Not Advice, but a Warning

Sharon January 19th, 2009

Dear Mr. President-Elect (you can take that last modifier off in 24 hours),

I’m not writing this to give you advice - I think you could heat the White House for the next decade on the printouts of advice that have poured in from the famous, the not famous, the right, the wrong, the righteous and the self-righteous.  Some of it is very good - I would commend to you the material on The Oil Drum, for example, which begins from a set of assumptions both radical and alien to most of the people you have hired.  But I will not, from my own perspective, offer anything that resembles advice.

Instead, I would write to warn you about two dangers you face - one a danger to the moral and perhaps practical legitimacy of your presidency, and the second, a danger to the people you are supposed to protect.  To get there, I think we have to go back to Lincoln again.  It is a parallel you like, and one that I can understand the appeal of - in fact, I’ve written a piece that ties you to Lincoln myself here: But today’s focus is on a less heartening connection to the past.

Lincoln’s primary justification for waging the American Civil War, which laid waste to a large chunk of the nation and killed 620,000 Americans and an uncertain (but large) number of civilian casualties, was to preserve the Union.  The Union had fragmented over slavery, particularly slavery in the Western Territories, as you know, and for more than half a century, slavery had poisoned American discourse and American nationhood.  In the end, the failure of prior generations to resolve the conflict peacefully left us in a situation that nothing but war could resolve. 

But I ask you to make a thought experiment here.  Imagine that the US had fragmented over some issue other than slavery - if, for example, for economic or political reasons, the South had seceeded for primarily economic reasons that did not involve the enslavement of human beings?  What if we had waged the Civil War in the same way in every single particular, but over a growing Southern nationalism based primarily in a sense that the US was not one country and that the south would be better off alone?  Yes, I realize that this comes perilously close to justifying the account of the Civil War popular among some apologists who wish to erase slavery from the historical narrative and make the South’s secession primarily about some nobler agenda of state’s rights, but I think you can acquit me of that speciousness.

Do you see my point?  It is quite possible that Lincoln might have put down the South, and reunited the nation, but how would we view him, and his willingness to sacrifice nearly a million lives now? Were that the case, the war would have been the act of Northern Tyranny that some still believe it to be.  I think there is little doubt that Lincoln might have stood as our most Machiavellian president after that, but I doubt he would have been one of our greatest.

The irony, of course, is that ending slavery was not Lincoln’s primary reasoning - that is, Lincoln and his party were most concerned about the preservation of the Union and preventing the expansion of slavery into the West.  The Emancipation Proclamation was an afterthought, a political response that evolved out of perceived necessity, not out of Lincoln’s passionate desire for the freedom of the slaves.  He would have much preferred a gradual decline and compensation for southern slave owners, ending slavery in a few generations by attrition.  That is, the difference between Lincoln the tyrant and Lincoln the hero was not that his cause was just, but that his cause became just.  High as the cost was, it could be paid to end the great schism of slavery, to root out the poison that undermined American concepts of freedom.  But it could not be justly paid simply to keep others from choosing another way.

And the fact that some moral justification that transcended deep personal anger (and that personal anger is still in many ways real) existed, is what prevented America from becoming a fundamentally divided nation, an Ireland or Israel/Palestine.  That is, breaking the bounds of slavery freed everyone in a sense - southern farmers who could not compete economically with their neighbors without owning slaves, and those who were alive to the deep contradictions, as Sojurner Truth put it, “the little weasel” in the US Constitution were free to see themselves as part of a nation that believed in Freedom, if nothing else.  Lincoln himself came to realize this, when he said to Congress,

In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”

I realize this is a rather historical discussion, so I’ll get back to the present.  The point of my comments is this - Lincoln very nearly paid a price that was too high for what he bought - when he began his exercise of trying to restore the Union, it was still possible that he might have bought us a Union that did not fully resolve the question of slavery.  Lincoln very nearly did become the tyrant some few still believe him to be.

I suspect you’ve already guessed the parallel I’m going to draw, but I’ll make it explicit - you stand in Lincoln’s shoes today, having embarked on a project whose price is far too high, and whose moral legitimacy is questionable at best.  You’ve decided your job is to save the economy, and to restore the American people to prosperity.  Everyone expects it of you - your own party has made this the central agenda, as the Republicans did for Lincoln.  But that way lies tyranny, and moral failure.  To do so represents the tyranny of the present over their posterity - the extraction of resources that will be urgently needed by your daughters and my sons and their children.  The direction you’ve taken, which involves salvaging the failed industrial and financial projects of the rich, rather than serving the poorest represents tyranny as well - wealth extracted from ordinary working people will now feed the rich, while California cuts off its disability payments to the poor, the lame, the blind.

