The Declaration of Interdependence And Jefferson’s ‘Brilliant Statement Of Intergenerational Equity Principles’, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Okay, the Declaration of Interdependence sounds a lot like the Declaration of Independence.

By saying that it is a self-evident truth that all humans are created equal and that our inalienable rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our Founding Fathers were telling us that we are all in this together, that we are interdependent, that we have a moral duty to protect these inalienable rights for all humans. President Lincoln, perhaps above all others, was instrumental in making clear that the second sentence of the Declaration was “a moral standard for which the United States should strive,” as Wikipedia puts it.

The double appeal to “Nature” — including the explicit appeal to “the laws of Nature” in the first sentence — is particularly salient. For masters of rhetoric like the authors of the Declaration, a repeated word, especially in an opening sentence, is repeated for the singular purpose of drawing attention to it (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“).

Yes, the phrase “laws of nature” meant something different to Jefferson than it does to us (see here). But as a living document, and as a modern Declaration of Interdependence, the words have grown in meaning.

It is the laws of Nature, studied and enumerated by scientists, that make clear we are poised to render those unalienable rights all but unattainable for billions of humans on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. It is the laws of Nature that make clear Americans can’t achieve sustainable prosperity if the rest of the world doesn’t, and vice versa.

Moreover, founding fathers like Jefferson firmly believed we had an equal duty to future generations, as is clear from The Constitutional Law Foundation’s discussion of “Intergenerational Justice in the United States Constitution, The Stewardship Doctrine,” particularly the analysis of “Generational Sovereignty and the Land – The Earth as Tenancy-in-Common – Thomas Jefferson’s Usufruct”:

The most succinct, systematic treatment of intergenerational principles left to us by the founders is that which was provided by Thomas Jefferson in his famous September 6, 1789 letter to James Madison. The letter was Jefferson’s final installment in a two year correspondence with Madison on the proposed Bill of Rights. Given the importance of this letter as background material for the bill of rights, and its independent value as a brilliant statement of intergenerational equity principles, it serves as the natural starting point for a discussion of the founders’ views on specific intergenerational issues.

Because the legal term “usufruct” is obscure today to say the least, I will repost the CLF’s explanation of what Jefferson meant at the end. But let’s first return to the Declaration of (Inter)dependence

Ironically — or perhaps intentionally — the toughest inalienable right to maintain is “the pursuit of happiness.” Certainly, the catastrophic global warming we know we face (thanks to our understanding of the laws of nature) threatens life and liberty (see “Syria Today Is A Preview Of Memorial Day, 2030“).

But if we keep listening to the deniers and delayers, if we fail to sharply reverse our current emissions path nationally and globally, then we are headed toward 5°C (9°F) planetary warming or more by century’s end and 850+ ppm — with sea level rise of 4 to 6 feet or higher, rising perhaps six to twelve inches a decade or more for centuries, the U.S. Southwest and one third of the Earth’s habited land a permanent Dust Bowl, half or more species extinct, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

Not bloody many people will be pursuing “happiness” under those conditions. They will be desperately trying to avoid misery, when they aren’t cursing our names for betraying our moral values.

If we don’t aggressively embrace the clean energy transition starting immediately — and help lead the entire world to a similar transition — then the Ponzi scheme we call the global economy will probably be in some stage of obvious collapse by our 250th anniversary, July 4, 2026.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

And so “happiness” is repeated also, underscoring its importance to the Founders. “Life” and “Liberty” are really the very minimum we owe our fellow humans. We have a moral obligation to work toward freedom from want and care for all.

Let me end with The Constitutional Law Foundation’s extended discussion of “Intergenerational Justice in the United States Constitution” and of Jefferson’s letter to Madison (for the CLF’s footnotes, click here):

Jefferson begins his letter by asserting that:

“The question [w]hether one generation of men has a right to bind another … is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also among the fundamental principles of every government…. I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’ ….”

Since Jefferson explicitly bases his entire philosophy regarding generational relations upon this “self-evident” principle, it behooves us to examine closely the precise language employed to express the principle. Of most importance is the single word: usufruct.

