Udall: A Letter to My Grandchildren
My generation’s mistakes, your generation’s epic challenge
By Stewart L. Udall
To My Grandchildren—
This is the most important letter I will ever write. It concerns your future—and the tomorrows of the innumerable human beings who share this vulnerable, fragile planet with you.
It involves changes that must be made if environmental disasters are to be avoided. The response to this challenge will shape the future of the entire human race.
Two interwoven energy trends are converging to define the parameters of a different world. The first involves the peaking of world oil production and the impacts it will have on our nation’s vaunted “most mobile society on earth.” The second relates to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—which are already altering the climates of continents.
In the past year our country has had a rude introduction to what happens when the price of crude oil escalates. Since America’s auto-mania began 50 years ago, cheap oil has been viewed as a birthright. That illusion must be discarded as Americans struggle to cope with this oncoming crisis.
Where the atmosphere is concerned, irrefutable evidence is rapidly accumulating. The carbon in the atmosphere is increasing every day and little is being done to slow this insidious trend. There is no dispute about the huge contribution the United States has made—and is making every day—to the overall problem. Our country, by itself, is burning fossil fuels that emit 25 percent of the heat-trapping carbon now building up in the planet’s atmosphere.
Although the problem is global, and it will take unprecedented global cooperation to develop effective programs to curb carbon emissions, the United States is the world’s economic superpower. So it is obvious that a concerted campaign of countermeasures can’t be mounted as long as this country continues to pretend the world’s scientists should be ignored.
Haunted by Misjudgments
Operating on the assumption that energy would be both cheap and superabundant, I admit, 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”—hydrogen fuel is a current favorite—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.
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.
Wernher von Braun, Adolf Hitler’s wartime racketeer, by now an American hero, pontificated that the “conquest” of space was “the salvation of the human race.” A euphoric NASA executive exulted, “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality.”
Not to be overshadowed, other enthusiasts provided a road map of work in space that would lead to such projects as mining the moon, manipulating the earth’s weather from space platforms, exporting polluting industries to asteroids, mounting shuttle trips to other planets, constructing colonies somewhere in outer space to serve as “backup stations” for earth’s inhabitants, and discovering vast new sources of energy in the event that earth’s fossil fuels were depleted. Never before had experts described a future where resources would be available for unlimited growth. Buoyed by such forecasts, world leaders foresaw a future of ample resources for all humankind. U Thant, the Secretary General of the United Nations, called for a decade of global development. Taking his cue from futurists who asserted that all limits to growth had been removed, he proclaimed, “It is no longer resources that limit decisions; it is the decisions that make the resources.”
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
Today, as the world comes to grips with the crucial issues posed by the depletion of the planet’s reserves of fossil fuels, it is vital to put technology in perspective. Technology is a sword with two sharp edges. It has the potential to be the salvation of the human race, as scientists, engineers, and the design professions craft thousands of large and small machines and inventions to conserve energy.
But technologists have also produced machines and devices that encourage people to squander energy. The British scientist C. P. Snow put this dilemma in focus when he wrote, “Technology…is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.”
The experts agree that teams of scientists and engineers can design coal-burning electric power plants that do not emit carbon. The world’s automakers are already producing fuel-efficient cars which could make big reductions in demands for petroleum.
There must be, however, a profound change in attitudes and expectations for such strategies to be adopted. 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.
Promoters of nuclear electricity are touting it as the answer to the global warming impasse. The nuclear option also has a shining side and a dark side. The bright side is the reality that it is carbon-neutral and emits no particulate pollution. The dark side has two facets. The first relates to the safe storage of dangerous radiation by-products that have a half-life of 10,000 years. Despite repeated assurances, this problem has not been resolved.
The second issue, linked to the rise of international terrorism, concerns well-founded worries that this is a bad time to expand a technology that could—think Iran, think North Korea—fall into the wrong hands (think of Pakistan’s bomb scientist A. Q. Kahan, who made millions peddling his blueprints to countries who wanted to build atomic weapons.) Diplomats and anti-proliferation experts are asking, “Wouldn’t it be wise to postpone proliferation until the current wave of violence subsides?”
Ordinarily, a backward look at history is a detour into unproductive nostalgia. I am acutely aware of the profound differences between today’s culture and the spare way of living that prevailed in the 1930s. Nevertheless, I believe my contemporaries—called “the greatest generation” by Tom Brokaw—I prefer to characterize it as “the frugal generation”—have timely life lessons to offer your generation.
The free-fall of the stock market in October, 1929, was part of a worldwide economic disaster. It was followed by a bank panic that lasted over two years and wiped out the savings of millions and created a wave of shock and despair. The collapse—unemployment rose to 80 percent in some manufacturing cities—came to be called The Great Depression.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s buoyant spirit and his job-creating New Deal programs, tied to Keynesian economic prospects, slowly improved and replaced pessimism with cautious hope. But the struggle to get the economy back on track lasted 11 years.
At the outset, no one foresaw that the Depression’s paralyzing grip would change many of the country’s core values and expectations.
I lived through that period as a teenager. There were actually 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. Some rural families owned used cars but, in my region in the Southwest, except for large communities like Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver, few homes had access to electric power.
In general, the living standards of these two Americas were contrasted in important ways. A subsistent economy was dominant in the latter. These families essentially lived off the land, which meant that children had daily chores—chopping wood, milking cows, feeding animals and tending the garden—and all meals were home cooked. Payrolls were few, so older adults on ranches and farms had seasonal jobs and kept busy doing heavy outdoor work. It was not all work and no play: Churches and high schools filled in with religious activities and entertainment.
In the 1930s, I lived in the Intermountain West. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the farm village of St. Johns, Arizona—population 1,300—on the Colorado Plateau 60 miles from the nearest railroad.
We had no electricity; wood was our fuel. Horses, mules, and human muscle provided the “horsepower” required for irrigated agriculture. Travel was limited, but I had an opportunity—in the clean, clear air of that time—to move about on the electric trolleys and trains that provided cities like Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City with efficient, convenient, low-cost travel.
Then, on my one trip to the Los Angeles area, 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.
Shattered Hopes, Hardscrabble Dreams
Drastic changes will be in order. That is why I believe the transition my generation made from 1930 to 1946 and beyond needs to be evaluated and emulated. Hopes were shattered and replaced with misery in the first years of the Depression, but everyone realized they had to adapt to a different economy and a spare lifestyle.
My generation did not handle this crisis by blaming the government or seeking scapegoats, but by strengthening our families and communities, and above all, by supporting primary and secondary schools so our children might have a better future. This was not a decision made by the national government. It was made by the members of thousands of local communities who taxed themselves to make good education a reality.
Opportunities for higher education shrank during the 1930s. Only three or four percent of high school graduates—mostly the children of well-to-do parents—enrolled and won college degrees. This elevated the importance of high school studies and striving students sought, and received, valuable extra instruction.
Many individuals were crushed by the 1930s. Others used sardonic humor to roll with the punches. Oklahoma’s Will Rogers, who wrote a weekly column featuring pithy observations, was a laugh-at-your-plight commentator. One of his gems that I remember was: “I had a surprise yesterday. A headline read, ‘Six Bankers in Detroit Indicted.’ I thought Detroit was a bigger town than that!”
Another Okie, the mother of author Tony Hillerman, was not intimidated by the erosion of the Dust Bowl. She responded by coining a proverb to salve the wounds of her neighbors: “Blessed are those who expect little,” she intoned, “for they shall seldom be disappointed.”
In some cases extreme adversity evoked defiance and persuaded men and women that they were indomitable. This was the theme of John Steinbeck’s great book and film, The Grapes of Wrath.
All Together Now
Optimism had a brief surge in the 1930s with the advent of radio and talking pictures. Radio had a positive influence on national culture. It gave a president the power to tell the country what he was trying to accomplish. It also enabled families to sit in a circle to hear news reports—and be entertained. It was a welcome advance because it used so little electricity that it was essentially free in a society that was struggling to make ends meet.
Movies, likewise, had a positive impact on culture. Like radio, Hollywood’s stunning visuals did not make a dent in the depressed economy, but their appeal was educational and proffered solace. Going to a movie, too, was usually a family activity. Life values taught, say, by a Spencer Tracy, a Katherine Hepburn, or a Betty Davis resonated with meaning.
Whether one liked comedies (Chaplin, W.C. Fields, etc.), fantasies (The Wizard of Oz), nostalgia for “the good, old days” (Thorton Wilder’s Our Town), or social tragedies (The Grapes of Wrath), filmgoers went home feeling that tenacious individuals could make a difference. Besides, the admission fee was minimal. The first film that came to my hometown, in 1934, was Small Town Girl, with Janet Gaynor. A ticket cost just 25 cents.
Those technologies made families more cohesive and created a “we’re all in this together” spirit that encouraged positive thinking at a time when there was no national “safety net.” Governments only got involved, in those days, if there was an epidemic or a local disaster.
As a result, the burden of providing care for the sick and the dying fell on families and churches. If, for example, a breadwinner was ill or injured, older children hustled for part-time work to fill the gap. This kind of self-reliance infused teenagers with confidence and pride when war clouds appeared on the horizon.
A Nation Transformed
The stunning Pearl Harbor attack triggered a social and economic transformation never experienced before. In the days and weeks after war was declared, the worries of the Great Depression were replaced by millions asking, “What can I do to help?”
There was no turmoil, no panicky reaction to “terror.” President Roosevelt delivered a call to action that turned the economic landscape upside down. Our biggest industries converted factories into war plants that produced ships, tanks, flying machines, and other weapons of war.
A civilian workforce of millions of idle men and women was trained to staff the assembly lines. In the meantime, those who volunteered or were drafted—ultimately 12 million wore military uniforms—had to wait until bases were constructed where they could be trained to use the powerful, new machines of war.
The scope and scale of the overall effort is affirmed by the statistic that young women—including a symbolic aircraft worked named Rosie the Riveter—held 30 percent of the jobs at war factories and usually worked 50 hours each week. (Lee, your grandmother, was part of that workforce.) It forever changed the roll of American women, who could and forever would have more choices and equality.
As boot camps were completed, they became a military melting pot of young men from all walks of life. Their hometowns ranged from large cities like Brooklyn, Knoxville, or Milwaukee to small towns such as Walla Walla, Wash., Eagle Pass, Tex., and Whiskeytown, Calif. There was less friction than expected because the young men had a common purpose and their unspoken “all in it together” attitudes overcame cultural or religious differences.
These fledgling soldiers knew little about what the future had in store for them. Most of them would end up giving three, four, or five years of their lives to the country. Over 292,000 of them sacrificed life itself—and a large number would suffer grievous wounds that would impair the health and future enjoyment of life. But they knew the risks and bore them stoically.
America conducted its role in WWII in a way that expressed the values of the Frugal Generation. There had been war profiteering during World War I, and leaders decided at the outset of World War II that wages and prices would be controlled and war burdens would be shared equally. Millions of soldiers had their meager paychecks sent home so their parents could buy war bonds. War plant employees also invested in bonds and worked overtime for modest pay.
Despite the tragedies of the war, what etched the overall experience in memory was the spirit that guided individual decisions and behavior. It was manifest in a creed of sharing and comradeship captured in the evocative postwar film, The Best Years of Our Lives. Those were memorable years for all of us because we dedicated our lives to a common purpose that excluded thoughts of personal gain or personal safety.
That way of thinking was a powerful legacy of the Great Depression. Fortunately for the nation, it was so pervasive that it carried over into the postwar period and dominated our social, political, and economic life.
It was on display in the GI Bill of Rights, which gave returning soldiers a chance to get a good education. Its concept of sharing could be seen in the rapid growth of a middle class, and in the opportunities afforded veterans to establish small businesses.
In addition, a Depression-born abhorrence of debt resulted in the elimination of a vast war debt. My generation believed in balanced national budgets. As a consequence, leaders of both political parties voted for tax rates that, in the next 25 years, substantially wiped out the debt imposed by the war. To those who fought that war, it was unthinkable to put even part of the repayment burden on our children.
I served as a congressman for six years under President Eisenhower, and during the 1960s in the cabinets of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. A bond of mutual respect muted most partisan quarrels; when paramount Cold War Issues arose, every president garnered solid support.
House Speaker Sam Rayburn encapsulated the attitude of the returning soldiers with the statement, “We elect one president at a time, and whoever he happens to be, I want him to be a successful president.”
As postwar history evolved, that wisdom prevailed in Congress and the country. A succession of presidents of both political parties won unanimous support for the Marshal Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Eisenhower’s policies and face to face dialogue with Chairman Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union led to the avoidance of nuclear war.
I regard the period from 1945 to 1981 as a turbulent time, but also a time when mutual respect allowed policymaking to be governed by compromise and restraint.
Now, 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 rocket 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.”
Now Is the Time
It is now time to redirect that sweat, genius, and hope in a brand-new direction. After a decade of dillydallying, it is clear that the world is waiting for the United States to step forward, as it did so often in the postwar period, and organize a bold agenda of technological cooperation that reverses global warming. A comprehensive action plan is needed that will inspire your generation to develop inventions that provide universal benefits for humanity.
Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, presents a powerful diagnosis of the ever-growing impacts of global warming. But the remedies he prescribes are timid and inadequate. Moreover, the ticking of our planet’s clock is getting louder, so all-embracing action is needed.
Using new tools, scientists, engineers, and designers can develop super-efficient ways to use existing energy and invent permanent energy supplies to sustain life on earth. This can be accomplished if the world’s richest countries, with the U.S. in the vanguard, provide bold leadership.
The project I envision is not just a U.S. project. The space program is not an appropriate model; the organization must have an unprecedented scope and scale and have funding that will make it the most ambitious, visionary research and development project in human history.
Big Trouble, Big Opportunities
A time of big troubles can also be a time of big opportunities. Imagine that the 20 most prosperous nations—whose belching energy industries have put three-fourths of all manmade carbon emissions into the atmosphere—joined together and created a scientific consortium to both deal with the urgent problems posed by the end of cheap oil and the warming of the earth, and develop renewable sources of energy for the world at large.
If these 20 nations pooled their financial resources on an equitable basis, they could create an economic powerhouse that could change the course of history. I ask you to assume, too, that these countries agreed that each member nation would initially contribute to the annual budget in proportion to the heat-trapping carbon it generated in the previous year. Such a sharing would insure a fast beginning for the overall program.
What would it cost, you may wonder, if a future U.S. president decided to lead a worldwide campaign to tackle these issues? I think it is something comparable to the amount we are spending each week to “pacify” Iraq.
In the first phase, stabilizing the carbon in the atmosphere would have the highest priority, but research teams would also focus on energy efficiency and new technologies to harness various forms of renewable energy. With such a universal agenda, the whole world would watch expectantly as the consortium announced new concepts generated by its experts. Simultaneously, developing countries could, for example, encourage efforts to explore the potential of “wind farms” on the outer continental shelves of countries to augment supplies of electricity.
Such an exciting agenda would have many facets. Architects, builders, and designers are already telling us that the build environment is a sector where huge amounts of electricity can be saved. They are convinced that a design revolution involving reconfiguring and renovating residences, offices, and factories can drastically reduce heating and cooling costs. Indeed, they believe the build environment can be made “carbon neutral” and reduce future demand for electric power by perhaps as much as 40 percent.
It is easy to envision that war news would fade from the front pages if the U.S., the European Union, and China led efforts to create a history-making energy consortium. China is a crucial partner. It not only has the world’s fastest-growing economy, but for two decades its universities have been graduating more scientists and engineers than any other country. It is also the site of the most polluted cities in the world, and should welcome guidance from our country, which has long been the world’s pioneer in pollution control.
If such leadership emerges, I predict that human beings everywhere will view their lives through a new lens.
Why am I so optimistic about your future? Because the world has had its fill of fear and is hungry for hope. Because an educational revolution has been underway for the past two decades in several countries and has enhanced the capacity of nations to deal with unprecedented challenges. As documented by Thomas L. Friedman in his book, The World Is Flat, the doubling and prospective tripling of the number of highly trained, selfless scientists and engineers has produced a pool of brainpower and moral power that is ready to create the building blocks of a new and better world.
The challenges that your generation faces will test your ingenuity and generosity. Your eyes will scan horizons that human beings have never contemplated.
Whether you are a person of faith who believes the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, whether you are an individual who has had mystical experiences that link you to the network of eternity, or whether you are a fervent conservationist who wants to leave a legacy for your progeny, the earth needs your devotion and tender care.
Go well, do well, my children! Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our planet. Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!
 Stewart Udall, “A Letter to My Grandchildren” is reprinted in Santa Fe Conservation Trust. https://sfct.org/udall-a-letter-to-my-grandchildren/