A message to our grandchildren


Among other accomplishments in a life of public service, Arizona native Stewart Udall was perhaps the most influential secretary of Interior ever. He served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1969, and played a part 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. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., where he and his wife, Lee, penned this letter to their grandchildren.

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 some of 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, they believe, 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, 2008

Apr 04, 2008 08:03 PM

I would look out over the Los Angeles basin from my parent's house every morning, and the orange plume from every refinery in the basin stood out. You could still see Catalina Island in the distance, in the morning. I drove to school in my car that got 30 mpg. (curse you Ralph Nader!) It was a VERY safe and efficient '61 Corvair. (I RACED the 61 and then a '65. The 65 Corvair was in fact among the best handling and safest cars ever made in the U.S.) At school one day we put on a radio show. We spoke of high mileage small cars, and mass transit for southern California using the old "Red Car" rights of way. Almost immediately Standard Oil (Chevron now) and Chrysler joined in a huge PR effort to counter ours. That was in 1963!!!!

Years later, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" would speak to the same theme for "Tunetown".

As we allowed our rail lines to be abandoned in favor of long-haul trucks, and built bigger, dumber, cars and more freeways, and toll roads, we basically did it ALL wrong. It was NOT AS IF NOBODY KNEW!!

 Forty years late, and many trillions of dollars short; in OUR pockets, but filling oil company coffers, conservation and wise use is still challenged by the powers that be, and folks just keep on "truckin'".

Doug Troutman 

Apr 07, 2008 11:36 AM

sorry but the biggest environmental challenge is overpopulation, which causes all the other problems. Every problem we have will be a bazillion times greater a few years from now when there are 9 billion people and 500 million in the US. Where's the concern for the biggest of all problems?

Apr 07, 2008 11:36 AM

The opening editorial sentence overlooks the achievements, or at least the ambitions, of that other Arizona Sec of Int Bruce Babbitt ('Cities in the Wilderness'). But the heart and soul shown in Mr. and Ms. Udall's letter is much appreciated, and although it pains me to think that 'clean' coal could be considered as our only nearest possible hope in the next several decades (having read Reece's book on strip mining in 'Lost Mountain'), I'm always glad to see someone with Mr. Udall's background and influence involved in calls for action. More of this needed, please. Much more.

Thanks for the great thought-provoking reading.

T. Rogers 

Apr 07, 2008 12:16 PM

Truely inspirational words of wisdom from, in my view, the greatest Sectretary of the Interior we've ever had. I've lived my life according to those principles as a government biologist in fisheries all over the West, and a still hopeful writer. There is much work to do, if we are all to survive. It has to be a group effort of humanity. The cost of failure is our utlimate demise.

Apr 07, 2008 01:01 PM

Back when I was in junior high school (about 1950), I asked the question: "What will we do when the oil runs out?"

I was informed that this was not an issue to worry about. that we had bettr ways to explore for new oil fields, we could drill deeper in the Gulf of Mexico, geophysicists were developing new and better ways of discovering new fields, and that finally we could import large amounts of oil from foreign countries to meet our needs.

What 's more, in addition to being a waste of time to even consider this issue, it was also un-American to discuss this queston.

Edward C. Mangold

Apr 14, 2008 11:17 AM

as usual , mr udall spends more time thinking we live in a 'star trek' age of 'technology' rather than addressing the real issues and losing popularity by telling us to drive less .

most of these so called 'architects' are basing their designs on parking lots . not walkable communities .

i am positive that mr. udalls' heartwarming epistle to his grandchildren was typed out within the luxury of his 10,000 square foot mansion.

he is nothing more than a politician . he is al gore all over again.  


Apr 14, 2008 11:24 AM

How is it when West has spewed C02 for 150 years. only recently that China is producing toys, wal-mart junk for the american market.  If you stop buying this junk, china wouldn't be producing that C02.  The question is whether those who created the problem (The Capitalist system) can come up with the solution.

I think not.  No one technology will replace Coal and Oil.  Any new technology takes 20 years to remove the cobwebs and another 20 years to scale to meet the current demand.  Oil took 50+ years to reach its hight. 

 Furthermore, can any politician brave enough to tell their population that their society has to go back to 100 years in the past.  Let us look that was US like 100 years ago.  Women didn't vote.  Blacks were third class citizen.  Millions for Native american had just been exterminated.  a lot more can be said but you get the picture that I am painting.

 White man will have to re-conquer the Earth once again or else.