As I look back over my 70 years of life I see many highlights, some significant stumbles and very few regrets. Looking forward into the future — your future — I have one haunting fear: the state of the nation that my generation is leaving to yours is that of a country in decline.
This is also my greatest regret. Do not misunderstand me; I believe that America is a great nation. Physically, it is vast in size and resources, stretching between two oceans and touching on five Great Lakes that hold 21% of the earth’s surface fresh water; it is studded with magnificent mountain ranges, from the Rockies in the west to the Appalachians in the east and crisscrossed by 3.5 million miles of rivers. There are five large deserts in the west and lush croplands stretching from coast to coast. Without a doubt, its breadth of diversity knows no equal.
Our nation is also rich in natural resources. This includes water, timber, wildlife, fish, natural gas, oil, coal, copper, uranium, iron ore and zinc. We have virgin forests, old-growth redwood trees that soar more than 300 feet in the air, and approximately 100 million acres of wetlands.
Thanks to the foresight and courage of 19th-century political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and advocates like John Muir, there are today 155 national forests containing almost 190 million acres of federally protected lands. We are blessed with an additional 51.9 million acres that are safeguarded in 59 national parks and there are 103 national monuments — all held in trust for you and for those who follow you.
The decisions made by Roosevelt, Muir and their successors over the 19th and 20th centuries embodied a principle set by the Iroquois Nation: Every decision made by today’s leaders must consider the impact on the future to the seventh generation to come. I wonder how politics in the United States today would change if our political leaders adopted this principle for all of their decisions.
The accomplishments of Americans over the centuries are legend, from carving out great cities in the wilderness to putting a man on the moon. American ingenuity fueled industrial and technological advancements across the globe and our economy and our military are the largest and the most powerful in the world.
Perhaps the greatest of all is that the women and men who guided America from colony to country offered the world a new idea about what a nation could be, one that ran counter to other 18th-century governments in which power and wealth were inherited and royalty ruled the people.
That idea of America was built on the revolutionary principles of freedom, equality, justice and democracy. But, for all of this historical greatness, I fear that we are squandering your inheritance, from the gifts of our natural resources and environment, to the gift of a government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people.
Our land, air and water are suffering from environmental abuse, both by common citizens and the titans of commerce; our economy has been ripped apart by self-centered corporate greed and by our insatiable quest for more and bigger acquisitions; our practice of politics has lost its long-held commitment to seeking the common good and has been reduced to narrow, ideological battles; and national discourse has degenerated from intense but civil debate to shouting matches where outright lies and half truths repeated often and loudly become common “fact.”
It is not too late to reverse this decline and it is the biggest challenge facing three generations at once: yours, your parents and your grandparents. The first thing we must do if we are going to successfully recapture the grandeur of America is to recognize, acknowledge and embrace our faults. However, people who do that today are often either ignored or dismissed as unpatriotic liberal elitists.
But the true patriots are not those who (like the 18th century imperial power of Britain) bring all of their power to bear on holding the status quo. The true patriots are those who (like the nation’s founders) do not shrink in the face of such power but engage the struggle to rebalance and reclaim our democracy.
My purpose in writing this book for you, my grandchildren, is to invite you and others who read it into the struggle. Those of us in my generation who recognize and honor both the glory and the shame of America have learned many lessons during our lifetimes, lessons that can help you as you move toward the mantle of leadership. It is these lessons that I offer you here, beginning with my understanding of how America became what it is today and concluding with my version of a new American story.
Some of it might be useful to you and some of it probably will be irrelevant. It is your responsibility to sort through what you find in the pages that follow. Glean what is helpful and then take action to build a country that is true to your principles and brings alive your vision for your grandchildren — and the seven generations that follow.
This is an excerpt from the introduction to The Idea of America. The book can be purchased here.