Do We Still Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident?

pioneers james fennimore cooper image
"The Pioneers," by James Fenimore Cooper, Pub.1823. Image credit:Wikipedia.

By: Alan Fortescue (NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Earthwatch.)

Flying to Switzerland on election night last November, I remember the cheers that erupted halfway across the Atlantic when the captain announced that Obama had won the presidency. People of all ages and nationalities clapped, whooped and hollered with joy. Everywhere people appeared to be breathing again, as if we had been liberated from a war. It was a happy moment.During and after (even before!) Obama's inauguration speech, this sense of joy seemed to hit a new level. The lightness in people's steps suggested we could even enter a time of renewal that fosters life values based on quality and content of character, rather than exchange and the economics of quantity. There is a palpable sense of hope that all may not be lost in the world or in our country. After years of feeling dis-empowered, the recent change feels like a return to the fire within that drives our better selves.

I am concerned, however, this moment in time become more than just a euphoric blip. I say this because I am not sure the next step beyond the excitement is entirely clear. While everywhere you hear people saying how excited they are by the energy and hope Obama embodies, you also hear people say things like "Wow, he really has his work cut out for him," or "I hope we don't hold him too high up, because he is likely to fall," of "I wonder how long good will honeymoon with the American people will last?"

I am alarmed by this kind of talk, as well intentioned as it all may be. People seem to be missing the point that in truth the work is not Obama's but our own. More than anything Obama might or might not do, as long as we externalize our personal agency or ability to take action we as a nation have already lost this moment of change. This feels like an odd thing to be writing given the amazing history of our country's evolution. The turmoil of the American past is replete with examples of individuals and communities facing up to harsh realities and making their own decisions and taking action. It's hard to imagine pioneer communities facing a Montana winter waiting around in speculation for how someone else would solve their problems. "Yes we can" is not an attitude created by by-standers.

Over recent years, perhaps with the advent of so much busy work and distraction in the form of media and entertainment, things seem to have shifted and we have, in general, become a passive people who more often bemoan how others solve our problems than take the responsibility for action ourselves. How else could we explain the wholesale destruction of our planet, the recent financial mess-to name but two events we have let happen under our watch? How else might we explain that people appear to be more concerned with losing television coverage for a few days (when the national broadcast system converts to digital) than they are with the worsening impacts of climate change?

Electing Barack Obama was an excellent first action in a new direction, but a cultural rekindling still needs to happen. Despite the promise new leadership brings, worrying about how long Obama's honeymoon will last is a reminder that many of us hope that someone else might magically take care of our problems. I would suggest that this dis-empowerment is not an accident but that is fodder for a different blog, for now I wonder, are the days of James Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye gone, replaced by days of Sponge Bob? "Yes we can" also means we do not praise being couch potatoes, but praise curiosity, learning and deep connection between people.

While Obama is surely an agent for the common good, and someone whom I believe will tirelessly fight to create a healthier more sustainable world, I think we need to resist the notion of thinking its Obama against the world on our behalf and realize it is OUR fight. Change depends squarely on my efforts, on your efforts, on our friends and families and communities' efforts. This is not the time to breathe deeply and go back about our lives as they were before the election, but a time to join the fray of the local and national conflicts that are irrevocably defining the quality of our lives and our children's lives.

With this in mind, I ask the following question that I also hope you are asking yourself: What will I do?

Here is what I am going to do. In the same spirit that we as a nation found our way to abolish slavery, or to fundamentally change our social system to allow women to vote, it is time we better protected our environment from harm under the law. I am thus going to start the debate about, and begin pushing for, a constitutional amendment that protects from harm both humans and the natural support systems that make our every day possible. Despite what many in business or government might want you to know, there is nothing more central or necessary to our right to life, liberty and the purest of happiness than a healthy environment-which provides the very things without which we would die in very short order (Just how long would your pursuit of happiness last without air to breath or water to drink?). This will take much work, but it's my goal for this new era. What is yours?

This is our honeymoon, and we make it last as long as we act as our own Declaration of Independence bids us do:

"Governments are instituted among Men (and Women), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and

In 1776 we used these words to divorce ourselves from the British Empire. Today we need to use them again to divorce ourselves from a way of being that will not sustain us or our children into the future.

Footnote by TreeHugger: an explanation of the image chosen for this post follows; from Wikipedia,

The Pioneers: The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale is a historical novel, the first published of the Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels by American writer James Fenimore Cooper...The story takes place on the rapidly advancing frontier of New York State and features a middle-aged Leatherstocking (Natty Bumppo), Judge Marmaduke Temple of Templeton, whose life parallels that of the author's father Judge William Cooper, and Elizabeth Temple (the author's sister Susan Cooper), of Cooperstown. The story begins with an argument between the Judge and the Leatherstocking over who killed a buck, and as Cooper reviews many of the changes to New York's Lake Otsego, questions of environmental stewardship, conservation, and use prevail. The plot develops as the Leatherstocking and Chingachgook begin to compete with the Temples for the loyalties of a mysterious young visitor, "Oliver Edwards," the "young hunter," who eventually marries Elizabeth. Chingachgook dies, exemplifying the vexed figure of the "dying Indian," and Natty vanishes into the sunset. For all its strange twists and turns, 'The Pioneers' may be considered one of the first ecological novels in the United States.

Do We Still Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident?
By: Alan Fortescue (NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Earthwatch.)