-term implications of this grandiose law. It set a course that changed the outlook and culture of the country.

It made railroads obsolete; it dealt a death blow to the efficient, convenient public transportation systems of many cities; it made the United States the world capital of urban sprawl. But first and foremost, it made the private automobile the American mode of travel. This change, 50 years later, unwittingly made American consumers depend on nearly half of the planet’s refined crude oil to power our commercial and personal system of transportation.

No Limits?
However, it was the success of the space program—and the visions of a new era of plenty it promised—that made faith in technology virtually a new theology. Super-optimism reached a pinnacle in the summer of 1969 when our astronauts completed a round trip to the moon. President Richard M. Nixon set the tone when he characterized the landing as “the greatest week since the creation of the earth.” His hyperbolic rhetoric (rebuked by Reverend Billy Graham) was followed by a virtual gusher of prophecies that a different planet had come into existence.

Wernher von Braun, Adolf Hitler’s wartime racketeer, by now an American hero, pontificated that the “conquest” of space was “the salvation of the human race.” A euphoric NASA executive exulted, “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality.”

Not to be overshadowed, other enthusiasts provided a road map of work in space that would lead to such projects as mining the moon, manipulating the earth’s weather from space platforms, exporting polluting industries to asteroids, mounting shuttle trips to other planets, constructing colonies somewhere in outer space to serve as “backup stations” for earth’s inhabitants, and discovering vast new sources of energy in the event that earth’s fossil fuels were depleted.

Never before had experts described a future where resources would be available for unlimited growth. Buoyed by such forecasts, world leaders foresaw a future of ample resources for all humankind. U Thant, the Secretary General of the United Nations, called for a decade of global development. Taking his cue from futurists who asserted that all limits to growth had been removed, he proclaimed, “It is no longer resources that limit decisions; it is the decisions that make the resources.”

The aura created by this rhetoric influenced the thinking of people around the world. In the United States, it fostered sky-is-the-limit expectations. It left a giddy impression that conservation of energy and other natural resources would not be necessary. It implanted in the minds of Americans the idea that technologists could craft solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. Indeed, some folks who called themselves “futurologists” offered assurances that if earth’s fossil fuels were used up, “extra-terrestrial substitutes” could be imported from unspecified locations in outer space.

Wanted: A New Perspective
Today, as the world comes to grips with the crucial issues posed by the depletion of the planet’s reserves of fossil fuels, it is vital to put technology in perspective. Technology is a sword with two sharp edges. It has the potential to be the salvation of the human race, as scientists, engineers, and the design professions craft thousands of large and small machines and inventions to conserve energy.

But technologists have also produced machines and devices that encourage people to squander energy. The British scientist C. P. Snow put this dilemma in focus when he wrote, “Technology…is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.”

The experts agree that teams of scientists and engineers can design coal-burning electric power plants that do not emit carbon. The world’s automakers are already producing fuel-efficient cars which could make big reductions in demands for petroleum.

There must be, however, a profound change in attitudes and expectations for such strategies to be adopted. The ever-rising bill for imported oil is putting the dollar in peril and undermining the source of our economic strength. The one-auto-one-person culture is now an Achilles Heel of our economy. Your generation must abandon the illusion that cheap energy is an American birthright.

Promoters of nuclear electricity are touting it as the answer to the global warming impasse. The nuclear option also has a shining side and a dark side. The bright side is the reality that it is carbon-neutral and emits no particulate pollution. The dark side has two facets. The first relates to the safe storage of dangerous radiation by-products that have a half-life of 10,000 years. Despite repeated assurances, this problem has not been resolved.

The second issue, linked to the rise of international terrorism, concerns well-founded worries that this is a bad time to expand a technology that could—think Iran, think North Korea—fall into the wrong hands (think of Pakistan’s bomb scientist A. Q. Kahan, who made millions peddling his blueprints to countries who wanted to build atomic weapons.) Diplomats and anti-proliferation experts are asking, “Wouldn’t it be wise to postpone proliferation until the current wave of violence subsides?”

Part Two of Mr. Udall’s letter to his grandchildren appears on Thursday, December 28. In it, he considers lessons from the Great Depression and World War II that can aid the fight to stop global warming.

Stewart Udall, who will celebrate his 87th birthday next month, is one of America’s great environmental pioneers. The former congressman served as Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson cabinets and successfully pushed for the Clean Air, Water Quality, and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, and other groundbreaking green laws. He also helped to establish four national parks, six national monuments, nine national recreation areas, 20 national historic sites, and nine national lakeshores and seashores, including two in Michigan—the Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshores.

Read Institute founder Keith Schneider’s 1998 essay about Mr. Udall here.

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