The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment in an Age of Terrorby David W. Orr
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"Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels" -SAMUEL JOHNSON, 1775 "a tightly reasoned, excellently written book that should be lethally effective in helping readers who aren't experts understand the contours of the crisis." -TOLEDO BLADE Updated and revised following the 2004 elections, The Last Refuge describes the current state of American politics against the backdrop of mounting ecological and social problems, the corrosive influence of money, the corruption of language, and the misuse of terrorism as a political issue. Setting out an agenda that transcends conventional ideological labels, David Orr contends that partisan wrangling is only a symptom of a deeper dysfunction: The whole political machinery that connects Americans' fundamentally honorable ideals with public policy is broken. The book offers a withering critique of the failings of the Bush administration, supplemented by new essays that look at the national-level dominance of the Republican Party and examine the fallacy that the evangelical right represents a Christian majority. After analyzing the challenges of reforming the current system, Orr offers an empowering vision of a second American Revolution that peaceably achieves sustainability and charts a hopeful course for forward-looking citizens.
"A tightly reasoned, excellently written book that should be lethally effective in helping readers who aren't experts understand the contours of the crisis."
"David Orr asks us to imagine a world where our politicians are informed, one where we actually care about the kind of earth our children will inherit. He's got to be nuts. Or, just maybe, he's on to something big."
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The Last Refuge
Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment in an Age of Terror
By David W. Orr
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2004 David W. Orr
All rights reserved.
The Education of Power
The person on the other end of the line was a well-known southern Republican. He was calling to ask me to join a group aiming to improve the environmental policies of the White House. The leaders of the group had approached Karl Rove asking for a meeting with senior administration officials to that end. Somewhat taken aback, I asked "why me?" "David," he responded, "you are known as a sane environmentalist." I'd been called worse, but offhand could not say when. Without knowing what I was getting in to, I joined.
That evening I called my ninety-four-year-old mother in Charlotte, North Carolina, a lifelong conservative Republican prone to vote for Jesse Helms (once a matter of family concern), to tell her I'd been invited to meet with senior administration officials. I had intended to assure her that my life was not totally wasted as an unrepentant environmentalist. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. "Well, that's mighty nice," she said in the sweetest southern drawl ever, "but why did they ask you?" "Mom," I said, "they think I'm a sane environmentalist." Another long pause, followed by, "Well, honey, they just don't know yuh like I know yuh."
The meeting, scheduled for September 2001, was interrupted by the events of 9/11. It took place a month later on October 11. For the nearly three months preceding the meeting, fifteen of us had drafted a forty-two-page paper to be given to White House officials that were to include, in addition to Karl Rove, the vice president, the secretary of the Department of the Interior, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, all of whom were to attend the meeting. Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and I were assigned to write the document, which subsequently went through eleven drafts (the final draft is printed in this book's appendix).
Discussions among the group by conference call were frank and constructive. Should we be candid or diplomatic? Opinions varied, but in the end we were polite, nonconfrontational, and informational. In the words of the title we chose, we aimed to find "common ground." Thinking the mission hopeless or that a hostile administration would use us to greenwash generally awful policies, several members dropped out along the way. The rest of us proceeded in good faith fully aware of that possibility.
As a teacher, I regarded the effort as a form of remedial education.
After 9/11, the context changed dramatically. In light of that event we rewrote much of the paper in order to highlight connections between real security, prosperity, climate stability, environmental protection, and fairness. These, we argued, were not separate issues, but different facets of one big issue: the conduct of the public business. Real security, in other words, requires a systems approach to national policy across a range of issues. Relative to increasing energy efficiency and using wind or solar, for example, the administration's plan to build more nuclear power plants would only create more targets for terrorists and drain the economy of investment capital. In short, we aimed to establish the relationship between farsighted national policy and a practical environmental movement that included prominent corporations. We believed that such an approach would be in the national interest and possibly set U.S. politics on a new course.
Perhaps naively, all of us regarded the effort as a public duty. What we had to say was contrary to the emerging policies of the administration, but not to logic, fact, or even to the administration's political advantage. Indeed, America's great leaders have always emerged from epoch-defining events, as the terrorist attacks on 9/11 seemed so clearly to be. And when they rose to meet the challenges of their time, great presidents such as Lincoln and Roosevelt called the American people to higher levels of patriotism, sacrifice, and nobility, not to fear and pettiness. In doing so they placed the trials and tribulations of war into larger contexts that redefined us as a free and democratic people in changing circumstances. Similarly, we proposed that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 be seen against the realities of the twenty-first century. The paper, accordingly, began with words from a Central Intelligence Agency report:
It is time to understand "the environment" for what it is: the national-security issue of the early 21st century. The political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution, and possibly rising sea levels in critical, overcrowded regions ... will prompt mass migrations and, in turn, incite group conflicts that will be the core foreign-policy challenge from which most others will ultimately emanate, arousing the public and uniting assorted interests left over from the Cold War.
These environmental concerns are related to the larger human agenda. For, "Whatever else divides humankind, we share a common dependence on the waters, air, soils, and life systems of the Earth. These are given to us as a sacred trust to be passed on to all those who will follow."
We intended to say nothing partisan or ideological. Rather, we appealed to the need to heal divisions of politics, region, class, and generation, saying that the administration had a great opportunity to "build sustainable prosperity in ways that increase our security, remain true to our national heritage, and serve the best traditions of both political parties [and] a rare opportunity in which the right things to do from a long-term perspective, properly done, can also increase near-term advantages."
To resolve problems of environment, economy, and equity we proposed five principles deliberately stated in the accommodating language of business:
1. Well-run businesses seek to build capital. By the same logic building the natural capital of soils, forests, and ecosystem services that sustain life, health, and prosperity is essential to our well-being.
2. Like a well-run business, the economy should operate on income not principal; i.e. we would do well to speed the transition to the next economy based on resource efficiency and renewable energy.
3. Recent advances in materials science, advanced technology, and systems design, many of which mimic natural processes, should be at the forefront of national innovation.
4. Accepted principles of accounting include the gains and losses of capital. By a similar logic we should account fully for the loss or increase in natural capital in our estimates of national wealth. Using GDP as a measure to guide our affairs is as unreliable as asking a business to keep its accounts by adding expenses to income, instead of subtracting them.
5. Solutions lie in understanding the causes that link security, economics, ethics, health, and ecology. Accordingly, seek solutions that solve more than one problem by working across conventional boundaries.
Our specific recommendations aimed to encourage administration support for policies that increased the efficiency with which we use energy, water, and materials, reduce pollution, and protect land, soils, forests, and biotic capital while building "security by design." We proposed that the "administration make a resolute announcement that the United States will end its dependence on insecure sources of foreign oil, increase energy efficiency, and harness renewable energy sources."
The benefits? By doing so we could remove ourselves from the politics of an unstable region, lower our balance of payments deficit, reduce air pollution, support domestic industries, create many new jobs, establish the foundations for a solar-hydrogen economy, lower the emission of greenhouse gases, and reduce our vulnerability to terrorists and technological failures.
The document concluded by placing environment, energy, and security issues within a larger historical framework:
Three times in American history a generation of patriots rose to do its duty with greatness. The generation of the American Revolution threw off tyranny and created a nation based on the belief that all humans are created equal. The generation of the U.S. Civil War, rose to its Great Work by giving those words meaning by ending slavery. The generation now passing faced down the perils of Fascism and Communism while building the basis for American prosperity. The challenges of our time are at least as daunting as any before and will demand no less courage, vision, spiritual depth, and statesmanship. We, like those before us, will be judged not by short-term political success, but by whether we rise to do our Great Work. The challenges of our time are like no other. They are both global and local. They include both eliminating terrorism and eliminating pollution described in "parts per billion" and measured over decades or centuries. They are complex, and lie at the intersection of human behavior and natural systems. Hardest of all, they are mostly caused by past successes, not failures. To rise to our challenges and do our work greatly will require extraordinary clarity of mind and the courage to do what is right in the long term.
It will require the creativity to adapt institutions and habits born in an agrarian world to a largely urban world of six, soon to be eight billion people and more. Above all, it will require a change in how we see ourselves relative to other life forms and to future generations. These are the standards by which our great grandchildren will judge us. No generation has ever had greater work to do, and none had more reason to rise to greatness.
On October 11 four of us, representing the larger group, went to the White House: Ray Anderson, president and founder of Interface Inc.; Bo Callaway, former secretary of the army under the first President Bush; Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute; and me. Before leaving our hotel we reviewed our "game plan," rather like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza reviewing the state of their equipment prior to charging a windmill. Bo was our chief spokesperson, but we were all to chime in as appropriate; in other words we would play it by ear.
The day was a beautiful, clear fall day in Washington, but the air of siege was evident. The previous day witnessed the first bioterrorism alert and the tension throughout the city was high. We walked around concrete barricades, past numerous police, and through security clearance into the executive office building. By coincidence, Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition and sometime Enron consultant, walked toward us with the full confidence of a man who knows his way around the place. He and Bo greeted each other warmly and we went on to the appointed room, a large ornate space with a high ceiling and a long conference table.
When the meeting commenced it did so without the principals from the administration. Mr. Rove was detained but was said to be on his way. The vice president, the secretary of the interior, and the head of the EPA were meeting with the president. The meeting had a large number of young White House staffers, but the chief spokesperson was a lawyer, James Connaughton, now working as the head of the president's Council on Environmental Quality, which has become a vestigial enterprise. He was energetic, confident, and unmovable.
The conversation was lengthy, polite, and oblique to the real issues. We were supplicants asking for reasonableness from people working for unreasonable masters. Bo explained that our enterprise arose out of concern among moderate Republicans about the administration's hostility to the environment. To establish the possibility that we were not extremists, he cited the Republican Party tradition from Teddy Roosevelt through Richard Nixon to George H. W. Bush, a descending line. Eyes began to glaze. At some point the document we had laboriously drafted was pushed across the table and pointedly ignored. (We had decided not to send copies prior to the meeting on the assumption that doing so would have provided a reason to cancel the meeting before we had had a hearing.)
Our title, Common Ground/Common Future, must have appeared presumptive, perhaps even humorous, to the politely gathered, none of whom seemed aware that the administration needed to look for common ground. Nor did they seem to be thinking about any future, common or otherwise, beyond the next election.
Ray, a successful, conscientious, and imaginative capitalist, pointed out that Interface Inc., a leading manufacturer of carpet tile, was surviving in an economic downturn because of major investments the company made in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Still, not so much as a twitch of interest or even mild curiosity. Poker faces all around. Hunter attempted to place environmental and energy issues on a firm policy ground by citing the CIA study mentioned above to the effect that the environment would be the defining issue of the twenty-first century. That, too, aroused no particular response or surprise. We talked at length about the ways in which issues are linked and that effective solutions required understanding those linkages.
We talked about the convergence of ethics and self-interest, a rare thing in public policy. They agreed to take the results of the conversation and copies of Common Ground/Common Future to their superiors who were unable to attend. There was some talk about other meetings, which subsequently did not happen. After nearly two hours we went our way and they theirs.
It was late afternoon when we walked out into the sunshine. Personally, I felt relieved. Nothing said during the meeting suggested that we'd gained any ground or sparked any real interest among the White House staff present. The body language, comments, and tone were noncommittal, suggesting politeness but not interest or curiosity.
There was none. The morning after the meeting I had breakfast with a veteran White House lawyer who had worked for Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and now the current incumbent. She described this as the most closed administration anyone could recall, and that is saying a great deal. These were good old boys, mostly from Texas or at least with oil and coal connections, fortified by a zealous version of Christianity and hyped-up nationalism magnified by the exigencies of terrorism. And they smelled opportunity.
If our document was read, we were never told. There were to be other meetings, but they were never scheduled. The most tangible result was a Christmas card I received more than a year later from George and Laura Bush in December of 2002 with the inscription, "For the Lord is Good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations," followed by, "May love and peace fill your heart and home during this holiday season and throughout the new year. 2002." The president's signature was illegible, but this was a busy time for him, given Christmas and planning for the war against Iraq and all. The First Lady's signature was entirely legible, befitting a good librarian.
Nearly a year an a half later I was asked to participate in another meeting with White House staff to draft some ill-defined environmental agenda. I thought it over for a day or two but declined in an e-mail, saying,
I've spent the last several days mulling over our efforts and particularly my role in this endeavor. First, I greatly appreciate your role in trying to engage the White House in a positive dialogue to improve the national environmental and energy policies. But I write to say that I do not wish to work on insignificant changes at the margins of the problem. The administration continues to advance a badly flawed energy policy that seems frankly aimed to reward the oil, gas, and coal industries. If ever there was a time to reconsider that policy, it is now in the midst of a national emergency caused largely by our persistent refusal to come to grips with our dependence on fossil fuels. The facts have been known for a long time, and are adequately summarized in the document that we presented on October 11, 2001. Improving energy efficiency and phasing in renewables is cheaper by orders of magnitude than increasing supply and offers collateral benefits for the environment and the economy while protecting the interests of our grandchildren. None of this is new information. The administration is using the events of September 11th, cynically I think, to push through an energy bill that should never have seen the light of day. If I am wrong and they are ready to acknowledge the need for our help and perspective I will gladly admit my error and do all that I can to help them change course. But lacking such evidence I believe that my time would be better spent on other things.
Sincerely, David W. Orr
Our group hoped to find an opening to convey the news that this is one world, things are connected often in ironic ways, what goes around comes around, violence in all of its forms is self-defeating, and that the long term isn't all that far off. The news was delivered, but no one was home.
Excerpted from The Last Refuge by David W. Orr. Copyright © 2004 David W. Orr. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
DAVID W. ORR is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. The recipient of the Bioneers Award and the Lyndhurst Prize, he has written three previous books (including Earth in Mind, Island Press 1994) and scores of articles on subjects ranging from education to agriculture.
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