Announcing his decision to join “Americans from all backgrounds” in fighting Donald Trump’s plan to ‘‘review’’ 27 national monuments, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico noted that: “For over a century, eight Republican and eight Democratic presidents have designated national monuments to preserve our nation’s treasured places…I don’t believe that the president has the authority to rescind or shrink national monument designations. But ‘details’ like the law haven’t stopped him before.”
These treasured places include California’s Giant Sequoia woods, the Upper Missouri Breaks and a number of incomparable sites in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah – notably, the Bears Ears Monument, which is the first to be co-managed by American Indians, who hold it sacred. By the department of the interior’s July deadline, more than 2.7 million comments in support of preserving the monuments’ current status had been logged.
That Udall should be one of those leading the fight in the Senate is, for those environmentalists with a sense of history, rather moving – for if there was ever a standout secretary of the interior in the US, it was Udall’s father, Stewart, who, as one of the few senior Kennedy appointees kept on by Lyndon Johnson, oversaw the creation of four national parks and six national monuments, as well as eight protected seashores and lake-shores and 56 wildlife refuges.
He was active in defending the rights of uranium miners and atomic plant workers, was an early proponent of solar power and, as Barack Obama remarked, “inspired countless Americans, who will continue his fight for clean air, clean water and to maintain our many natural treasures”.
Those Americans have a battle on their hands today: few politicians can even pretend to the moral stature of the man who, in his 1963 book, The Quiet Crisis, set out a challenge for all ages. “A land ethic for tomorrow should be as honest as Thoreau’s Walden,” he wrote. “It should stress the oneness of our resources and the live-and-help-live logic of the great chain of life. If, in our haste to ‘progress’, the economics of ecology are disregarded…the result will be an ugly America.”
Udall – an advocate of the conservationist Rachel Carson, who ensured that her views on the pesticide DDT were given a fair hearing – was as fine a historian and analyst as he was a politician, and The Quiet Crisis records the damage done to the American wilderness by a process he defined as “the myth of overabundance”. He was one of the first to see through the idea, which, by the 1960s and 1970s, had come to dominate the environmental debate: a “myth of scientific supremacy” allowing us to overexploit the earth now, under the assumption that, eventually, a technological ‘‘fix’’ will come along. (Udall called this “presenting the repair bill to the next generation”.)
It is said that we get the politicians we deserve. I find it hard to imagine any society that deserves a Donald Trump (or a secretary of the interior such as the cowboy-hatted incumbent Ryan Zinke, a land developers’ favourite who has shown his willingness to support the privatisation of federal land). But would it be sadly naive to wish for a statesperson of Stewart L Udall’s wisdom and vision in these dark times? I do hope not, because our need, and that of the land, has never been more urgent.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue