Dear President-elect Obama
Everyone's got their memo to the new
President. Here is mine.
Dear President-elect Obama:
All of the critical problems that the country faces come
down to a single problem, the environmental crisis. Environmentalists have warned for decades that our industrial economy
based on indefinite growth could not go on forever. Now it is we, not
our children or grandchildren, who must face the crisis. There are three
immediate manifestations of this problem: (1) global warming, (2)
depletion of oil supplies, (3) the rise of new epidemic diseases.
Of these, only global warming is getting any attention,
for which I am grateful. Quick action is needed here
and I hope that it will not be long in coming. But neither you,
nor any other prominent political leader, not even from the minor
parties, has drawn any significant attention to the problem of oil depletion or epidemic diseases.
All of the political issues that you face -- health
care costs spiraling out of sight, the biggest financial crisis in a century, and seemingly
endless war and conflict in the Middle East -- are at the bottom just
manifestations of a deeper environmental crisis.
The biggest single economic problem the country faces is not global
warming, but the problem of depletion of oil supplies, or "peak
oil." This is something that you will face in the next four
years. The exact date of the peak is unimportant, but production has
been essentially flat since 2005, despite record high oil prices to
encourage production. The inability of oil supplies to keep up with
demand was the underlying cause of the current economic recession or
depression. The rise in oil prices sent a price shock that precipitated
the recession. This price shock exposed the foolish loans that were made with the thought
that the economy would continue to expand forever, an expectation which
obviously cannot materialize.
The problem with peak oil is three-fold: (a) this crisis will hit
sooner, faster, and harder than global warming -- you, not your
successors, will need to deal with it; (2) the most obvious "solutions" to the peak oil problem
(coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids, tar sands) make global warming worse;
(3) if the economy collapses because of peak oil, it will make it more
difficult to cope with all the other problems we have, such as building
up the renewable energy infrastructure.
The rise of new epidemic diseases such as AIDS, mad cow disease, and
avian flu, and the resurgence of antibiotic-resistant
"traditional" infectious diseases even in the United States,
creates a clear and present danger to the country and the world. The
H5N1 virus, if and when it mutates to an infectious strain, would
devastate the world in a way unknown since the Black Death of the 14th century.
Surely this is a greater threat than all the terrorists in the
world. These diseases are all related to "factory farms" and
the crowding together of livestock animals in a way that spreads these
diseases and facilitates mutations. The more traditional "diseases
of civilization" such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity,
etc., are also related to livestock production, which are already having
a tremendous impact on medical costs.
Most of our other social problems go back to these underlying
environmental problems. Because everyone thinks our economy will expand
forever, we have overheated the planet with fossil fuels, made foolish
loans with the expectation that housing prices would rise indefinitely,
attacked Iraq in order to secure oil supplies, and crammed animals
together in factory farms to provide cheap meat.
I would suggest three priorities for your administration. Your
administration needs as its top priority to get good scientific
information on these subjects yourself and present it to the American people. We
cannot afford to politicize science, as happened for the last 20
years with global warming: we do not have 20 years to deal with them.
And the problems of global warming, peak oil, and infectious disease are
only the most urgent of the many environmental problems we face. We
also face soil erosion, water pollution,
deforestation, "peak natural gas," "peak coal,"
species extinctions, and so forth, all of which will eventually lead to
a decline in the total human population and economy.
The second priority is to bring the United States to terms with the
fact that its material standard of living will in fact decline. This
decline will likely begin during your term of office, if it has not
already started. You may be able to delay this period or the recognition
of this period for a while, possibly for as long as your entire term,
but this problem needs to be faced somehow. Delay can only increase the
magnitude of the disaster, which will be something felt during our
lifetimes and will likely start during the next four years.
Your third priority should be to advance the country
towards a steady-state economy,
not one based on continual growth and exploitation. Our quality of life
is not a product of our material possessions. This has a firm basis in
our religious traditions. Jesus, at every opportunity, pointed out that
life was more than riches, and the early Christians shared all their
possessions. Other spiritual traditions have similar teachings. We need
to accept that we have been consuming way too much, that this hasn't
been making us happy anyway, and that this way of
life will end -- either because we decide to end it, or because of physical
limits. "Stimulating economic growth" is not a solution; it is
in fact the underlying problem. We need to get used to living with fewer
physical goods, not just as a way to muddle through the current
problems, but as a way of life.
These environmental crises the first fruits of our
overconsumption and overpopulation of the earth present serious
problems, but also opportunity. It is an opportunity because there are
so many other natural resources which we have not exhausted, and we
still have left all the plants and animals which we have not yet wiped
off the face of the earth. We can turn from a growth-oriented economy to
a steady-state economy in which progress is measured by how much we give
back to the earth, rather than how much we take from it.
Some Specific Actions
As to specific actions, I would first point out that politics is not
my field of specialty. You are the President-elect and I am no more than
a private citizen. I could throw out some ideas, but I do not know how
to bring any of this about, except by educating the public in my own
At a strategic level, I would suggest laying out absolutely the most
essential elements of our environmental crisis in your state of the
union address, if not in your inaugural address. I would suggest that
you lay down the principle that the environment must have absolute
priority, since it is the basis for our economy and our nation, and
indeed all life on earth. Everything else national pride, political
advantage, or ideological belief must in the end be swept aside.
Then lay out in an objective way as many of these specific problems as
you dare. If you cannot reduce most of your audience to tears, you have
probably not gone far enough.
On a more tactical level, I could suggest these measures, or similar
The political problem that we face is to balance two
objectives: (1) not to alarm
the public so much that the country and the economy collapses into
chaos, but also (2) to turn away from "business as usual"
before this pushes
the economy and the country into financial collapse anyway because of
oil depletion. This collapse could very well occur, and will
probably start, during your term of office. I do not know if such
a balance is
A New National Anthem
Here's a final suggestion: we need a new national anthem. I have a
specific tune; it is the tune known as "Chester" composed by
William Billings in 1770. This is a stirring song, not difficult to
sing, which actually was the unofficial "national anthem"
during the American Revolution. It was written by an American, rather
than being an English drinking song. There are a number of patriotic lyrics, and we
might sponsor a competition to find the right words -- I'm concerned
about the tune, not the words. The following lyrics, by Philip
Doddridge, are found The Sacred Harp 1991 edition. Even
though religious in nature, they convey our
identity with and dependence on nature.
Let the high heavens your songs invite,
These spacious fields of brilliant light;
Where sun and moon and planets roll,
And stars that glow from pole to pole.
Sun, moon and stars convey Thy praise,
Round the whole earth and never stand;
So when Thy truth began its race,
It touched and glanced on every hand.
(Note: the melody is in the "Tenor" part so
for a traditional SATB choir, you would switch the "treble"
and "tenor" parts.)
Good luck and let me know in the unlikely event that I can be of
November 30, 2008