It isn’t merely tyranny, though, although that would be bad enough.  It is also impossible to accomplish - you will not restore us to what we were at any time in the recent present, because even then, we were not as we seemed - that is, virtually all the accumulated wealth of the last decade and more that actually percolated down to ordinary people was illusory, debt-based, and based on false assumptions.  And all the wealth of the last few decades has been based on a rapidly declining natural resource base that is now not merely depleted, but emptying.  You will not restore us to past versions of our prosperity, nor can you carry the moral water of the preservation of the future on the backs of a false and tyrannical promise.

So my first warning is this - you must find another way, if you wish to walk anything like Lincoln’s path.  I know this will be difficult - and more difficult because most of those surrounding you most closely are not equipped to tell the truth, simply because they cannot see it.  Their worldviews are built around the enslavement of future generations for the preservation of the present.  They decline to see the cost of that enslavement - you cannot afford not to see it.  Because underneath your present justification, the one that leads to tyranny, is another moral ground - firmer and able to hold your weight and ours.  It is the hope that we could serve the future, and create a framework where “our posterity” is not used to support the present, but where the present serves the future.  I find it hopeful that the word “sacrifice” has already passed your lips - were I giving advice I’d suggest it keep coming out, that people be brought to understand that what they are buying is not a temporary ease, although you will use your resources to the utmost to soften the worst blows on those who cannot care for thsmelves - but that they are buying with their efforts real Hope, the kind that lasts past the end of the speech or the party.

In that regard, I’d remind you of another President, one with many flaws and imperfections, but a gift for a turn of phrase as well. John Adams said, “I am a soldier so that my son can be a farmer and his son be a poet.”  That is the natural order of things - that we who are grown and can bear the weight of the world on our shoulders sacrifice and prepare to give our children better than we had.  In the coming years, as food and energy become more acute issues, we face the reality that our daughters and sons may need to be farmers.  But they will not be able to live that life if we do not serve them now.  Nor will they inherit anything worth having if now we do not turn our resources not towards our highways, but towards the poor, the hungry, the disabled, those in need of medical care and education, and the weak.

Indeed, I think that you must know how terribly acute the present situation is, but so many voices speak in moderated terms that I worry you may not realize the depths of human suffering that other people face.  That’s something that presidents, who live in a form of isolation by necessity, sometimes forget.  Many people will cry victims in the next years - and some of them will be.  Others will be victims who can do something about their situation, if they are taught a measure of self-reliance, that virtue that was once so very American.  But the ability to sort out the real victims, the truly vulnerable, those who cannot save themselves, will be your job. It is not one I envy you, but I would observe that you might start by assuming that anyone who has ever had a salary that involved the words “millions” is not a victim worth worrying about. 

Which brings me to my second warning, for which I’m going to use Adams again.  But not John, Abigail.  In her famous letter to her husband, Abigail Adams wrote,

 “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

The Constitution which you bind yourself to uphold tomorrow is really quite clear on the obligations of citizens towards governments that are tyrannical.  I remind you of Abigail Adams’ call (and have my hopes that your wife will not permit you to forget) to remind you that the disenfranchised and powerless are not bound by the laws that abandon them - the only hope for the rule of law is to create a law and a nation that shelters us all.   Though women lack less for rights in their own right, we ladies are also mothers, aunts, grandmothers and protectors (and we come with an energetic host of passionate fathers, uncles, grandfathers and friends) of the children whose future bread our policies are devouring, whose energy we are consuming, whose stable natural environment we are throwing away.  The tyranny of the present over the future works only if those who guard the future do no rise up, and recognize the moral illegitimacy of any government that enslaves its children to pay its debts. 

