“We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.”
-Murder in the Cathedral. T.S. Eliot.
January 21, 2017
“The Apology” — Delivered at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, United States
I speak today for the United States and begin to honor my pledge and commitment to you, fellow citizens, our global community, and future generations, to reconcile the environmental injustices that our nation has inflicted on the peoples and cultures of the Earth. The time has now come for our nation to turn a new page in its history by righting the wrongs of the past and moving forward with confidence to the future. The time has come to say sorry.
I speak today against the background of a natural wonder—Delicate Arch. The great American nature writer who has influenced me enormously, Edward Abbey, described this fantastic object of nature as having the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper than ours. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on Earth is the most strange and daring of all adventures.
We are a proud nation. A courageous nation.
But we must be honest with ourselves. In our attempts at environmental leadership, we have, at times, failed to embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems and have taken paths that are wholly and predictably unsustainable. Old approaches have failed. Our future must be based on mutual respect, mutual resolve, and mutual responsibility. The often damaging and dangerous notions, fantasies, and myths of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny that continue to influence American political ideology must be confined to history. They belong to the ages. A State cannot be exceptional when faced with the destructive effects of global warming. I am both an American and a globalist. A denial of exceptionalism does not deny the heart and soul of this nation. We are all different, and we must not forget that we are created equal.
Some former holders of this privileged office of President have made a positive and lasting contribution to protect this Earth. Former President John F. Kennedy, a true visionary, declared that more than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all those who wish to be free.
Richard Nixon ushered in the decade of the environment and established our Environmental Protection Agency, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton built on the public lands legacy started by Theodore Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who recognized that the environment had a direct connection to democratic ideals and that the conservation of natural resources was a duty we owe to our children and our children’s children. For Roosevelt, conservation was a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of our nation.
But others of this office pushed pro-growth, anti-regulatory, anti-environmental agendas, politicizing the scientific debate by ignoring scientific evidence, distorting facts, and leading to the censorship of scientists and reports—doing so at the peril of our nation and the world, leading to morality-based politics. Science and religion are not rivals. They are complementary. Our choice is not one, as some alarmed commentators and politicians appear to believe, of science or the humanities. We must learn to create unbreakable bonds between the disciplines of science and humanities. We cannot procrastinate. The world of the future is in our making. We have a moral responsibility to be intelligent about these things. But moral advances must keep up with scientific advances.