The legal concept of usufruct can be traced back at least as far as ancient Roman law and has changed little over the centuries. In Jefferson’s time, as now, “usufruct” referred to “the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself.” It was a term used to describe the rights and responsibilities of tenants, trustees, or other parties temporarily entrusted with the use of an asset — usually land.

Under the common law, the doctrine of usufruct is closely conjoined with the doctrine prohibiting waste, defined by Blackstone as “a spoil or destruction in houses, gardens, trees, or other corporeal hereditaments, to the disheison of him that hath the remainder or reversion.” Taken together, these two doctrines provide that a tenant (or other caretaker/interest holder) is entitled to the beneficial use of the land and its fruits, but is prohibited from prejudicing future interest bearers by using the land in a way that destroys or impairs its essential character or long term productivity.

Jefferson’s philosophy that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living at least partially reiterates the biblical/Lockean paradigm of the earth as intergenerational commons, the fruits and benefits of which should be accessible to every member of every generation. He takes the position that no landholder has a natural right to control the land or dispose of it after his or her death. The land is entailed to the larger society; it reverts to the larger society upon the holder’s death. Society may choose to pass the land on to beneficiaries or assignees chosen by the original landholder, but there is nothing in natural law which requires this. “By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or moveable, belongs to all men equally and in common, is the property for the moment of him who occupies it; but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it.”

Society, as trustee of the earth, reasonably expects the natural estate to be returned undiminished at the end of each landholder’s tenure. Jefferson maintains that each individual, and each generation collectively, has the obligation to pass on his, her, or its natural estate undiminished and unencumbered to later generations:

“… [N]o man can by natural right, oblige lands he occupied … to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might, during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead rather than the living, which would be the reverse of our principal. What is true of every member of the society individually, is true of them all collectively, since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals.”

For Jefferson, “eating up the usufruct” means extinguishing the next generation’s ability to share equitably in the benefits of a natural resource. No individual or society has authority to cause such extinction, whatever personal or collective rights they may allege.

The CLF then makes clear how Jefferson’s concerns are all too relevant to the present:

The contemporary issue to which Jefferson’s arguments most literally apply is the problem of topsoil depletion. As a planter in predominantly agrarian Virginia, who tended to view wealth as the direct or indirect product of the earth, it was natural for Jefferson to phrase his discussions of intergenerational relations — even intergenerational economic relations — in terms of soil:

“Are [later generations] bound to acknowledge [a national debt created to satisfy short-term interests], to consider the preceding generation as having had a right to eat up the whole soil of their country, in the course of a life….? Every one will say no; that the soil is the gift of God to the living, as much as it had been to the deceased generation; and that the laws of nature impose no obligation on them to pay this debt.”

Jefferson asserts that each generation has the right to inherit, undiminished, the same topsoil capital that its predecessors enjoyed. Our society’s failure to recognize and defend this most basic principle of intergenerational fairness during the past century has resulted in topsoil depletion that has reached crisis proportions. Soon we may have literally and irreparably “eaten up the whole soil of our country.”

Of course, the principle applies to a myriad of resources other than soil. For instance, the extermination of a salmon fishery, through shortsighted hydropower, irrigation or logging policies, would also constitute an “eating up of usufruct,” as would the depletion of a freshwater aquifer that takes centuries to recharge itself.

Arguably the single greatest threat climate change poses to current and future generations is to the soil and to our ability to feed the ever-growing population of the world — for a literature review, see “My Nature Piece On Dust-Bowlification And the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security.”

Jefferson’s attitudes on intergenerational obligation were far from anomalous. The same authorities that shaped Jefferson’s conception of the earth as an intergenerational commons — authorities such as Plato, the Old Testament prophets, Aquinas, Locke, and Sidney – also helped to shape the views of his contemporaries. The biblical notion that God granted the world to Adam and his posterity in common was part of mainstream English and American legal tradition. James Madison, the recipient of Jefferson’s seminal letter, while concerned that some of his friend’s intergenerational reasoning might be ahead of its time, felt that “the idea which the [letter] evolves is a great one….” In his exhaustive examination of Jefferson’s generational theories, Herbert Sloan remarks that, “what makes Jefferson’s views important … is not so much that he held them, but that they were widely shared.”

