Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Interdependence Day

Image: John Fowler, CC 2.0

Image credit: John Fowler, CC 2.0

The Fourth of July tends to spark a number of alternative ideas of independence. One of the most prevalent, to pick a not so arbitrary example, is independence from foreign energy sources, meaning, of course, oil. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a perfectly good addition to the many reasons to support energy efficiency and renewables.

From an ecological point of view, however, it’s not independence but interdependence that we should be celebrating. The obvious type of interdependence that we are dependent on is that of ecological systems which include such necessities as the provision of oxygen by plants. Unlike the 18th century colonial dependence on the British Kingdom, our relationship – an interrelationship really — to the plant kingdom should be celebrated. It’s not a dependency we want to – or can — break.

Desirable interdependence has other forms as well. Our interdependence on each other via family and community is a basic characteristic of humanity. Very few people would either want to or be able to live in isolation from the give and take of others. Try to imagine it in terms of food or shelter or, moving upward in Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, self-esteem or love.

Our pinnacle of independence, the Declaration of Independence, is itself a declaration of interdependence. Joe Romm at Climate Progress addresses this when he rereads the text of the Declaration of Independence, adding specific emphasis at points, and concludes “By saying that it is a self-evident truth that all humans are created equal and that our inalienable rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our Founding Fathers were telling us that we are all in this together, that we are interdependent, that we have a moral duty to protect these inalienable rights for all humans.”

In my own post, “Stealing from the Future,” I wrote of a related point that Romm also explores: “intergenerational remote tyranny.” The concept, Romm and others explain, derives from a passage in a 1789 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison: “the earth belongs to the living……..no man may by natural right oblige the land he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime.”

Though I referenced it in my post, I’ve always thought that it was a bit of a logical leap to jump from that line to intergenerational responsibilities. The missing link, it turns out, is also in that letter, which begins: “The question [w]hether one generation of men has a right to bind another … is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also among the fundamental principles of every government…. I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’ ….”

It’s a fascinating letter, worth reading in full as I did this Fourth of July. At points, he seems to invalidate the inheritance of both debts and assets to succeeding generations (“The 2d. generation receives it clear of the debts and incumberances of the 1st.”) and seems to advocate that no law or constitution should run in perpetuity. Both points have fundamental implications regarding the rights of the currently living versus those not yet on board.

Romm goes on to focus on a specific word, “usufruct,” in the opening passage of the letter. The word is a combination of the roots for use and fruit, and refers to the usage of the fruits, as in the output or products, of something. The Constitutional Law Foundation (CLF), quoted by Romm, writes: “In Jefferson’s time, as now, “usufruct” referred to “the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself.” It was a term used to describe the rights and responsibilities of tenants, trustees, or other parties temporarily entrusted with the use of an asset — usually land.”

Read that way, the definition appears to refer to the fruits of land being a right of whoever owns or rents the land. But other definitions add a crucial meaning. Miriam Webster Online defines usufruct: “the legal right of using and enjoying the fruits or profits of something belonging to another” [emphasis added]. Other dictionaries have a similar definition.

This would, among other things, be in accordance with Jefferson’s argument that the Earth belongs to the living, not merely to those with artificial “legal rights” to land. That would upset the entire basis of property rights, something I pondered in my post, “Lines in the Earth.”

It ain’t easy finding an image to represent a word like usufruct. Credit for this find goes to a site called Eurozine in an article called “From abuse to usufruct.”

It ain’t easy finding an image to represent a word like usufruct. Credit for this find goes to a site called Eurozine in an article called “From abuse to usufruct.”

But there’s a still more interesting and environmentally relevant (as well as more practicable) aspect to look at. The CLF elaborates: “Jefferson’s philosophy that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living at least partially reiterates the biblical/Lockean paradigm of the earth as intergenerational commons, the fruits and benefits of which should be accessible to every member of every generation.” This is tricky stuff for one such as me, untrained in philosophy or law, to decipher. One reading of “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” I think, might be interpretable in the biblical sense of man’s dominion over the Earth.  Were it not for the second part of the sentence referring to “every generation,” that interpretation would be antithetical to any environmentalist as it could provide justification for simply living in the present, with no regard for anything but our own interests.

When we start thinking in terms of “intergenerational commons,” however, the picture changes entirely. It pulls together several of the themes that have been running through this blog. One is the concept, well employed by any ecological economist, of externalities. The other, of course, is the responsibility of any generation to its descendants.

But how would we truly represent the interests of those who do not yet exist? The fact that they’re not (yet) here is a pretty basic problem. Mark Bittman, in a New York Times column on climate disruption, presents a slightly science fictional concept and then suggests its potentially less hypothetical outcome:

Imagine a democracy across space, time and class, where legislative bodies represented not only those living in the world’s low-lying areas but their great-grandchildren — and ours. Or imagine that our elected representatives were proxies for those people. Imagine those representatives determining our current energy policy. Is there any doubt that things would change more rapidly?

It would be neat if a solution could be that simple. The future could send their votes back in time. Not likely unfortunately. The best we can hope for is legislative bodies that, along with their living constituents, are willing to act as those proxies, and our track record on politicians favoring the greater good over their campaign-financing interests is pretty dismal.

This brings to mind, though, another disenfranchised group – a group I discussed in yet another post: “Planets are People, My Friends.” In that post I conjectured how the interests of nature (or the Earth, if you prefer) could be represented in human decision making, how that oxygen-providing plant kingdom, for instance might have rights and votes. As with Bittman’s imagined intertemporal government, it would require proxy voting;  a proxy, though, merely delegates one “person’s” vote to another. It doesn’t necessarily mean voting against your own interests when they conflict with the person you’re representing. What we’re talking about here is putting yourself in someone or something else’s shoes. An ability that most of us are not very good at.

As befits a post on interdependence, there are a lot of intertwined tentacles here: property rights, voting rights, future generations, our relationship to nature. Just a few ethical and existential questions.

No pressure though. It’s the future, not the present, we’re talking about.


Stealing from the Future

I thought – or hoped — Paul Krugman’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Cheating Our Children,” was going to be about an important issue involving our individual and societal responsibilities to our descendants.  It was – just not the one I anticipated from the headline.

Perhaps I was practicing wishful thinking, but when I read “Yes, we are cheating our children, but the deficit has nothing to do with it,” I assumed he was going to talk about the fact that the decisions we make today are determining the environment (and hence the future) for upcoming generations, and that those generations have absolutely no voice in those decisions.

The points he makes deal with important, fundamental issues of what kind of future we lay the groundwork for. But he’s writing specifically about financial futures, not about what I consider the even larger ethical question, the answer to which will define our children’s lives in ways beyond just economic bottom lines.

I thought he was going to build upon one of the essences, one of the foundations, of the American Revolution. (No, not the misapplied right to bear arms.) I’m referring to a concept sometimes called remote tyranny. Back then it was about a distant government that was ruling the colonies, taxing them and making laws without allowing representation. (Yep, the origin of the real Tea Party.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote of the remote tyranny of the British and later wrote of intergenerational responsibilities: “the earth belongs to the living……..no man may by natural right oblige the land he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime. If he could, then the world would belong to the dead, and not to the living”

Thomas Jefferson wrote of the remote tyranny of the British and later wrote of intergenerational responsibilities: “the earth belongs to the living……..no man may by natural right oblige the land he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime. If he could, then the world would belong to the dead, and not to the living”

In more recent years the concept has been adapted to a different type of distant rule without representation: intergenerational remote tyranny. (The term appears to have been coined by William McDonough, co-author of the seminal ecodesign book Cradle to Cradle.) The potential – some say the probability – exists that a generation or two or three from now, “we” will be faced with a dramatically different world, one with flooded cities, harsher weather, scarce water and fossil fuels, resulting in massive relocations and food shortages, among other possibilities. I put “we” in quotes because it is humanity, but not exactly us since many of us will not be around, and that is the intergenerational aspect.

I once asked a new client, whose home I was renovating, about her degree of interest in incorporating environmental criteria in the design. She replied jokingly “well, we don’t have kids, so we don’t really care.” It was, though, an astute comment on our inherent selfishness, combined with the fact that humans are not wired to think about abstract futures. We respond to imminent tangible dangers, like fire or attack, but we’re not as good at dealing with more distant scenarios, particularly when we haven’t experienced them before or when the timeframe is longer.

Krugman’s column was dealing with the impacts of financial debt, questioning the relative importance of imposing a financial burden on our children versus the effects of disinvesting in programs that will benefit them. There is a direct parallel in the form of environmental debt. When we use up a resource, it means it will not be available for later generations. That, too, imposes a cost. The cost will vary depending on the resource. Some will be replaceable by other resources, meaning only that the cost will rise. Others, such as water, may not be replaceable at all, thus causing a wholly different kind of burden.

A financial analogy is useful. We can think of the planet’s stock of resources as bank accounts. There are accounts for each resource: potable water, oil, oxygen, topsoil, rare earth minerals, and so on. Left to themselves, the planet’s ecosystems keep these supplies in balance: purifying water, creating oil from decaying carbon, cycling oxygen and carbon dioxide, absorbing and reflecting critical amounts of solar radiation, etc. It’s an incredible system.

The problems come in when we exceed the regenerative capabilities of these systems, when we draw down these resources faster than the ecosystems can replenish them. It’s the same as withdrawing from a bank account faster than you make deposits. You can do it for a while because the account had a starting balance, but eventually you run out. In the case of fossil fuels, the earth has been slowly depositing into that account for millennia and created a huge stock. But then we started extracting and burning those fuels at a rate far, far faster than the earth’s ability to replenish them, leading us to “peak oil” and, eventually, a point where we’ve used up all that is available.

The rate at which individual resource stocks are being used up varies with the “opening balance” in the account, the speed of replenishment and the amount of withdrawals. Some resources can be thought of as having huge trust funds that are resupplied by high interest investments, and those are not likely to be a problem. Others, though, have less positive financial projections: their funds may run out in a matter of a few generations (or less). But our “nature” hinders our ability to plan for these possibilities.

  Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc.com/future/img/BBC-stockcheck-02.jpg

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc.com/future/img/BBC-stockcheck-02.jpg

Another part of this issue is that we tend to not think about, or include in our economics, the “free” things we get from nature.  In environmental economics, these are referred to as ecological services. What is the dollar value of nature’s purification of water or of a forest’s ability to absorb carbon from the air and release oxygen? Where do these appear in corporate bottom lines or in GDP? They don’t, of course. And that’s part of the rationale behind a carbon tax – it’s needed in order to correct for this omission and to make the market work more accurately.

(I discussed the idea of paying the Earth for ecological services in the post Planets, are People, My Friends.)

In terms of our topic here, Cheating Our Children, this glaring omission in our economic accounting serves to further worsen the degree of debt we are passing down. It’s the equivalent of double bookkeeping: one set that looks (relatively) rosy for us and another for our children.

Krugman’s column ends with “[O]ur sin involves investing too little, not borrowing too much — and the deficit scolds, for all their claims to have our children’s interests at heart, are actually the bad guys in this story.” In our ecological version, we ARE borrowing too much, as well as investing too little. And the bad guys? Well, to a degree it’s all of us in the consumer world, but in the analogy to the supposed debt crisis, it would particularly be the parties who profit from the double bookkeeping and the climate change deniers, many of whom have direct ties to the former.

The combination of double bookkeeping and short-term thinking are the real cheats. Krugman is right in asking why we are “shortchanging the future so dramatically and inexcusably.” His economic answers, though, only address our children’s finances without assuring there will be a livable world to spend it in. EcoOptimism says we can – and have to – do both.



Lines in the Earth

(In a previous post, I mused about the idea of assigning the rights to the Earth’s resources to the Earth itself, similarly to the way rights are assigned to people and to corporations. The post here is more or less the opposite. It’s about the artificiality of our current concept of property rights: dividing up and assigning the rights to pieces of the Earth, not to the Earth but to people and other legal entities.)

Several of my teenage summers were spent working for local surveyors. In many ways, it was an ideal summer job (if you ignored the poison ivy factor). We started work early and got off early, in time for a swim or a bike ride. If it was a nice day, we were “in the field” running surveys and, if it rained, I sat at a drafting table and manually plotted the numbers from the surveyor’s notebook, in essence recreating the land I’d just walked from the mathematical version of it.