Thus I also warn you of this - pay attention to your means, to your costs, and to the price you are asking others to pay.  If the price is too high, or the objective a false one, they will not pay it. I look to your inauguration torn - hoping, not wanting to hope too much, praying, perhaps that you may be able to do what is needed to guide us through these times.  But I put my faith not in you, but in the people - the ordinary people who have taken in trust the guardianship of something besides the Constitution - their posterity, and who will not see their future sold for something as cheap as simply going back to the good old/bad old days of affluence.  But they will follow you forward to a legitimate future, if you can guide us there.  

 am a patriot - by patriot I mean that I am proud of what is worth valuing in America.  My patriotism is rooted in the land, in the idea of preservation and sustenence of something that can be infinitely enriching and regenerating.  As Wendell Berry said, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”  And because I stand on this land, and hope to pass it on to my children, I do not wish to see America continue on a path away from moral legitimacy, nor do I wish to see it torn by the anger of those who are left out of the gifts of their land.

I realize this does not make your burdens any lighter, or your problems less acute. And here, I admit, I fall into the realm of advice giving - my apologies.  All I can say is this - begin as you mean to go on, remember Lincoln - the real Lincoln, remember your children, and I pray for you and my country.


39 Responses to “Not Advice, but a Warning”

  1. Greenpa says:


    I hope he sees it; he just might.

    I see you DO still have some hopes for him. I think he deserves that- the great majority of the world hopes- which does mean something.

    And, think of this- isn’t it WONDERFUL to have a President who you know is CAPABLE of actually understanding your letter? And listening to you? That’s huge!

    Warren Buffet said in an interview today that Obama really listens to his advisors- but ultimately comes up with BETTER ideas than they offer. Buffet. hm!

    Good letter; good points. Wish I knew a way to get it into his hands; but I don’t- as you point out, the volume of advice at the moment is deafening.

  2. homebrewlibrarian says:

    Even though I’m about as close to Barack Obama as I am the moon, this letter had me squirming a bit (on his behalf, most certainly). I then recalled the voices of the ancient Hebrew prophets warning those around them of what could be if the wrong path was chosen. Hm…

    For some the truth is difficult to hear. A friend who has a gift of prophesy (in the sense of being compelled to see and tell the truth) once groused to her brother about the rough treatment she was receiving at a church she was trying to join. After hearing her story, his comment was “nobody likes a prophet.”

    Whether you choose to see yourself as a prophet or not, and whether you believe it’s up to the recipient to act on it or not, you’re still telling the truth. It is a wise person who listens to the message and responds appropriately.

    He who has ears, let him hear.

    Kerri in AK

  3. Jen says:

    All I can say is Bravo. I pray for Obama as well and for our future.

  4. Steven Earl Salmony says:

    Many thank to Sharon for speaking out loudly, clearly and often. Millions of voices are needed now more than ever before to support your efforts.

    A jeremiad follows concerning wasting time and keeping silent while woefully inadequate leaders of the human community have promulgated policies and initiated large-scale corporate activities that recklessly overheat and relentlessly ravage Earth and its environs.

    My not-so-great generation of elders will likely be remembered as the perpetrators of the most perverse, self-serving silence in human history. No other generation has taken so much from this good Earth, threatened the very future of its own children and given so little of themselves to preserve life for coming generations. Photographs of us will disclose both our corpulence and hollowness.

    Although the disclosure of truth is unsettling, hiding the truth from the human community could be a monstrous example of human-driven foolery, one that could soon lead to a colossal ecological wreckage.

    To suppress the truth by conscientiously substituting whatsoever could somehow be true with willful silence is tantamount to the commission of a pernicious lie.

    A widely shared and consensually validated determination among people with knowledge to maintain their silence, when remaining silent betrays intellectual honesty, conceals the truth and thwarts courageous action, is the most dangerous of all global threats to the family of humanity, life as we know it and the preservation of Earth as a fit place for human habitation.

    From this perspective, perhaps we can begin to apprehend the actual, most formidable enemy of future human wellbeing and environmental health.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population,
    established 2001

  5. Hummingbird says:

    Bravo! Once again you have spoken truth to power. However, I fear these truths will be learned only in hindsight, after the damage has been done.

    Thank you for trying.

  6. Rebecca says:

    Good post Sharon. I hope he reads it.

    I do have one minor quibble. In the South it has long been accepted that the civil war was not fought over slavery (or just over slavery, at least). The primary reasons for many down here were economic -the north kept trying to dictate the south’s economy. There were a lot of issues, and there is still a lot of anger down here. Most of the soldiers who fought for the Confederacy did not own a slave and many did not support slavery -but fought for the ‘bad’ side anyway.

    Bringing up the Civil War down here is akin to opening a can of worms. There are some strict old-fashioned Confederate apologizers who still insist Lincoln was a tyrant yadda yadda yadda. But there are many more, plain ordinary folk, who recognize that slavery was evil but still believe the war was wrong and was not fought over slavery. Many still harbor deep anger and resentment. There were atrocities committed on both sides of course, but it was the South that suffered the most, the south that was sacked and burned, the south that had thousands of its (albeit white) children kidnapped and sent to indentured servitude in the north. That is still very much remembered down here, and not fondly.

  7. Sharon says:

    Rebecca, I know I’m opening a can of worms, and expect to get many replies less balanced and graceful than yours. That said, I think that the idea that the civil war was fundamentally not about slavery, but about economics or state’s rights is wrong, although a wrong that has been propped up by history textbooks (which had to pass southern boards) in both north and south. I don’t deny that the south had legitimate reasons to feel it was mistreated by the north at times, nor do I claim that the north’s economic policies were always just towards the south. What I deny is the narrative that says that the civil wars’ primary cause was not the South’s insistence on its right to hold slaves and expand slave territory into the West.

    I also think that the story of the downtrodden south is one with multiple sides - for example, Southern politicians had been disproportionally powerful in Washington in the decade leading up to the civil war - it is no accident that secession occurred when it became clear that Lincoln was likely to win and thus put an end to southern slave expansion. I am not justifying the actions of the north in all cases, but the truth, as always, lands somewhere in the middle, and the stories that the South has been telling itself about their economic treatment aren’t the only story.


  8. Lisa Z says:

    Good letter, Sharon. I too wish he could see it.

    The issue of slavery in the South was, for the South (and for many who benefitted in the North and Europe) about economics. The riches of the Southern gentleman were built on the backs of the slaves. And war has always been about poor men (and lately women) fighting for the rich man’s benefit. I’ve always loved this quote in Kaye Gibbons’ novel, _On The Occasion of My Last Afternoon_ about the Civil War: war is “conflict perpetrated by rich men and fought by poor boys against hungry women and babies.”

  9. curiousalexa says:

    could you summarize the two warnings? I think I lost track in all the words… [wry grin]

  10. Gina says:


    That was quite stirring.

    I too hope that Mr. Obama’s intelligence, apparent interest in remaining “connected” to the people, and morals will lead him to the inevitable conclusion that there is another path that he must take rather than the same growth mantra we have heard for the past three decades.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Sharon, yes the truth lies somewhere in the middle (as always) which is what I was trying to portray.

  12. Alan says:

    Wonderful warning/advice (you claim it’s not advice, but, of course, it is) to our new (almost) President. If only he can actually hold it in his hands and find the time to read it.

    At least, unlike the current Resident, Obama is noted for reading and understanding what he reads.

    Your prose just gets better and better. I never fail to read your posts.

  13. TheNormalMiddle says:

    Good stuff as always, Sharon. I am hopeful and praying that Obama will be a good President for us all. I have my reserves about it, and it isn’t because I’m a rabid republican or anything of the sort.

    I just don’t see things getting better. $150+Million for party after party after party? I realize these are private donations but it is showing of the problem as a whole, at least to me. We are gluttons, us Americans, and we haven’t a clue how to live otherwise.

    Michele Obama plans to hire a decorator and spend $100,000 to redo the East Wing “so her children feel at home.” The $100,000 is earmarked from the federal budget yes…..but isn’t it a time to say “no thanks, we don’t need a decorator, we’ll do it ourselves.”

    I could go on. I’m VERY HAPPY to see Bush go (don’t let the door hit you in the *** on the way out!) but I don’t see Obama being ANYTHING remotely close to Lincoln.

    I pray all this hope and change really happens for the good of our country. But it starts at the top and trickles down, and taking one day to serve in a soup kitchen is NOT going to change much. Most of us middle class Americans would have loved to serve and volunteer on MLK day, but we had to get up and go to work like we do EVERY SINGLE DAY. And last time I checked, my house isn’t even worth $100,000 let alone REDECORATING it!

    top down change….please.

  14. KatJ says:

    That was beautiful, Sharon, and I do hope that somehow Mr. Obama gets to read it. I have to agree with The NormalMIddle; I find it incredibly frustrating that our president finds it necessary in the midst of misery and loss on a grand scale to throw big, expensive parties to celebrate his inauguration. And I watched one of those morning shows the other day (I turned it on to see what the weather was going to throw at us next) and saw that the Obamas were going to redecorate their digs at the White House. It’s the White House, for crying out loud, and they get to live there, so why te hell do they need to redecorate? People are starving and homeless and completely beaten down, and they’re going to spend $100,000 for new curtains and furniture? Geez, if you want it homey, bring your stuff from home!! That’s what I did when I went away to college. I know it’s probably small potatoes to them, but imagine how many people you could help with that much money. I voted for him, and I’m excited about the possibilities, but I gotta tell you - that made me a little sad. The changes we need in this country ought to be modeled by the president that is talking so glibly of sacrifice. It’s a little like George Bush sending our young men and women out to die in a financially motivated occupation, and telling those of us who opposed it to be patriots and support our troops (i.e., support his right to send them out to die for his cause), but not sending his own daughters. Or going himself (by far the better choice, and he could have taken Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice along too. Oh, and Laura, too,with her ridiculously expensive china!) Wonder how long this war would have lasted if THEY had had to serve on the front lines… Wish there was some way that some REAL people could get in there to talk to Mr. Obama!

  15. rumor says:

    This is why I come here to read. Bravo, Sharon.

  16. Erika says:

    My words can’t even do yours justice… I hope you emailed/mailed this to the addressee!


  17. Generation Angry says:

    Nice post. I wish our President-elect the best. Unfortunately, I don’t think I quite buy the premise as some of your readers have that he is somehow different from every other politician. From the million dollar inauguration (paid largely by corporate America, the same who are begging for a bailout) to a near-promise to shift the war front from Iraq to Afghanistan, where exactly are people seeing change? Add to this the nomination of Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, the protege of Henry Paulson who just somehow “forgot” to pay his taxes (what?! April 15th is just another day to this guy?), I’m holding my breath that it isn’t business as usual. Fine, he’ll be better than Bush, but so would have any random name from the phone book, so I don’t take this compare and contrast as any kind of vote of confidence.

  18. Casa Food Shed » Blog Archive » “Recovery” is immoral and doomed to failure says:

    [...] Sharon Astyk frames it as a moral issue in a most powerful and moving open letter - “Not Advice, but a Warning” - to the incoming president: [Y]ou stand in Lincoln’s shoes today, having embarked on a project whose price is far too high, and whose moral legitimacy is questionable at best.  You’ve decided your job is to save the economy, and to restore the American people to prosperity. . . But that way lies tyranny, and moral failure.  To do so represents the tyranny of the present over their posterity - the extraction of resources that will be urgently needed by your daughters and my sons and their children.  The direction you’ve taken, which involves salvaging the failed industrial and financial projects of the rich, rather than serving the poorest, represents tyranny as well . . . It is also impossible to accomplish - you will not restore us to what we were at any time in the recent present, because even then, we were not as we seemed - that is, virtually all the accumulated wealth of the last decade and more that actually percolated down to ordinary people was illusory, debt-based, and based on false assumptions.  And all the wealth of the last few decades has been based on a rapidly declining natural resource base that is now not merely depleted, but emptying.  You will not restore us to past versions of our prosperity, nor can you carry the moral water of the preservation of the future on the backs of a false and tyrannical promise. [...]

  19. Bill in the Adirondacks says:

    I like Wendell Berry’s quote and your enhancement. Patriotism can be a tight rope walk when your values put you at odds with the leadership and what sometimes seems to be a majority of the citizens in this country.

  20. Annie says:

    I like your premise that most American’s don’t even know how to live without being gluttonous consumers (not said in those words but I think that was the idea). It is even hard for me, who bought cloth sacks for her veggies, to come to grips with what really needs to happen. Sacrifice, who know’s how to do that? My Grandmother raised 9 children after her husband left her for another woman and they “made do.” I sure wish she were alive to ask about how to sacrifice. Somehow she sewed their clothes, worked, and fed them all. Gah, what is it going to take for everyone to see that the thoughtless consumption has got to end and that we all need to put in some time making things better for everyone else.


  21. graycat says:

    Generation Angry
    The inauguration was not paid for by corporations. The Obama people refused money from corps, PACs, etc. Instead, some (much?) of it was paid for by executives of corps, PACs, etc.,who could give up to $50K EACH. The rights to Sunday’s concert was sold to HBO, and they are pulling videos off YouTube.
    During the Great Depression, people flocked to the movies which often featured the fictional lives of the rich. They loved to read about movie stars and New York debs.
    I guess our “bread and circuses” will feature you know who. But I wish him best of luck. He’s gonna need it.

