The Earth Belongs to the Living…Sort Of.

In September of 1789, shortly before the first Congress of the several States was convened, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison from Paris. It was the last letter in a years-long correspondence with Madison concerning the Bill of Rights, which was to be proposed at that first Congress. In that final dispatch Jefferson raised an issue that the burgeoning American government had yet to consider:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government.

Jefferson seems baffled. To his knowledge this critical intergenerational issue had not been addressed in the founding documents.

As insightful as this first passage may have been, Jefferson’s letter is more well-known for the next rumination, the one where he prophetically acknowledges, “I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” To the modern man, this seems only a casual observation; of course dead people have no powers or rights over the earth… they’re dead. But 18th century wig-wearing men talked funny. It is Jefferson’s careful choice of words that reveals his apparent ability to time travel.

On the surface, Jefferson focuses the attention of his letter on generational debt and land transference. He’s urging Madison to consider how the new States want to deal with moral issues associated with an older generation contracting large debts, and then leaving the settlement of that debt to the next generation. However, his use of the word “usufruct” exposes a much broader sentiment about stewardship and intergenerational justice.

In the historical context, as well as the modern one, “usufruct”, which I had to look up, refers to “the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself.” It appears that Jefferson and his contemporaries had a well-established philosophy of intergenerational responsibility, the likes of which are completely absent from our national discourse at present. Just to be clear, Jefferson is writing to James Madison—the principle author of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights—to impress upon him the importance of preserving future generations’ opportunities by actively advocating for them. The timing of his letter suggests that Jefferson was urging Mr. Madison to enter such a license into the impending Bill of Rights. Of course, no such Article was explicitly included in the Bill of Rights or any subsequent amendment to the Constitution.

The fundamental question is this: Does the living crop of humans on our one shared Earth have a moral obligation to consider the well being of the next crop? The founders of our great Nation believed that we do and long before Europeans set up shop in the New World, native cultures understood the importance of considering future generations when making current decisions. The now-ubiquitous Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Nation required their people to work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. Ask yourself this, what kind of world do you want to leave for your children and grandchildren? I’m a newly married man, so for me this question has shifted from abstraction to reality. I want my children to have the opportunity to leave a better world for their children, my grandchildren. That’s what this website is about.

What if everyone (myself included) considered how their actions affect future generations? I take every element of our industrialized society for granted because it’s all I’ve ever known.  I grew up in this world of plenty, where everything I could possibly need or want was readily available and cheap. I’ve been indoctrinated with the paradigm of infinite economic and material growth since the day I was born. But when my children are born they will be coming into a different reality, a reality I will explore through this public forum of self-expression.

I’m just like you. I want my life to keep coasting on the tailwinds of all the modern comforts I’ve enjoyed until now. However I can no longer fully participate in our consumption culture without feeling that I’m contracting a large debt and leaving it to my children to pay down.

Thomas Jefferson sought to officially establish our collective responsibility to leave the Earth, not just habitable, but in prosperous condition for future generations. Can you imagine what kind of world we would be living in had his sentiments been given legislative teeth? Towards the end of his letter to James Madison, Jefferson makes another critical point, “On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.”  He correctly observes that governing documents and indeed the societies that they govern are subject to the current milieu, not some past version of reality. Our context is changing and we would do well to change with it.

14 comments

  1. yodelheckJay Standish

    The moral question of intergenerational justice is an important one, and you’ve done a great job showing us how this issue has itself been around for generations. I look forward to hearing more example-based discussion from you for those of us who may be less inclined toward purely philosophical discussion. What are today’s opportunities for intergenerational care, akin to the crafting of the Constitution? Where do we need to make an effort to make sure long-term affordances are made for our descendants?

  2. Mikki

    Usually I do not read post on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice post.

  3. Pingback: The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson « Unnatural Disasters
  4. google advertising jobs

    I was curious if you ever thought of changing the structure of your site?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content
    so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful
    lot of text for only having one or 2 pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

  5. Free 100 Instagram Likes

    Hey there would you mind letting me know which hosting company you’re using?

    I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different web browsers and I must say this blokg oads a lot quicker then most.
    Can you suggest a good hosting provider at a reasonable
    price? Thanks, I appreciate it! buy instant likes on instagram

  6. mortgage broker calgary

    Remove large or inappropriate trees – trees that are too tall or too big for
    the outdoor space can be terribly hideous.
    There are many private financial lending institutions that specialize
    in bad credit loans that you can put towards the house of your dreams.
    Once you select one of the mortgage brokers that you think you would like to work with, interview him.

  7. Lawanna

    Recomenda-se fazer de 20 a 30 minutos de atividade vigorosa
    três ou mais vezes por semana e algum tipo de atividade
    de fortalecimento muscular, tais como levantamento de peso e alongamentos pelo menos duas vezes por semana, ou atividades
    de intensidade moderada durante 30 mim ou mais, pelo menos
    cinco vezes por semana.

  8. Etsuko

    Par ailleurs, l’excès de graisse contenue dans l’alimentation est stocké quand la dépense énergétique
    ne nécessite pas son utilisation d’où l’importance de pratiquer de l’exercice physique, notamment du cardio.

Let's Have a Discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s