The Womb of Time: Bill Cronon, Teddy Roosevelt and a Sustainable American Future


The following is a guest post by Travis Mason-Bushman

During the first week of my tenure as an impressionable Student Conservation Association intern in the R10 Regional Office’s cube farm back in fall 2010, I was subjected to a mandatory screening of The Greatest Good, the Forest Service’s centennial documentary. In that film lies one of the reasons I ultimately chose to pursue a career with the agency – the summative words of William Cronon:

The work of the Forest Service can and should and must continue into the 21st century and beyond. Because in a way, the issues that this agency has been struggling with since its creation are at the very core of what it means to be a human being on the planet and what it means to build a sustainable human society. And it is the struggle, not just of the United States. It’s the struggle of humanity.

Maybe sappy – check that, combined with the rousing music and soaring visuals, definitely sappy. And yet Cronon’s words rang true. As Jack Ward Thomas noted earlier in the film, we are a species on this planet and like every species, we have to exploit our habitat to survive. We cannot have zero impact on the land. Sarah Gilman is right to point out the hypocrisy trap of NIMBYism, which has too often loomed in the background of environmental debates – “as long as you don’t drill next to my house, I don’t care.” Arguments that we shouldn’t log a single stick from the national forests run headlong into the fact that we do need lumber, we do use paper, we must utilize trees – and if we don’t produce what we use and instead export our environmental damage elsewhere, it is little but NIMBYism writ large. There is and must be a place for sensible, sensitive resource production.

But I was struck by the angry, dismissive responses to Matthew Koehler’s comment that “I, for one, don’t continue to insist on Americans continuing to live as we do now,” as if it is somehow an American birthright to profligately use and abuse the planet’s finite resources far out of proportion to our numbers. This is the true entitlement crisis: the belief that we are entitled to exploit and use up every resource we can possibly get our hands on or our drilling rigs into.

A growing number of Americans, and particularly those of my generation, are recognizing that what modern humans have been doing – “our way of life” – is entirely unsustainable. There is not oil enough on this planet, forest enough on this planet, carbon capacity enough on this planet, for humans to live exactly the way we lived for the last 100 years for the next 100 years. Infinite growth on a finite planet is, quite simply, impossible.

Does that mean we have to go back to the Stone Age? I don’t think so. But does that mean we might rethink decisions about our way of life that were made in the last 50-100 years, often without a full understanding of their impact on ecology and resources? Does that mean we should perhaps reconsider what we need and what we want? Does that mean we ought to view our activities as a species through a much longer frame of perspective? Yes, yes, and yes. (A rare acceptable use of the Oxford comma.)

As I have been fond of pointing out in interpretive talks at the Tongass National Forest’s rapidly-retreating Mendenhall Glacier – perhaps the Forest Service’s single most frying-pan-in-the-face obvious example of climate change – I don’t own a car. In fact, I’ve never even possessed a driver’s license. I biked to work every day, rain or shine (and if you know the Tongass, it was mostly the former.) That has been a conscious decision, that I will be one less internal combustion engine on the roads of the United States. And I am far from alone – studies have shown, time after time, that Millennials are driving 20% less than our parents did at similar ages. Cost, convenience, environmental sensibilities, culture – for all those reasons and more, my generation is car-sharing, using transit, walking, biking and generally using any number of forms of transportation that are far more energy-efficient and less carbon-dependent. We support high-speed rail, view climate change as a real threat and are eschewing suburban sprawl that has consumed precious land and energy.

Will these changes alone solve our collective human challenge? Of course not. But they are, unmistakably, a sign that my generation recognizes that challenge – the challenge of adapting a way of life left to us by a generation apparently unwilling to confront the limits of geology and ecology that we are rapidly approaching. We must be wise stewards of our natural resources, because these are all we have or will ever get. We must have concern for the planet’s ecosystem, because there is but one in the universe.

And yet this view of a planet with limits, a civilization built for the long run, is hardly new and ought not be controversial. After all, it found one of its most eloquent defenses nearly 100 years ago from one of the men responsible for creating the Forest Service in the first place:

The “greatest good for the greatest number” applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations.

That man, of course, was Theodore Roosevelt. And it is to his view of the “greatest good” which I believe our future society must adhere – one that considers most important not profitability next quarter or GDP growth next year, but the ecosystem’s next decade and the climate of the next century.

Travis is a Tongass National Forest SCEP trainee/Pathways intern/whatever they’re calling us this week, and worked for the last two summers as a ranger-interpreter at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. He just completed a master’s degree in recreation at Indiana University, with his thesis being a study of visitor experiences and interpretive outcomes at Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area.

8 thoughts on “The Womb of Time: Bill Cronon, Teddy Roosevelt and a Sustainable American Future”

  1. A well-written essay. I do wonder, however, whether the example Travis provides, millennials driving less than their parents at the same age, might have more to do with increasing age of mother at first childbirth combined with decreasing fecundity, than it does with changes in values. Yes, there are parents who raise their kids without a family auto by choice, but they are so rare as to be remarkable.

    • There’s something to that, but there is also significant sociological evidence that it is part of a wider and permanent cultural shift among the Millennial generation.

      Studies indicate, for example, that my generation prefers to live in smaller homes located in denser communities – which permanently reduces the need to drive personal automobiles. Walkability and transit access are high on the list of livability preferences for young people. Cheap gasoline is gone forever, and with it, the Age of Sprawl is at an end as well.

      I plan on buying a car in the near future. But I also plan on renting an apartment close enough to my workplace to allow me to continue to commute to work by bicycle. Sure, if I need to go buy a new appliance, a Honda Fit might come in handy. But for the ride to work or a trip to the supermarket, why would I burn $4.50-per-gallon gasoline just to haul myself and a few bags of groceries a couple miles around town?

      Will we drive more? Sure. Will we ever drive anywhere near as much as our parents did? Highly unlikely.

      • I would also note that this trend away from the car has significant ramifications for recreation use on the national forests. A whole lot of current infrastructure is devoted to supporting motor vehicle-based recreation.

        For example, will RVs be as popular in 15 years as they are today? Will all those hookup sites really be needed? What should the developed campground of tomorrow look like – and should it even be so developed?

        In urban-interface forests, are we looking for opportunities to provide transit-accessible access points and trailheads, so that less-car and car-free populations can experience their national forests?

  2. The big problem a Boomer, like I, faces in debating a Millennial, like Travis, is that he’s sure to prevail by outliving the old bastard. “I told you so,” is much less satisfying when it comes from the grave.

    So, I’ll tell you so now. When your first kid hits day-care age, buy the Honda Fit, as I have. When your second comes along, the Fit accommodates two car seats nicely (my old Subaru couldn’t). Soon enough, you’ll find yourself leaving the bike at home because the “Honey Do” list will exceed your pannier/trailer/patience/scheduling capacities. And since you’ll no longer be living in Juneau, you’ll have roads to drive on that take you places you’ll want to go.

    Yes, rent an apartment near work for now, as almost any apartment in Juneau would be “near” work. Enjoy it during your child-free years. Because when you have the kids, you’ll want the space that a house in the burbs provides. Good schools, too. Like the ones you went to.

    As for whether you’ll drive as much your parents did . . . if past is prologue, you’ll not only drive as much, you’ll drive more. But, not to worry, you’ll be able to text and blog as you drive because your car will be self-driven.

    Meanwhile, RV sales for the first quarter of 2013 are up 34% over last year “spurred by retiring baby boomers and young families buying their first camper trailers.”

    • Actually, I grew up in the thoroughly-urban city of Richmond, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and graduated from an urban public high school/community college. I lived four blocks from a rapid-transit station and two blocks from bus service.

      My lasting and permanent image of “the burbs” is of California’s relentless exurban sprawl which arose during the last boom — a soulless spawn of identical cookie-cutter tract homes miles away from anything of consequence. No, I don’t want anything to do with them, ever.

      But you don’t have to be an urban megalopolis to be a walkable, livable community — as Sharon has pointed out, more and more small American communities are leveraging these same features and advantages. It’s more about density and mixed-uses than it is about size. It’s why retirees are flocking to college towns — they tend to have arts, culture, diversity, sports, walkable downtowns and a cohesive community feel, all of which are virtually entirely absent in homogenous subdivision exurbs.

      The point is not to abandon the car. The point is to de-emphasize the car.

    • I really liked this post and find myself agreeing with Andy on this.

      But at the risk of getting overly historical, let’s look.. my Mom’s generation started without homes being electric, when an “icebox” was really an icebox. Remember “waste not, want not”? My Dad drove a horse-drawn milk truck for work when he was young.. They were pretty darn American.

      I grew up in the southern California suburbs..When I grew up, I saw that they had recently ripped out the old trolley cars. Now they have light rail.

      My generation wanted to change the world and many got sidetracked by raising kids but still try. We were told to have fewer children so that the environment would be better off,. So many of us did. But now we hear that we don’t have enough young people to support all us old people. And so we need a lot more people to move here..Sigh..

      I don’t know if they are Millennials, but I see younger people spending much more money on coffee drinks, weddings, outdoor equipment, gourmet food ingredients, and pet care/vet bills than we did when we were that age. I’m not judging them, to each his or her own.

      So I think that there are people that “use too much.” My problem was with “Americans use too much.” Because I think all people like not sharing bathrooms, a certain amount of space in their home, traveling around the world, and cars when they can afford it. When countries become affluent, they tend to acquire these things. So it is all bigger than “America.” Further, it leaves out the many Americans who are struggling to get “enough.”

      Children, roses, pets, art, travel, and trips to the National Forest are all unnecessary expenditures in some sense.

      I know there is a gradation.. second homes? Cosmetic surgery? The problem is that many Americans couldn’t afford those things even if they wanted them.

      So I could go with “rich Americans today (or always?- e.g. Gatsby) are wasteful and spend money on unnecessary things”. To me that is more specific and helpful.

      Anyway, while trying to remember the past, I ran across this article about the environmental movement and the 60’s. For all those of you who don’t remember them (or who were there but have forgotten much), it might be an interesting read.

      The Journal of American History September 2003 525
      “Give Earth a Chance”: The Environmental Movement and the Sixties
      Adam Rome

      In 1969 the Environmental Action for Survival Committee at the University of Michigan began to sell buttons with a slogan that played off a rallying cry common in the protests against the Vietnam War.
      Instead of “Give Peace a Chance,” the buttons urged Americans to “Give Earth a Chance.”
      Newsweek soon asked if the buttons might be symbols of a new age of conservation. By spring 1970, when the nation celebrated the first Earth Day, the slogan was ubiquitous. In an Earth Day march in the nation’s capital, for example, thousands of people joined the folk singers Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs in a great refrain: “All we are saying,” they sang, “is give earth a chance.”

      The popularity of the “Give Earth a Chance” slogan was not happenstance. The rise of the environmental movement owed much to the events of the 1960s. Yet scholars have not thus far done enough to place environmentalism in the context of the times. The literature on the sixties slights the environmental movement, while the work on environmentalism neglects the political, social, and cultural history of
      the sixties…

      • Well, you make a great point when you note that people are still spending money. I’m not going to argue that my generation is somehow less profligate. But we are spending money on different things, that much is clear. Instead of borrowing money to buy big houses, we are borrowing money to go to college (and how!) My generation is deeply in student debt. Take out a mortgage? I’ve got $55,000 worth of 7-percent Stafford loans to pay off before I even think about buying a house.

        The thing is, sociologically, that certain behavioral and social habits made at relatively early ages tend to stick. More likely than not, for example, someone who votes Democratic as a young adult is going to vote Democratic throughout their life. Someone who doesn’t drive as much as a young adult is, more likely than not, going to drive less throughout their life. Why? Because they’ve established habits and social patterns. Not having a car for that long taught them that… well, they can not have a car. It breaks the pattern of expectations, the social command that you need a car to be a part of modern society, that you can’t do anything without a car. Because when you do without, you learn how to do without.

        It’s a matter of degree, not an all-or-nothing change. But we can’t expect a change like this to happen in more than degrees.

        • So does growing up in poverty mean that, given a choice, one would choose to remain poor, having established the “habits and social patterns” that teach one “how to do without?” Really?

          The problem with your analogy to political affiliation is that transportation isn’t about values, it’s about getting from here to there. Transportation is about getting the kids to school, buying groceries, going on a vacation, and, mostly, commuting to work.

          Some people want to turn transportation into a moral, ethical, or spiritual matter. Most people just want to get where they want to go.


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