Stewart Udall’s letter to the grandchildren

Former Interior Secretary and “Defender of Wilderness” Stewart Udall passed at age 90 on March 20. Udall served as Secretary of the Interior for eight years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He pushed for the Clean Air, Water Quality, and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.

As a junior Congressman from Arizona, Udall joined the unanimous vote in favor of the landmark Federal Highway Act of 1956 authorizing $25 Billion to create the Interstate Highway System, a decision Udall would later regret. “All of us acted on the shortsighted assumption that cheap oil was super-abundant and would always be available,” he wrote.

In the decade preceding his death, Udall published updated editions of his open “Letter to My Grandchildren,” in which he addressed issues facing their generation. I excerpt portions of his letters here, but I think it’s worthwhile to read his entire 3 part “A Letter To My Grandchildren” and “A Nighttime Letter to the Grandchildren.”

Haunted by Misjudgments

Operating on the assumption that energy would be both cheap and superabundant led my generation to make misjudgments that have come back and now haunt and perplex your generation. We designed cities, buildings, and a national system of transportation that were inefficient and extravagant. Now, the paramount task of your generation will be to correct those mistakes with an efficient infrastructure that respects the limitations of our environment to keep up with damages we are causing.

A myopia that paralyzes thought is the belief that a miraculous “technological breakthrough” will preserve the status quo.

What came to be called “technological optimism” was initially fostered by the awe generated by the super-bombs created by atomic scientists at the end of World War II. This development had a profound impact on American thought. These scientists were revered as wizards, and everyone assumes that they could accomplish similar “miracles” if the nation confronted any monumental problem.

Optimism about the world’s seemingly boundless sources of energy reached an apex in 1955, the year I went to Washington as a freshman member of Congress. President Dwight D. Eisenhower convened an international Atoms for Peace conference in Geneva where our scientists offered to share such new technologies as fusion and breeder reactors. They promised such technologies would provide the world with electricity “so cheap it won’t have to be metered.”

The same year, wanting to share nature’s largesse of cheap oil with its constituents, Congress passed a far-reaching law authorizing a network of high-speed highways called the Interstate Highway System. The debate was superficial and none of us in Congress fully grasped the long-term implications of this grandiose law. It set a course that changed the outlook and culture of the country.

It made railroads obsolete; it dealt a death blow to the efficient, convenient public transportation systems of many cities; it made the United States the world capital of urban sprawl. But first and foremost, it made the private automobile the American mode of travel. This change, 50 years later, unwittingly made American consumers depend on nearly half of the planet’s refined crude oil to power our commercial and personal system of transportation.

No Limits?

However, it was the success of the space program—and the visions of a new era of plenty it promised—that made faith in technology virtually a new theology. Super-optimism reached a pinnacle in the summer of 1969 when our astronauts completed a round trip to the moon. President Richard M. Nixon set the tone when he characterized the landing as “the greatest week since the creation of the earth.” His hyperbolic rhetoric (rebuked by Reverend Billy Graham) was followed by a virtual gusher of prophecies that a different planet had come into existence.

The aura created by this rhetoric influenced the thinking of people around the world. In the United States, it fostered sky-is-the-limit expectations. It left a giddy impression that conservation of energy and other natural resources would not be necessary. It implanted in the minds of Americans the idea that technologists could craft solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. Indeed, some folks who called themselves “futurologists” offered assurances that if earth’s fossil fuels were used up, “extra-terrestrial substitutes” could be imported from unspecified locations in outer space.

Wanted: A New Perspective

There must be a profound change in attitudes and expectations. The ever-rising bill for imported oil is putting the dollar in peril and undermining the source of our economic strength. The one-auto-one-person culture is now an Achilles Heel of our economy. Your generation must abandon the illusion that cheap energy is an American birthright.

Two Americas

There were two Americas in the 1930s where energy was concerned. Roughly half of all Americans resided in metropolitan areas or in mid-sized cities where industrial activity was dominant. These folks had electricity and were served by railroads that provided first-rate service for passengers and industries. The other half lived in rural areas, small towns, and on farms, where few homes had access to electric power.

On my one trip to the Los Angeles area from Arizona, in 1937, with a football team, I rode on the fast Red Ball trains that connected that area’s flowering “garden cities,” before the auto industry conspired after the war to eliminate them. I was fascinated recently to observe that Utah is combating auto congestion and pollution by connecting its major cities with fast trains and building light-rail lines in some of its urban areas.

The one major sector of the economy that thrived during the Depression was the railway system. During the war it carried soldiers and the huge new war machines with remarkable dispatch. But, unlike our European neighbors, we unceremoniously discarded it in the 1950s when the Interstate Highway system was approved. Now, the end of cheap oil will turn the tables in favor of rail mobility and simultaneously bolster human health and save travelers billions of dollars each year.

Bipartisan wisdom

As we begin to come to grips with the enormous, overarching energy-environmental problem, we need to heed the counsel of President Eisenhower, a military man who became a peace president. Ike excelled at ending wars other countries started. For example, as president he refused to use military force to rescue the French in Vietnam.

Eisenhower, in his much-admired farewell message, warned Americans to be wary of the growing military-industrial complex that would subsequently saddle the American people with the extravagant huge costs for an imperial presence in the world. Today our nation is spending more on military expenses than all the world’s other countries combined! It is instructive to listen to Ike’s advice about the use—and abuse—of military power.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rock fired,” the outgoing president warned in his farewell message of January, 1961, “signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children.”

Udall ends his letters with optimism and a call to action for his grandchildren and their peers. Read a an earlier, shorter version here, or the the complete three part version here.

2 Comments

  • Jack
    April 1, 2010 - 3:00 am | Permalink

    In the early 90s, my then 11 year old son and I cycled from the Michigan-Indiana border to Sleeping Bear Dunes. He believed that the ride was a life changing event for him. Sixteen years later he has yet to own or drive a car. Ride on my son…

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