    And as for change. It’s coming. You know the old saying-be careful what you wish for.

  22. Generation Angry says:

    Graycat- Perhaps not the corporations specifically, but certainly their reps. They and the PACs not to mention the celebrities who have contributed know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Maybe Obama will rise above it all, but human nature being what it is… But as you say, best of luck to him.

  23. Leila Abu-Saba says:

    I agree that the warnings need to be highlighted. WIth your rousing wind-up, I really thought you were going to break radio silence on Palestine for once, and I’ve only been away from your blog for a couple of weeks. (I check in lightly but I’m not immersed here as I have been earlier)

    By the time Barack or his screener gets to your point they will be confused about what you’re getting at. I am saying this as a friendly editorial comment. If you want him to know what you are getting at, state your premise of depletion of resources first. Your choir here knows what you’re getting at but he won’t.

    It’s an important letter and important warning. Send it through the typewriter again, pare down text, refine message and bump your premise closer to the beginning. Your intro about the South and Lincoln and the “justified” war and unnecessary deaths of civilians… I thought you were going to come out condemning the IDF. Not saying ditch it, just saying - edit so it’s really targeted.

  24. graycat says:

    Generation Angry
    The thing that ticks me off is that the Obama people make such a big deal about not taking money from the corporations. I read a lot of progressive blogs(I’m one of those bleeding heart, knee jerk liberal types); some of the bloggers are starting to realize he’s the consummate politician, they’re getting eaten alive by some of their Obamamaniac brethren.
    I truly wish he had a real plan for all the problems we’re going to face;however, I feel this administration is going to be blown off course by the winds of change and it’s going to be any port in a storm. I’ve run out of sailing cliches, so I wish everyone here a good Inauguration Day.

  25. Steven Earl Salmony says:

    Leadership of a not-so-great generation passes into history on this day.

    It appears that a single generation, my not-so-great greed-mongering generation, will be remembered for having first recklessly plundered and then ravenously consumed the lion’s share of all Earth’s limited resources. No generation before mine, and certainly no generation to follow, will behave so arrogantly and avariciously because the resources to do what my generation has done will have already been devoured and, therefore, unavailable to future generations. In the pernicious process of global plundering and conspicuous per capita over-consumption, many too many leaders of my generation will also have allowed the unhealthy pollution of the environment, the unrestrained depletion of natural resources and the unconscionable mortgaging of our children’s future. My generation’s leaders will have lead us to threaten the children and coming generations with the likelihood of dangerous ecological conditions…a situation for which my generation is responsible but for which my generation refuses to take responsibility. Many leaders in my generation have determined to “pass the buck” to the children, come what may. So grave and unfortunate a situation cannot longer be ignored just because the leading perpetrators of this ominously looming ecological wreckage choose to remain willfully blind, hysterically deaf and electively mute when called upon to account for their (and our) behavior.

    If I had to put this colossal tragedy in a single set of sentences I would speak out in this way,

    “Never in the course of human events has so much been given to so few consolidators of great wealth and power, who then did so poorly by everyone else and everything else but themselves. A tiny minority of supremely greedy, self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe in my generation have directed the human community toward the extirpation of biodiversity, degradation of the environment and the depletion of natural resources. The fitness of Earth as a place for habitation by our own children has been put at risk. The abject failure of so many of my generation’s leaders to assume responsibility for such incredible arrogance, poor judgement and stupendous wrongdoing is somehow not quite right and, at least to me, difficult to tolerate in silence.”

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population,
    established 2001

  26. Sharon says:

    Leila, I don’t necessarily think my breaking “radio silence” on Palestine would be helpful. Of course I’m appalled by the IDF’s actions - although I don’t think I’m going to condemn the IDF in general, so much as their recent actions.

    But I’m pretty damned appalled at Hamas as well. And at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And at the Palestinian actions that drive Israelis towards their worst. Where do I stop it? There is so much sin and blame on both sides that I don’t know where to begin or to end.

