“Conservation is a great moral issue for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.” On August 31, 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in his famous speech, “The New Nationalism.”
Certainly there are no greater preventable threats to the safety of the nation than unrestricted carbon pollution.
Because some in the media love nonsensical historical analogies, Donald Trump is somehow being compared to the guy on Mount Rushmore. Not.
Roosevelt defined what it was to be a progressive, and why the true nationalists and patriots were progressives — and environmentalists:
Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.
Roosevelt then immediately pointed out, “Let me add that the health and vitality of our people are at least as well worth conserving as their forests, waters, lands, and minerals, and in this great work the national government must bear a most important part.”
Yes, the famous Republican President Teddy Roosevelt would be what modern conservatives typically label a socialist tree-hugger. While Trump has espoused progressive ideas from time to time, his denial of climate science and of the urgent need for climate action by itself makes him the true radical.
“I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as each farmer here behaves with reference to his own children,” Roosevelt explained in the speech. “That farmer is a poor creature who skins the land and leaves it worthless to his children. The farmer is a good farmer who, having enabled the land to support himself and to provide for the education of his children leaves it to them a little better than he found it himself. I believe the same thing of a nation.”
If Roosevelt’s view of conservation is socialist, then Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers were all socialists. As the Constitutional Law Foundation has explained, “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.”
I summarized Jefferson’s position here. The key question for Jefferson was very simple: Must later generations “consider the preceding generation as having had a right to eat up the whole soil of their country, in the course of a life?”
The answer to Jefferson was another self-evident truth: “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.”
It is immoral for one generation to destroy another generation’s vital soil — or its livable climate. Hence it is unimaginably immoral to Dustbowlify their soil and ruin their livable climate irreversibly for many centuries if not millennia, which would be the result of continuing to listen to those who preach climate inaction.
Indeed here is what NASA projected earlier this year what inaction would do to the normal climate of the entire country from a soil moisture perspective:
Roosevelt was a true progressive, and he understood that progressivism was our country’s only hope, as he explained in his timeless 1910 speech: “The prime problem of our nation is to get the right type of good citizenship, and, to get it, we must have progress, and our public men must be genuinely progressive.”
Few politicians before or since have ever spoken out as strongly against the danger of corporate special interests in politics. “I stand for the square deal,” Roosevelt said. “But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the games, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.” Roosevelt added, “Now, this means that our government, national and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests.”
And he was blunt about the solution:
There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done….
It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced.
- The “greatest good for the greatest number” applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.
- If in a given community unchecked popular rule means unlimited waste and destruction of the natural resources — soil, fertility, waterpower, forests, game, wild-life generally — which by right belong as much to subsequent generations as to the present generation, then it is sure proof that the present generation is not yet really fit for self-control, that it is not yet really fit to exercise the high and responsible privilege of a rule which shall be both by the people and for the people. The term “for the people” must always include the people unborn as well as the people now alive, or the democratic ideal is not realized.
- The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.
- The United States at this moment occupies a lamentable position as being perhaps the chief offender among civilized nations in permitting the destruction and pollution of nature. Our whole modern civilization is at fault in the matter. But we in America are probably most at fault … Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals’not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.
- To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them.
This is what it means to be a progressive in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt.