Our country was founded on the principal that every man and woman to inhabit this Earth should be able to live a life of liberty — that is, having the ability to control your own actions. While there are certain actions that have always been prohibited (murder, theft, etc.), citizens of, and those within, the United States of America, especially compared to other countries, have been relatively able to do what they want.
The founding principle of liberty has led to some of the greatest inventions and innovations in world history. From the development of the first vehicles and airplanes to something as simple as the lighter, American history is rich with inventions that have reshaped the modern world and facilitated a much easier style of living compared to past societies. The free flow of ideas that has been allowed for centuries created a place where people could profit from their hard labor and critical thinking. Hours that were spent at the workbench trying to make life easier for others could finally translate into a substantial change in lifestyle as products entered a marketplace that was ready to consume.
And with more consumers with purchasing power, individuals began to make more and more money. Individual aspirations soon became profitable businesses that would eventually become corporations that employed hundreds of workers in order to forward their profits while providing other people with the opportunity to enjoy more of what the modern world had to offer. Many of the problems humanity used to face became distant memories as products sprouted up that negated many negative aspects about past lifestyles.
Liberty has allowed the United States to become a global superpower while enhancing the lives of billions.
But when we talk about the foundations of the United States and our country’s basic principles we cannot solely focus on liberty. The Constitution states, in its Preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.
It is clear that the founders of the Constitution were not thinking just about themselves and their immediate descendants when they decided upon the framework of the United States. Towards the end of the Preamble, just after the mentioning of the importance of liberty, the Constitution brings forth posterity.
Posterity, in its most general sense, means all future generations. From this definition it is evident to see that the Framers of the Constitution intended allpeople to reap the same benefits as those had in the past. And, while benefits throughout history are fluid (changing), there are certain things that should remain intact for all generations to experience; one of the most important being the environment and world around us.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson, one of the most important and historical figures in American history and political thought once stated in a letter to James Madison on September 6, 1789, “I set out on these grounds, which I suppose to be self-evident, that the Earth belongs in usufruct to the living generation.” With usufruct meaning the right of a person to use the property of another without damaging or altering it, it is already evident that the most important minds in American political thought had conservation and the preservation of our world on their agendas.
The best analogy that can be made when introducing the topic of conservation is made through a story that comes from Professor John Davidson’s (J.D.) Intergenerational Justice course at the University of Oregon.
The analogy starts with a playground that had just one swing. As there was only one swing for the many children to play on, the children continually bickered back-and-forth about who would be able to use the swing. Seeking resolution for the problem presented before them, a group of parents led by a concerned grandmother decided to come up with a sign-up list for the children to fill out and have allotted time on the swing.
One day a boy named Jimmy stepped up to the swing to have his turn on it. Soon becoming bored with regular swinging, Jimmy decided to try something new — he stood up on the swing and jumped up and down and had a fun time while making lots of noise. After some time of jumping up and down on the swing, the set began to shake and seemed as though it was deteriorating.
At this point in the story the grandmother, who would watch the children on the swing, told Jimmy to stop what he was doing because it was hurting the swing. Jimmy did not like grandmother’s wishes and told her that since it was his time on the swing, he could do whatever he wanted.
The grandma calmly responded to Jimmy by stating that the swing was never his nor anybody else’s; nobody had ever or will ever own the swing, they are all simply renting it. Since other people will play on the swing after Jimmy, the grandma stated, nobody can break it.
-You can read the full and unabridged version of Professor Davidson’s “Taking Turns” here
Taking lessons from this story and applying it to our own lives, we can see what the Framers of the Constitution meant when they mentioned our posterity; our world is one that should be left in no worse condition when we leave it in order to preserve it for our future generations.
At the rate humans currently consume, however, the world that we live in will be vastly different in terms of biological, chemical, atmospheric, and natural resource/raw material composition. And while everybody in the future may be able to obtain an iPad that will instantly zap your next meal to your front door, the way we are harming and deteriorating our ‘rented’ planet is not ethical nor something the Framers of our Constitution intended to happen.
We are not so special as to merit the extraction of valuable resources from this planet that will leave nothing for our future generations to enjoy; this is a relatively simple statement that is hard to take in during our time of egoism and mass consumption. Our culture is based on overindulgence and is something humanity is unfortunately becoming accustomed to, evidenced by the size of our properties, number of superfluous amenities, and rising obesity rates.
These disproportionate and concerning numbers arise from the fact that humans are opportunistic. And, after weathering plenty of harsh times throughout the history of the world, who can blame humanity for taking advantage of something when they can?
The time when we can take advantage of all these resources, however, may soon come to an end as our planet cannot sustain the activities we currently participate in on a day-to-day basis.
At the forefront of the topic of conservation is learning how to combat global warming and the release of toxins that break down our ozone layer. The years when we could debate whether or not global warming was an actuality are long gone; it is real and we are already seeing some of its harsh effects. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates and attributes that 150,000 people are killed around the world every year due to global warming.
With its effects already being measured in the present, continued emissions in the future will only further degrade life for all current inhabitants and those yet to come; inhabitants that we owe a habitable world to with all the provisions that have been provided to us. The most significant emission that we must learn to stop producing on such excessive levels is carbon dioxide. The emissions of this gas, while it can be and is naturally produced, are depleting our ozone layer and disturbing the climate of our planet.
Added to increased emissions of carbon dioxide alongside other harmful gases that heat up the atmosphere is the reduction of natural carbon dioxide “sinks” such as forestry and organisms that are able to consume this gas. The removal of these areas has allowed more and more carbon dioxide to reach our atmosphere, continuing the degradation of our planet.
For those who have questioned as to whether or not our emissions are out of the norm (and we all have), scientific data obtained from ice cores have shown that, for the past 500,000 years, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have remained between 180 and 300 parts per million. These levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen, since the Industrial Revolution, to at least 380 parts per million (see Climate Myths). Through the burning of fossil fuels for industry we have offset the natural balance that our planet was accustomed to, thus leading to harm being directly inflicted on our planet at atmosphere because of human activities.
This degradation, as mentioned before, is something we must hold ourselves accountable for and mitigate if we want to remain true to our Constitution and preserve for the generations that are to come after us.
In order to follow our Constitutional declaration of posterity and uphold general human ethics we must not only conserve our atmosphere and halt emissions of carbon dioxide throughout the world, we must also preserve those beings and materials that are currently on our planet.
Extinction is a natural consequence of our world that has gone on since the development of organisms. In fact, it has been postulated that 99.9% of all organisms to exist on this planet have gone extinct, thus making us and all current inhabitants a microbial percent of everything that has ever existed. And, while extinction is a natural process that works it way out, humans have once again found a way to accelerate a natural process to an extent in which we have become the ultimate deciders as to what goes extinct and what does not. Species such as the narwhal and the polar bear are already on the way out among the many that are currently on endangered species lists.
This is once again a disservice to those who came before us and to those who will come after us.
We are an intelligent species, likely the most intelligent to ever inhabit this planet. It should not be difficult for us to look around and recognize that we are not ethically sound in the way we consume products, release harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, and be a judge, jury and executioner to everything that comes our way.
The rate at which we are harming our planet goes against all moral principles and a Constitution that sets forth, in its Preamble, the importance of preserving the world we have around us for those to come after we pass. What we are currently doing to it, to the point where it cannot be restored, is against moral principles that were once common knowledge. Humanity has become distracted by flashing lights, whizzing sounds, and the manipulative marketing by businesses that has us craving all the wrong things.
And yet we cannot just be motivated by words and always talk about doing something; people need to realize that they need to get out there and start doing something about it. There is some semblance of balance between modern amenities that we have become infatuated with and conservation efforts that will benefit the future. That balance, however, has yet to really figure itself out.
In the meantime, educate yourself about what is going on, become involved in conservation efforts, and recognize that we are, just like the child on the swing, only temporarily renting space on this planet.