A message to our grandchildren

‘The lifetime crusade of your days must be to develop a new energy ethic to sustain life on earth.’

 

The sun sets over the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

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

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...