This was in the early seventies, in or after the tail end of the baby boom, but there was still plenty of land subdivision going on in my increasingly suburban county.  A few orchards remained, though most now bore cul-de-sacs rather than apples.

On several occasions we were surveying in dense wetlands, perhaps the closest thing the northeast has to a rainforest. A clear sightline had to be created between the guy with the theodolite on a tripod (the “instrument man”) and each point to be measured. Being the new guy, I was usually the “rodman” – the one who walked out to each of those points and gingerly held a rod balanced upright between my fingers so that it was exactly vertical.

Those wetland areas were certainly not my favorite locations during the hot and sticky NY summers. (The best places, it turned out, were inside large sewer pipes that were kept cool by the ground above them. It took more than a little convincing before I acknowledged the fact that the, um, fluid didn’t smell when it was moving and that, in fact, the pipes were cool and shady places to eat lunch.)

Forested wetland image, source US Fish & Wildlife Service

Forested wetland image, source US Fish & Wildlife Service









Clearing the sightlines involved using a tool I never thought had a place in suburbia: a machete. We’d hack away at tall weeds and reeds, hoping nothing had a stem or trunk too thick to survive the machete, advancing in the straightest line we could from the seemingly arbitrary point where the tripod had been set. The instrument man would tell us if we were “off course.” It could often take half an hour of hacking to get to each point.

I recalled this experience recently while reading a chapter in The Agile City in which the author discusses the evolution of property rights here and abroad. On more than one occasion, I had thought about the “nature” of property rights and how, given a different cultural view, the idea of individuals possessing parts of the Earth could be seen as strange and unnatural.  Why should our freedom to walk – to be — anywhere be curtailed by the artificial concept of property rights.

The manifestation of property rights seems, in retrospect, to be particularly artificial in those wetlands where we were carving straight lines – human geometry — into the landscape. Straight lines, I’ve often heard, do not exist in nature; they are a creation of our minds, necessitated by our need to, among other things, define borders. Look, for instance, at the border dividing Canada from the United States. Parts of it are “natural,” defined by the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes (what happens if a river border meanders over time?), but then there’s a huge distance through most of the western half of the continent demarked by nothing visible: just the 49th Parallel, an artificial construct derived from geometry that didn’t even exist when the Earth was still thought to be flat.

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid a relentless grid over the varied topography of Manhattan. Image source: places.designobserver.com

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid a relentless grid over the varied topography of Manhattan. Image source: places.designobserver.com






The property lines we were “staking” in those wetlands, or through the soon to be ex-farms and orchards, were just as artificial. This became especially clear to me when one day we were sent out to confirm the locations of the corners of a new house’s foundation. The numbers weren’t making any sense until we realized that the foundation had been poured in error on the adjacent property. So artificial were the divisions overlaid on the terrain that you couldn’t tell one piece of property from another. (I never did find out how the problem was legally resolved.)

In a recent online thread, an architect inquired how to find a property corner stake that had disappeared underground. Some of the replies were straightforward: presuming the stake to be metal, borrow a metal detector. (At significant survey points, a concrete post with an indent on top is often placed to mark the precise survey point. I always thought it interesting that those markers were called “monuments.” Though they bore no human figure in the sense that a conventional monument might, they surely were monuments to man’s claim to nature.)

 A survey monument. Image source: landsurveyorsunited.com

A survey monument. Image source: landsurveyorsunited.com









If the stake was wood, though, the answer as much more complicated. First, of course, there’s no such thing as a “wood detector.” Moreover, if the stake was in the soil and had been there for a while, it might have decomposed. What could be more appropriate? Nature devouring – digesting – man’s attempt to define and claim it.

In The Agile City, James Russell notes that during the constitutional convention, there was a debate between Jefferson and Franklin as to whether the Constitution should guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or “life, liberty and property.” In spite of happiness (and Franklin) winning out, property rights in this country have an extraordinary place in law and in our ethos. For some, property equates to happiness, especially in a material society. But perhaps we should refocus on the decision to emphasize happiness versus property. It stands to reason that we would be happier.