The conviction that no person could acquire a perpetual interest in the earth was also common coin. In his Agrarian Justice, Paine reminded his readers that:

“There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it: neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.”

We live in perilous times. We must all hang together or we will surely all hang separately.

Happy Interdependence Day Century!

25 Responses to The Declaration of Interdependence And Jefferson’s ‘Brilliant Statement Of Intergenerational Equity Principles’

  1. fj says:

    The dire reality may indeed be absolutely positively disruptive causing a transition of extraordinary social change.

  2. Ken Barrows says:

    Is this the same Jefferson that owned slaves, expanded the Empire (Louisiana Purchase), and thought the indigenous peoples sub-human?

    It’s words, not action. Jefferson had admirable qualities but reading about him does establish that he was very hypocritical. He wanted to maintain his lifestyle–same problem as today.

  3. Excellent points, Joe.

    The concept of freedom in the Constitution carries a confusing duality that persists to this day.

    On the one hand, it’s as you describe–related to nature, innate, and not given by anyone to anyone.

    On the other, it pertained at the time to white, male property owners, since voting laws were left to the states. Moreover, it explicitly ratified slavery.

    In other words, “freedom” was ascribed to a certain set of people at the expense of the rest. This apparently was “self-evident” and “natural” according to the worldview of the time.

    Even though slavery was outlawed by the 13th Amendment, and women were granted the right to vote by the 19th Amendment, there persisted–and persists–the idea that “freedom” means the license to do whatever one wants as long as it isn’t outlawed. It’s particularly important in matters of property rights and commerce, where a lot of behavior has been and is allowed without regard to any generalized consequence or risk imposed on society, except as laws are passed.

    This kind of freedom is antithetical to the idea of usufruct. It is the freedom to dominate. It is the freedom to concentrate wealth and power, and to reinforce that dominance–for example, through the creation of corporations and PACs. It is the freedom to re-create an aristocracy by other means, to end-run the Constitutional provision of Article 1, Section 9 that “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.”

    My character Hector Valiente, a candidate for Senate after the collapse of the ice cap (and agriculture and the economy right after) grapples with this:

    Property rights have taken precedence over human rights, despite the central words in the founding document of our democracy: that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that each person is endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Note that—happiness, not property. We all have these rights at birth. No one gives them to us. And no one should be allowed to take them away. So when we join hands tomorrow outside the gate of the Verdegen plant, it will be to say that we believe that the material gratification of this generation should not supersede the right of future generations to feed themselves and be safe from the elements. We are now living out the tragedy of the commons. As moral creatures, made in the image of God, we cannot perpetuate this.

  4. Raul M. says:

    Amazing, I’ll email this to myself.

  5. Omega Centauri says:

    Wow! That was the best stewardship essay ever.

  6. Royn Ryan says:


  7. Joe Romm says:

    His hypocrisy on slavery is certainly indefensible. But one can hardly call the writing of the Declaration of Independence just “words.” All those men were risking their lives in what could easily have been a fatally losing cause. We rarely see such courage today.

  8. David F Collins says:

    Jefferson’s onetime enemy and longtime friend John Adams clearly saw Jefferson’s hypocrisy on slavery. And other matters, too. But Adams powerfully respected Jefferson’s person and thinking.

  9. David F Collins says:

    Dr Romm: this is the finest essay I have read in your blog, and one of the finest ever on the subject. I thank you.

  10. Jeff Huggins says:

    So Then …

    So then, does it not make sense to show leadership now aimed at making sure that our next leader (president) is a person who will demonstrate real leadership to address global warming?

    Of course it makes sense!

    Joe writes, correctly, that “If we don’t aggressively embrace the clean energy transition starting immediately — and help lead the world to a similar transition — then …” disaster.

    Well, do we want to avoid that disaster? Then we’d better make darn sure that the person we choose to nominate and elect president in 2016 — the person who we will need to provide as much presidential leadership as possible during 2017-2021 — is the right and best one, committed to the task, and up to it. Period. The point is clear enough to explain and justify itself. It doesn’t require being a rocket scientist to understand it.

    However, there are those in the beltway, including many on our side of the climate battle, including many Democrats and even some progressives, who think already that Hillary is The One even before we have vetted her with respect to her positions on and commitments regarding climate change. They assume or expect that it is “a done deal” that she will be the nominee, even though (I bet) they can’t provide any credible and demonstrated version of her positions on and record regarding climate change that doesn’t actually suggest that she may indeed be the wrong person to lead us! They certainly can’t provide any credible account of why we can be confident that she is the right and best person to lead us, with respect to addressing climate change.

    (If someone can, please lay it out now.)

    Yet many of these folks have already crowned her, in effect, or have resigned themselves to the idea that she’ll be crowned. They don’t want to bother vetting her.

    (Please see my “Memo to Hillary” comment under the posting “Memo to Obama”, from yesterday or the day before.)

    In summary, many in “the beltway” already take it for granted that Hillary should be or will be the Democratic nominee for president in 2016. Yet they can’t explain that, or why, she would be the best person, or even an adequate person, to provide the real leadership we need regarding climate change. That’s a problem. The good news is this: speaking in a different context, but making a general point, Rachel Maddow told us on her show last night, “Don’t believe the beltway!”

    And we shouldn’t! That is, if we want to address climate change. So let’s make sure we understand someone’s positions on climate change, and their demonstrated commitment to address it, in clear and concrete terms before we give them our support, the nomination, and ultimately our votes.

    The point is clear enough. Indeed, it should go without saying.

    Be Well, and Happy 4th!


  11. Joe Romm says:

    Wow. Thank you very much. I’m just glad I stumbled across that Jefferson letter. I had never seen a reference to it before.

  12. prokaryotes says:

    When will America sign a declaration of fossil fuel independence?

  13. David Smith says:

    I absolutely support independence from the burning of fossil fuels. I like to think of it as the end of the age of fire. However, I believe we need to seek independence from the tyranny of the rule of corporate power and those who direct that power. This, of course, will lead to the end of the un-representative democracy syndrone, the log jamb in our government and the true engagement in solving the problems of AGW.

  14. Jan Moore says:

    Ask any climate scientist: Carbon pollution from dirty energy is the main cause of global warming.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    If all people were created equal, why do so many Americans insist that everybody be organized into hierarchies of personal dominance that render everybody unequal? There is no equality in a ranking system which produces asymmetrical dependence not interdependence, ME

  16. Jeff Huggins says:

    Bravo and Thanks!

    Wow, that was a great and very informative post. Thanks for it!

    If you consider what Jefferson said here, and what Paine said (see Agrarian Justice), and what Locke had said earlier in his Treatises (his understanding and justification of private property ownership was in this context and also involved limits to it, and should also be understood in the context of his times and what he was trying to accomplish), one can see that our “modern” attitude towards private property ownership and the rights that accompany it is nearly the opposite of theirs, or to put it another way, is “way over the top”.

    Also, as an aside, and just to mention one religious perspective, if you consider what the Vatican has said in recent years (see ‘Caritas in veritate’, for example) and what we can see so far in Pope Francis’s choice of name and early statements, one can also see the same sort of view, for the most part, expressed in religious terms based (from the perspective of these folks) on God’s word.

    Thus, one must ask, on what basis (or on the basis of what philosophical or religious tradition) do people who hold the “modern” view base it? Not on Locke (properly understood) and Jefferson and etc. Not on the teachings of Jesus and the present interpretations and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, according to the recent Popes. Not on science and reason. So on what?

    In any case, I applaud this post, and thanks for the helpful, new (to me), and enlightening words from Jefferson.



