Thomas K. Wessels, MAFaculty Emeritus
Department of Environmental Studies
To Restory America
Tom Wessels, Commencement Speaker
Tom Wessels, core faculty in the Department of Environmental Studies, spoke about the need to reclaim the story the nation’s founders told about the kind of country the United States should be. The story has shifted from thrift and community to consumption and the individual. The myriad problems we face today cannot truly begin to be addressed until we frame the story differently.
Although Tom did not speak from a prepared text, much of what he said was based on a previously written piece, reproduced here.
To Restory America
by Tom Wessels
During the past year the debate concerning global climate change has clearly shifted. Although there is still a vocal minority who discredit the idea, the majority of the public, the scientific community, and even politicians now believe that climate change is a serious issue. Yet meaningful actions to address this issue at both the personal and legislative levels are slow to come. I believe that the underlying reason for this lack of movement is that environmental action runs contrary to our reigning cultural values. I also believe this is why the environmental movement lost traction after so many gains in the 1970s, because it never sought to change the core driver of environmental degradation-our current cultural story.
The stories that cultures embrace very strongly mold how their people and governing institutions behave. A culture’s story can either lift its people to a more noble bearing or drive them to create the most terrible injustices. Stories of religious intolerance have caused people around the world to engage in the most horrific practices all in the name of God, when clearly these actions have absolutely nothing to do with godliness.
If we objectively step back and look at all that is coming to us from the media, advertising, the entertainment industry, even our political leaders, we will see a cultural story-constantly reinforced-that is focused on the importance of the individual and the need to consume. Have it your way. Verizon will give you the world.
This story has clearly invaded the political arena as well. In the past our political leaders addressed us as citizens. This legislation will be good for the citizens of this country. Today it is rare to hear the word citizen in political discourse. We more frequently hear that legislation is good for the consumer. One might say that individual consumption has become the icon of our culture. Just as Good Friday ushers in the high holy days of the Christian faith, we now have the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, ushering in the high holy days of consumption.
I contend that a story focused on the importance of the individual and the need to consume is not the hallmark of a great society. It is also a very different story from the one under which this nation was founded.
The first three words of the United States Constitution frame our original story-We the People. This is a very different notion than the importance of the individual. Rarely do we hear these days about the importance of the people. We hear a lot about freedom, but I believe most people in the country today interpret it as freedom for the individual. I teach in New Hampshire and that state’s motto, Live Free or Die, gets a lot of attention. Newcomers often joke about the motto since it conveys such a rugged sense of libertarianism. Many people interpret this motto as, either I am going to be free or I am going to die. Yet when this phrase was first delivered by revolutionary war general John Stark, he wasn’t talking about individual freedom, but freedom for the people. It was this high ideal for which one should sacrifice life.
Freedom for the people requires individuals to sacrifice for the greater good. Freedom for the individual fosters a lack of awareness of the greater good. Sacrifice is derived from sacred. To sacrifice means to move toward the sacred. The story about We the People is a story about the greater good, as such it is a story inherent in all spiritual traditions. It is a story that can bring us closer to the sacred.
Another important aspect of the original American story was frugality. Being frugal was not only an important family and civic activity, but an important religious one as well. I don’t know when the last time I heard the word frugal was. It seems to have been dropped from our lexicon.
How could the cultural story of America change so sharply from a focus on the importance of the people and frugality to one that currently focuses on the importance of the individual and consumption?
When the founding fathers created our governing institutions they realized how fragile democracy was. Any entity that could centralize power was a threat to the concept of We the People. This is why they created clear separation of powers, a separation between church and state, and also why corporations had no rights of political speech. When this country was founded corporations were banned from any political activity. That started to change during the Civil War when corporate might grew dramatically as industrial output exploded to service the Union army. This changing role of corporate power in the political process was one of Abraham Lincoln’s worst fears. In a letter to a friend at the close of the Civil War, Lincoln writes:
“It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.” 1
A little more than a decade after Lincoln penned this letter the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Southern Pacific Railroad over Santa Clara County. Although not specifically stated in the ruling, the court’s decision was interpreted as granting corporations the Second Amendment rights of person-hood and as a result the right of political speech.
At the same time captains of industry noted that industrial output could easily overwhelm the needs of the American populace. From their perspective, a new story was needed-a story that would focus on the importance of the individual and the need to consume. Their crafting of this new story was so effective that in less than a century it changed a civic minded and frugal citizenry into one of the most consumptive and self-absorbed peoples in the world.
If we truly want to create a better world, a more just world where we work to improve environmental quality for future generations, then America needs a different story-a compelling story. But we don’t need a new story. As an ecologist I have been involved in projects attempting to restore damaged ecosystems. Restore means to bring back. We don’t need to create a new cultural story, we need only to bring back our original story-an empowering story about We the People, frugality, and sacrificing for the greater good.
This is not only a story that will foster meaningful environmental action, but it is also a story that will create healthier communities, healthier families, and healthier individuals. For decades opponents to environmental action have told us it’s either the environment or jobs, or nature versus people. I believe this rhetoric of competing interests offers a very incomplete assessment.
For millennia all religious and spiritual traditions have warned against unwarranted consumption. Now psychological studies confirm what spiritual teachers have taught for centuries. As a populace becomes more and more consumptive, emotional health declines as rates of depression and anxiety increase. It is predicted that during the upcoming decade depression will become the second leading cause of disability in the developed world.
As a social species we are hard-wired to need meaningful contact with others in our communities and families. However, as people become focused on material consumption more time is spent making money, developing wealth, acquiring possessions, and maintaining image with less and less time in meaningful contact with others. As a result people become more isolated from their communities, from their families, and even from themselves through diminished time for reflective practice. The more isolated people become the greater the rates of depression and anxiety. A story that focuses away from the individual and consumption toward frugality and the greater good of the community is a story that will not only benefit the environment, but also communities, families, and individuals.
If we are ever going to enact significant and sustained environmental action in this country, and the world, we need to change our current cultural story and embrace one that compels people to take less and give much more. If we don’t we will continue to fight the same battles driven by our need to consume, all the while witnessing ever increasing global environmental degradation and human suffering. In the words of fellow ecologist and writer Robin Kimmerer, our most important challenge is to Restory America.
1. Hartman, Thomas. 2002. Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. Rodale Inc. p. 69.