    I don’t think any of us would be happy to hear me break radio silence - not the Jews who I think excuse the inexcusable, and not the Palestinians who excuse the inexcusable. And hanging over the whole problem is the deep ecological one - a tiny, dry place that is only going to get tinier and dryer. I don’t believe that Israel as we think of it now will exist in 50 years - and I don’t see in the actions of the Palestinians enough room for anything but another few decades of scorched earth. I’m ashamed of my fellow Jews - but I cannot help sympathizing with them as well in some ways.

    What would you have me say?


  27. Laurie in MN says:

    All I can say is “Brava”.

    And I seriously love the concept of running through the editing portion of your brain — I’m sorry, it was a *bit* convoluted! — and firing off a hard copy to the brand new, shiny President of the USA. I suspect that something as articulate and scholarly as your writing generally is will actually make it past his screeners/administrative assistants and to the man himself.

    You are the gadfly this administration is going to need. Have at!

  28. Leila Abu-Saba says:

    I am very sorry, Sharon, I really didn’t intend for you to break radio silence. When I’ve thought of it, I’ve thought - Sharon is staying out of that one, and it’s a good thing. Because the discussion goes from zero to flame so quickly… I was acknowledging that you maintain radio silence on the topic, and pointing out that to me, with my immersion in the subject, your analogies seemed like they were pointing in that direction, whereas I’m pretty sure that’s not what you intended.

    Consider the source (i.e. me) - of course I see I/P everywhere this month - and yet for this letter on this topic, for Barack as audience, I believe it would be worth it to edit so that your meaning and your subject is crystal clear from the beginning. Barack doesn’t know that your big topic is peak oil, food & economic/ecological collapse. The Southern war metaphors could in these times point elsewhere.

    I repeat, consider the source. Maybe it’s just me. BUt I notice on the internet in other fora that where I thought I heard the faintest of Palestine references in Barack’s inaugural speech today, other reasonable voices thought so as well. I wondered if I was just imagining things. Maybe I am, but I’m not the only one. It’s the big elephant in the room right now in American foreign policy, and many of us are reduced to parsing the smallest of words or images for signs and significance.

    I actually believe that climate change is going to “fry all our Semitic asses”* if we don’t quit fighting among ourselves and work together in the Middle East - so I believe your message is very very important. I am only suggesting that you hone it to smooth out any signal noise that might distract.

    *quoting myself in a private letter to Rabbi Michael Lerner about seven years ago.

    And again I’m a little sorry I broke my own radio silence… don’t want to add unnecessary buzz/noise/conflict to this forum. We have bigger fish to fry. I/P is a devastating and terrible conflict but in the end the larger issue is water and oil and climate change and hunger and population and how are we going to cope with not enough resources, without butchering each other?

  29. Steven Earl Salmony says:

    Perhaps the end of the Bush/Cheney era is the end as well of brazen duplicity, the vanquishing of moral authority, the infidelity to science, the institutionalization of greed and hoarding as virtues, the sanctimonious idolatry of the economy, the degradation of the environment, the dissipation of natural resources, the destruction of Earth as fit place for habitation by our children.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population,
    established 2001

  30. Rex Dillon says:

    Very eloquent article. I think President Obama will have to be the greatest president of the US in history to even begin to superficially address the enormous challenges your country and the entire world faces. Unfortunately I disagree with your faith in the “people”but I can understand why you need to believe it. History is replete with examples of the collapses of great empires, what it is not replete with is the crash of one global civilization. We will need to sacrifice for our children and children’s children if we hope to continue….

    Thank you once again and I hope Mr. Obama heeds your call.

  31. Dave says:

    Hi Sharon

    Nice twist the reference to the Deep South.

    Perhaps there is some more in it.

    They were unable to maintain their lifestyles without the cheap source of energy.
    Destruction of the social, financial and commercial infrastructure put them on course for abject poverty.

    Our society is now seeing destruction of the financial infrastructure as well as the beginnings of a faltering of supply of cheap energy.

    Perhaps there is a reflecting picture in the South of the past?

    all the best!

  32. PKS says:

    I have to take issue with your underlying assumption that our civilization is entirely unsustainable.

    “But that way lies tyranny, and moral failure. To do so represents the tyranny of the present over their posterity - the extraction of resources that will be urgently needed by your daughters and my sons and their children. ”

    “It isn’t merely tyranny, though, although that would be bad enough. It is also impossible to accomplish.”

    Look, the only things that are genuinely 100% unsustainable about our civilization are our energy sources and our CO2 emissions.

