"Gettysburg Address Redux: In Four Score And Seven Years, Will Government Of The People Perish From Earth?"
Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address, which Churchill termed, “the ultimate expression of the majesty of Shakespeare’s language.” Coincidentally, four score and seven years from now is the year 2100, a time frame for global warming impacts that climatologists have analyzed in detail.
Because Lincoln framed his picture-perfect address using an extended metaphor — my favorite figure of speech — I have discussed the speech at length on this blog and in my recent book, “Language Intelligence: Lessons On Persuasion From Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, And Lady Gaga,” which is available at Amazon.com.
But the speech is more than a master class in rhetoric. It is about whether a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … can long endure.” It is about ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The current threat to the survival of these United States as a bastion of democracy and equal rights is not a “great civil war” fought on a battlefield. The threat is unrestricted carbon pollution — and the metaphorical battle waged by fossil fuel interests and the Tea-Party-driven right wing to block serious climate action. Whether the “Tea Party in Congress is merely the familiar old neo-Confederate Southern right under a new label,” as Michael Lind and others assert, I’ll leave to the political scientists. I focus on what the climate scientists warn.
If we don’t act ASAP, then we will be destroying the abundance that allows democracy to thrive, and creating a world of scarcity for 9 billion people post-2050 — scarce food, scarce water, scarce arable land, and scarce places with a stable climate. Such a world — a world of wars and refugees — would seem to favor more totalitarian governments that control those scarce resources on behalf of powerful interests.
I wrote on July 4th of the Declaration of In(ter)dependence: By saying 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 this crucial sentence of the Declaration was “a moral standard for which the United States should strive.”
Yes, Lincoln was advancing a specific type of equality during the Civil War. But morality is timeless: If all men are created equal, then future generations are equal to us. Jefferson made that clear in a letter to Madison, which The Constitutional Law Foundation labeled his “brilliant statement of intergenerational equity principles.”
As one specific example, 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,” as Jefferson put it, though in a way he could not have imagined — through warming-driven Dust-Bowlification.
Back to Lincoln’s address, which focused on the life — and possible death — of our nation.
The speech is only 270 words long, but Lincoln employs an extended metaphor of birth, death, and resurrection to increase the coherence and impact of his brief remarks.
He delivers a variety of references to birth from the very beginning, “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He says the civil war is testing whether “any nation so conceived … can long endure.” Lincoln then moves on to images and words of death, as befits the horrific battlefield in front of him, with phrases such as “a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives” and “the brave men, living and dead” and “these honored dead” and “these dead.” He finally returns to the original metaphor of birth, but with a twist: We must resolve that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Birth, death, rebirth and immortality (“shall not perish”)–in a place that we will make sacred (“hallow” and “consecrate” and the key repeated word, “dedicate”)–is a stunning extended metaphor that turns into an biblical allusion of hope for transcendence even during the worst suffering, with the Battle of Gettysburg becoming a symbolic national crucifixion.
Lincoln used the phrase “four score and seven years” not merely because it sounds more poetic and oratorical than “87,” but to prime the listener to his metaphor of birth and death. Psalm 90 says:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
So Lincoln is making a biblical reference to the length of our lives by using the word “score.”
The ultimate goal of our task today is much the same as it was 87 years after the birth of our nation: “for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Significantly, there simply is no historical analogy for where we are headed over the next four score and seven years: Some 5°C (9°F) planetary warming — with sea level rise of 3 to 6 feet, (rising perhaps six to twelve inches a decade or more for centuries thereafter, 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“).
Whether government of the people, by the people, for the people can survive such multiple simultaneous catastrophes is unknowable. But if the fossil-fuel backed Tea Party radicals in Congress succeed in blocking serious US (and international) climate action, there will be, at the very least, two great, tragic ironies.
First, we will need far bigger government than this country has seen in the post-WWII era (see “Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation — and much more expensive”). Indeed, only a very strong central government can deal with the endless climate disasters we will be foisting on future generations, whereby the record-breaking heat waves, droughts, wildfires, superstorms, storm surges, and floods of the past three years are the norm, indeed, are considered “mild” weather.
Second, one part of the country in particular will “lose” the war on a livable climate it has been waging — see NASA’s Hansen: “If We Stay on With Business as Usual, the Southern U.S. Will Become Almost Uninhabitable.”
As Lincoln might have put it, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”