Looking Back at the Future of America, From 2005

Former Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm predicts the environmental, economic future of America.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
January/February 1984
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Ever since its inception, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has preached the importance of our preserving the unique planet on which we live and has stressed the inevitably dire results of failing to do so. This month, rather than going into the short-term economic consequences of our "over-consumption folly"; we're going to look at the topic from another perspective . . . namely, one that looks back on our current situation with the 20/20 hindsight of a person living in the future of America! 

The following excerpted address, given by Colorado's Governor Richard D. Lamm at the National Audubon convention last summer, pretends to actually have been delivered by "Secretary of the Interior" Lamm to the 100th anniversary celebration of that same conservation group in the year 2005. "Secretary" Lamm uses this future-view device in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but we think you'll find some real food for thought in the possibilities he presents. They serve as a further reminder of how important it is that all of us—individuals and nations alike—constantly cherish our connection with the earth and use resources that we can provide for ourselves on a sustainable basis. For this type of economic strength is truly the only secure one . . . for us and for our planet. 

I appreciate your invitation to address your convention and, as Secretary of the Interior, I am honored to be here in this momentous year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the Audubon Society.

The President has sent me here to defend the record of this administration. We do not appreciate the strident and coercive criticism we are receiving from conservation groups in general or from this group specifically. The President is doing the best she can, and has asked me to come and respond to your criticisms. I sincerely believe this President is a dedicated environmentalist, unlike some predecessors in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, she does not have the choices that were available in the late 20th century. We do not believe you understand all the pressure on this administration as we enter the 21st century. We do not have the options they had back in the 1970s, the 1980s, or even the 1990s. We live in a world that is crowded, hungry, and in conflict. These matters demand your total attention.

Let me start by saying that I really do sympathize with your viewpoints, but you must try to understand some of the problems we have running a country of 430 million people, and dealing with a world that has over 6 billion people.

You and others have objected to the President's statement that "birds don't vote," comparing it to former President Reagan's statement that "if you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all." That is a tragically mistaken analogy. The President was acknowledging a political reality, not expressing a philosophical preference. Truly, birds don't vote—and in an overcrowded, chaotic world, if you don't vote or have a sponsor who votes, your political agendas are meaningless . . . . politics today is the science of accommodating people, not peregrines; of humans, not hummingbirds . . . .

You all know of the many problems incurred in just trying to feed America, the breadbasket of the world. But perhaps you don't realize the current global farmland crisis. The vast areas of prime farmland we once knew are now history. Over 25 percent of the farmlands of 1980 are now devoid of the topsoil essential for high-yield production, and we have lost 5 billion acres to desertification. In addition, the inexpert use of irrigation in the eighties and nineties created salinity problems we still are unable to solve. Of course, most farmland loss was incurred by simply trying to house our exploding population. We as a planet wasted the onetime inheritance of a foot of the best topsoil that God ever gave anyone.

Since 1980 we have added a population equivalent to 20 Bangladeshes to an already hungry world. We add 2.5 people every second to a world already beyond its carrying capacity. Eighty-eight percent of this growth occurred in the Third World. When you sit down to dinner tonight, there will be 50,000 more people to feed than when you got up from breakfast. We cannot worry about quality of life when we are worrying about quantity of existence . . . .

Did [this administration] lose the People's Republic of Mexico? I resent the insinuation. I agree we have an Iran on our doorstep, but Mexico was lost long before we came into office. Did you really think a democracy that had corruption as a way of life, vast discrepancies between rich and poor, and a birthrate that doubled the population every 15 years would survive? It wasn't if the revolution would take place—it was when! [This administration] didn't loan them all that money. We learned in the International Banking Crisis of 1986 that 300 million people in underdeveloped countries will not get up and go to work each morning for the Chase Manhattan Bank. The President consistently tried to stop those programs when she was in the Senate. But we suffer the results . . . .

No one has forgotten the campaign of 1992—when the "Forests or Families" debate was carried on. But try to understand that my party neither had nor has anything against national forests—we merely believe that housing for people is more important. We've had to build as many housing units in the last 30 years as in the first 300 years of America's existence—and this required an incredible amount of wood. The President, however, is proposing an amendment to the recently passed Forest Reduction Act. This bill is patterned after the old Wilderness Act that was repealed in 1990—and will exempt 5,000 acres in every state from harvesting. This land will be administered by the Department of Leisure. Your resolution criticizes me for requiring nature enthusiasts to apply for permits to the remaining natural forest areas . . . . I'd like to hear some praise for the fact that we doubled the acres of urban parks in the nation by taking down the headstones to cemeteries. We are trying.

Next, let me discuss the most controversial legislation now pending before Congress—the compulsory birth control amendment to the National Health Service Act.

We can no longer tolerate the historic anachronism that the number of children a family has is strictly a private decision carrying no social consequences. The individual miracle of birth has become a collective tragedy . . . .

We think this law is clearly constitutional. If the law says you can have only one wife, it can say you can have only two children. This administration will give you the maximum amount of human freedom we can—but our hands are tied . . . . We must have more restriction . . . .

Speaking of rationing, another dark spot on the horizon is the Water Rationing Act. We were hoping to increase your allotment to two baths every week, but we have not had as much success as we had hoped with our recycling programs. Again, I resent being blamed for this conservation measure.

. . . . Since the Great World Drought of 1992, brought about by increasing global temperature, and since the substantial contamination of so much of the remaining water, our supply of fresh water has dropped dramatically below the 1990 level while demand has continued to increase. We do what we have to do . . . .

We do not have enough resources . . . for our own needs. Tin and lead are virtually gone from the earth, and at current rates of consumption—even under the National Rationing Act—we only have enough sulfur to last nine more years, copper to last 17 years, magnesium to last 44 years, and iron ore to last 70 years. We have picked the earth bare in order to support our bloated world population. The Ship of State is being dismantled to support the crew. Wilderness, birds, and single-family residences were fine in the 1960s when we had only 200 million people, but today they are a luxury we cannot afford . . . .

The laissez-faire advocates heard, but did not heed, prophets such as Albert Schweitzer, who said, "Man has long lost his ability to foresee and forestall; he will end by destroying the earth." Most unfortunately, the warnings of these people were dismissed as groundless doom and gloom . . . We didn't listen, and my hell—as Secretary of the Interior—is seeing the truth too late. Don't blame the President—blame our collective myopia.

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