“We know that America cannot be made strong by leadership which reacts only to the needs or the irritations or the frustrations of the moment. True leadership must provide for the next decade and not merely the next day.”
-President Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the Wilderness Act
Somehow it felt appropriate to contemplate the Wilderness Act yesterday. All the valedictory pronouncements made last week, on the 50th anniversary of its signing, seemed a bit soupy until I looked at them through the filter of our last, shameful, decade of American history.
I was in History of Early Modern Philosophy at Grinnell College when news of the 9/11 attacks went public. I remember trying to check CNNs website, the first occasion I had ever done so, and it being down. I recall Allen Schrift’s Cultural Critique seminar that afternoon, at which he made attendance optional, and where we had a discussion about the appropriate federal reaction(s), and the utility of punishment and/or vengeance.
I do not think it is a contentious statement to say that as a country, most of our reactions to the 9/11 attack have made us weaker, both intra and inter nationally. The debacle of Bush foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is axiomatic, and the role that being at war playing in getting George W a second term which in turn exacerbated other problems (such as partisanship and the Great Recession) is only incrementally more debatable.
Less spectacular, but more widely pernicious, have been things like increased airport and border security, and more overt and aggressive counter-terrorism and intelligence work. While certain measures in these areas were surely needed, it has always seemed that the majority of their intended effect was internal reassurance. Rather than feeling like a country at war via public calls for enlistment and national sacrifice, we the US spent the 00s feeling like a country at war because of the Orwellian elements which became ever more pervasive in our daily lives. The result is that we Americans do not trust ourselves as much, do not trust the world as much, and have spent the last six years with a President who has wasted most of his considerable potential attempting, with minimal success, to fix a mess his predecessor created.
The US needs to become accustomed to a different position on the world stage. More importantly, we the citizens therein need to become content with a very different national self-image. The current narrative of American Exceptionalism assumes that our position as best-in-the-world GDP during the 1770s, built on New England mercantilism, and our position as best-in-the-world GDP in the 1950s, built on post WWII internationalism, went uninterrupted in the centuries between. Instead, both periods were aberrations, twists of global-historical fate which came into being based on many things, only a few of which were subject to direct, national control. The contemporary view of national self-worth built directly upon a narrow, currency-based idea of capitalism will not take us to places we want to go over the next half-century. A collective, national, unconscious rebellion against the inevitable move towards something else goes a long way towards explaining the Bush myopia, as well as the ever-more virulent anti-Obamaism (racial integration being as good a proxy as any for categorical cultural change in the USA).
How then might the US be exception at the end of this century? Or, to put the question in a less jingoistic fashion, how might a more productive and efficacious national identity be built upon something which is essential and unique to America?
The answer is, rather obviously, wilderness.
America is unique in that we are a large country in a temperate (read: economically desirable) part of the world which has both not despoilt all it’s wild lands and already passed the peak of industrialization. We made it through the 30s doing plenty of damage (building roads across Glacier NP and southern Utah; for example, both previously roadless), but survived that and the interstate highway boom of he 1950s with plenty of the west intact and roadless, or at least unpaved.
It is safe to say that none of the great roadless areas of the American west will ever see roads in them. It is also safe to say that the US is uniquely placed to be an international role model, for China above all, in how to build a sustainable economy and culture around leaving the greater world alone, insofar as extractive use is concerned. The Wilderness Act is a relatively rare law epitomizing future thinking, and because of this it is indeed special and worth celebrating.
So hopefully in the next 50 years America will be able to get a good start on radically redefining ourselves. Success and happiness will have to become more nuanced ideas. On a family level, net population increases and gaudy consumption will have to become shameful, on their way to being legislated out of existence without many or any de jure measures. We will have to see ourselves as exceptional, and as world leaders, in ways much less strident and much more humble.
And where better place to learn ones proper size than wilderness? Nowhere. Happy birthday Wilderness Act; now help save us.