  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    At the heart of the dilemma about ‘freedom’ is a misunderstanding about the individual. Human beings are social or group animals who function best when enjoying a balance of autonomy (governed from within) and homonomy (governed by the larger group) which is commonly expressed as a sense of belonging. Individuals are only truly free and mentally healthy when they are structurally bound to others with mutual obligations, support and respect. Isolated individuals do not grow, they shrink, ME

  18. John McCormick says:

    Egyptians demonstrating against the sitting President and peacefully throwing him out of office.

  19. catman306 says:

    On what basis (or on the basis of what philosophical or religious tradition) do people who hold the “modern” view base it?

    The philosophy of Greed:

    “Ivan Boesky famously defended greed in a May 18, 1986, commencement address at the UC Berkeley’s School of Business Administration, in which he said, “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself”.[1] This speech inspired the 1987 film Wall Street, which features the famous line “greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”[2]”

  20. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thomas Jefferson’s Usufruct . . .

    a great word, an even better concept.

    Thanks for making this point. Now to repeat it in nearly every post until people hear it . . .

  21. James Wells says:

    Thanks for this column. We must surely hang together.

    An excellent Declaration of Interdependence posted on Daily Kos is here:

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Peacefully’? Really?

  23. Ken Barrows says:

    Oh Jefferson was courageous. But as President, he started the Empire rolling. He was being political but he abandoned some of his ideals upon becoming President.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Infinitely ironic in that greed has, as predicted by every philosophy and religion throughout history, brought us to destruction. The insatiable greed or pleonexia of the capitalist elite has nearly destroyed the life-sustaining biospheres of the planet, all to produce unprecedented inequality and neo-feudal social structures. A Pyrrhic victory for the worst of our species.

  25. chessmen says:

    It is true your effort on this shows. Well done Joe Romm. I am always grateful for this blog. Thanks.

    Here are some thoughts it generated for you or the readers…

    This time period is useful to juxtapose Jefferson’s rhetoric with the Iroquois Constitution (It has a fascinating power structure) because he and the Iroquois were contemporaries.

    Intuition suggests [and Iroquois written opinion] that when the Iroquois structural system had influence its leadership already identified how western culture and its relationship with “natural law” [the life sustaining systems of Earth] would unfold…

    It [colonial British culture] was out of balance with nature. To this day, some will say, “nature is out of balance,” [as if it is nature’s fault] and invoke poorly understood knowledge that something is wrong with the Earth [Earth’s systems]. We continue to be “out of balance with nature.” Our knowledge of climate change has grown to be almost a universal truth that should remove the shroud of the unknowns.

    After all this nonsense I wrote….I wonder if anyone…can see there is an old political system [Iroquois] that we must re-discover…in any effort to construct a functional political system shaped from the past that fits the present climate change conditions.

    What I am saying is…that the Iroquois political system has some structure that is very relevant to the Greens.

    Unrelated theoretical speculation:
    Some want a silver bullet for climate change [as if nature needed a gunshot] and will not stop struggling to create one. But, what if social justice could be the silver bullet? What if power structure collapse serves justice? Could the sanctity of life [biosphere and human] be successfully preserved in a parallel effort? The idea of a reboot is seductive. Is the idea a Greek siren?

    Obscure association:
    I think of Greek siren and my mind jumps to this poem section from the Odyssey thanks to Wikipedia:
    Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man. We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

    The relevant phrase for me is “fertile earth.” I see this fertile earth idea in written form too much. Too much “using” and not enough “preserving” is my concern. There is another excellent use of this idea by Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator speech. The lines, “In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way” press the same idea as the one found in the Odyssey. The idea that the resources of nature are endless. Again, too much “using,” and not enough “preserving” [with great respect towards Charlie Chaplin]. This cultural idea isn’t destroyed in one or two generations! Work continues to be done that is invaluable in the effort to wake us up from this cultural mistake. I am attempting to link two cultural ideas spread across thousands of years in time to make a point about the way we talk about the Earth. The way we talk about the Earth is unintentionally abusive. The way we talk matters.

    Isn’t it safe to say the good earth cannot provide for everyone anymore because we have intentionally made an unsustainable resource pyramid? Now go back and look at other resource allocation schemes. Look at the Iroquois system. Look at other systems in general. Because, after all, we are looking for that silver bullet…