    But neither of those are insurmountable problems. Yes, we desperately need to get off of non-renewable fossil fuels. But there’s lots of other options. Nuclear is one, solar/wind/etc can take off some of the load. If you don’t like nuclear, there was a really interesting study done at MIT recently that pointed out that in about 1/2 the landmass in the USA, if you drill down 2 km, you get rocks at 200 degrees C. If you drill down 3 km, you get rocks at 300 degrees C. Run two holes, one takes water down, the other brings steam up, this has to be cheaper than nuclear power plants. Clean and renewable. And the oil industry regularly drills down 10km, so it’s not a big deal to drill down 2 or 3 km.

    So that takes care of electricity, what about transportation?

    Bio-diesel from algae could replace all the fossil fuels in the USA by using about 1-5% of the landmass of the lower-48 states. That could be just a small fraction of land that’s otherwise undesirable, because it’s desert.

    So, none of the problems of our high-energy, high-technology are intrinsically unsolvable by some sort of physical limit. We have the technology to transform our civilization from one based on soil and aquifier depletion and fossil fuels to one that’s genuinely sustainable. This is with tech that’s available, today.

    All of our problems are in the political sphere.

    Now, I don’t want to in any way downplay just how difficult the political problems are in the political sphere. For example, if we’re going to replace all oil usage with biofuels from algae, well, that also means incidentally shutting down the oil industry, and I don’t imagine that they’ll go quietly. We still have people in the USA who don’t believe in global warming. The political problems are bigger than anything seen since the civil war, maybe bigger.

    But, we have not yet any sort of ‘carrying capacity’ physical constraint that would make our civilization unsustainable by the laws of thermodynamics or something.

  33. Duane in West Michigan says:

    PKS wrote: “the only things that are genuinely 100% unsustainable about our civilization are our energy sources and our CO2 emissions. ” So that means that we have an INFINITE source of iron, copper, gold, silver etc. etc. etc.
    Perhaps PKS knows something about mining the asteroid belt that I don’t?

  34. Sharon says:

    Hi Leila - I appreciate your advice about the piece, and I think part of my response is that I feel guilty about not plunging into the whole I/P thing. It is also a somewhat fraught issue for me as a convert - my thinking is considered suspect, and since I’m not a zionist (which does not make me anti-zionist), there’s a general “well, she’s Jewish when she writes stuff we like, but not Jewish when she criticizes Israel” bit. I honestly don’t know what to say about it - I think it might come down to “let’s go back in time and reconsider moving the Jews to Montana, which would still put them in a fraught, water tight place with non-white folk who are pissed about their land loss, but still…”

    I’m joking, but only sorta.


  35. Lance says:

    A beautiful post, Sharon :-)

    I live in Montana, and I would welcome more Jewish neighbors, especially if they are anything like you

  36. Shodo says:

    Sharon, the place where I burst into tears was this: John Adams said, “I am a soldier so that my son can be a farmer and his son be a poet.”
    It is my generations who had the leisure to be poets - the baby boomers - or we might have, as our parents worked hard after coming out of the depression. Some of us did well - and, mostly, we threw it away. We consumed the earth - soil, water, oil. We created wasteful lifestyles for many, unimaginable before except to the very few. (By the way, I hear that the very rich doubled their incomes in the last 8 years.) Now we all aspire to rule and consume the whole earth. What happened to our poets?

    I’m hopeful that Obama may be different. At least he is saying different words; the inaugural address seemed like a call to sobriety.

    I’m learning to farm and plan to teach my children, my grandchildren, and as many others as I can.

    Is anyone going to Powershift at the end of the month, or to sit in at the coal plant with Wendell Berry and Bill McGibbon on March 2? Maybe it’s the right time for such a ritual.

    Sorry, one more: about the possible sources of energy - yeah, nuclear is good for business, it creates so much cancer, lots of jobs there. I’d think twice before tapping the earth’s core heat - you think we can’t use it up, but in New Zealand they started to exceed the available geothermal power and had to cut back. Sustainable ethanol and wind and solar, better. Why didn’t this person even mention conservation, insulation, the “low-hanging fruit?” We need a lifestyle change!

  37. karl says:


    Very thoughtful and hopeful article. I hope for the best as this is my country and he is my president too. Please name one president in the last 40 years that did not fall prey to special interests?
    The people of America are the only ones that can lift us out of our selfish mindset that we are all owed something for nothing. When we start trusting politcians we are always let down.

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