Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day 2012

We learn from an early age that this is a day to celebrate our declaration of independence from Britain.  We commemorate a time 236 years ago, when great leaders penned their signatures to a document that contained a wonderful statement on human rights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

So as we celebrate with barbeques, patriotic music, and fireworks (except in the over 20 states where these are banned this year because of the extremely dry conditions and fear of fires), let us pause to consider this statement and its implications.  According to a blog post published by the Huffington Post today[1]:

Independence Day has always been a time for reflection in the United States. The opportunity for the nation to collectively consider whether it has lived up to the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence. 
Below are a few random thoughts that I had, thoughts that are not meant to be unpatriotic, but may be interpreted that way by some.  They are meant to reflect on what our nation has become despite all our struggles for freedom, independence, democracy, and a betterment of the human condition.

Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought[2]

We are a country that has, over the centuries, been a destination for those seeking freedom from religious persecution or political asylum, or just a better life.  It is our heritage.  So why do we now struggle with immigration policy issues?  Why does the religion, family heritage, race, or gender of candidates come up in presidential elections?  Why are there still racial tensions?  Do we truly believe that all “are created equal”?  I think not.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a blog entitled “National Aboriginal Day – The Elder Project”[3]  It begins as follows:

On a Sunday in August, 1876, Reverend D. J. Burrell stood in front of his congregation in Chicago, not long after the battle of the Little Bighorn, and said:

"Who shall be held responsible for this event so dark and sorrowful? The history of our dealings with these Indian tribes from the very beginning is a record of fraud, and perjury, and uninterrupted injustice. We have made treaties, binding ourselves to the most solemn promises in the name of God, intending at that very time to hold these treaties light as air whenever our convenience should require them to be broken. We have driven them each year further from their original homes and hunting-grounds. We have treated them as having absolutely no rights at all. We have made beggars of them."

Our historical record on treatment of Native Americans (or African Americans or immigrants from Latin America) certainly doesn’t reflect the intent in the statement within our Declaration. 
Another perspective of Little Bighorn, was recently written by Chris Hedges[4]; I suggest you read it.  He speaks of the resistance led by Crazy Horse, and how this history is pertinent today.

Their land was stolen, their communities were decimated, their women and children were gunned down and the environment was ravaged.  There was no legal recourse.  There was no justice.  There never is for the oppressed.

And less you think, “Well that was a long time ago, it wouldn’t happen now”, I invite you to read the recent series published by Environmental Health News entitled Pollution, Poverty, People of Color[5], especially Part 5 entitled “Sacred water, new mine: A Michigan tribe battles a global corporation” – a story about a place near and dear to me as I grew up close by.

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!

Tame that wilderness.  Exploit its resources.  Tame the “savages”.  Assimilate them into our schools and churches.  It is what those in power have always done since civilization began, what they continue to do.  Today, those in power are the 1% and the corporations have been given rights once reserved for the individual (i.e. as in humans).

IN every Stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every Act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

Over the past year, the Occupy Movement has focused our attention on the unequal distribution of wealth in this country.  When one has wealth, and relatively few do, there is inequitable access to power and control, security, and the pursuit of things that should make us happy.  While we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world (#1 by GDP unless you concern the European Union as a “country”), we are certainly not the happiest, despite our pursuit of it.  According to the World Happiness Report:
U.S. GNP per capita has risen by a factor of three since 1960, while measures of average happiness have remained essentially unchanged over the half-century.[6]

In the report A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index[7], His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck , King of Bhutan, is reported to have said
Our nation’s vision can only be fulfilled if the scope of our dreams and aspirations are matched by the reality of our commitment to nurturing our future citizens.

Investing in our youth.  Hmmmm….As states cut back on education funding, forcing school districts to send out pink slips to teachers and eliminate “nonessential” things from the curriculum ranging from the arts to science labs—the very things that bring beauty and creativity into our lives.  The very things that might even lead to the development of future innovators who could help solve some of the global challenges that we are passing on to them.  At a minimum, shouldn’t we invest in the future of our youth, so that they have a chance for a future in which they can pursue happiness rather than figure out a way to fight their way out of poverty, crime, and a decimated environment?

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!

Other key factors that have been identified in contributing to happiness include psychological wellbeing, personal health, a healthy, diverse, and resilient environment, and time to enjoy it.  Yet we debate the constitutionality and benefits of “Obamacare” (which is really the Affordable Care Act), and there is a loud cry to reduce environmental regulations that companies should abide by—because it “hurts jobs and the economy”.

In the above mentioned piece by Chris Hedges, he writes:
ExxonMobil, BP and the coal and natural gas companies—like the colonial buffalo hunters who left thousands of carcasses rotting in the sun after stripping away the hides, and in some cases carrying away only the tongues—will never impose rational limits on themselves.  They will exploit, like the hustlers before them who eliminated the animals that sustained the native peoples of the Great Plains, until there is nothing left to exploit.  Collective suicide is never factored into quarterly profit reports.  Forget all those virtuous words they taught you in school about our system of government.  The real words to describe American power are “plunder,” “fraud,” “criminality,” deceit,” “murder” and repression.”

 Ouch.  Heresy!  How unpatriotic of Mr. Hedges.  How true his words.

Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

We fought to be free of British control, yet we continue to invade other countries.  Is this for the protection of our shorelines, from sea to shining sea?  To preserve our amber waves of genetically modified grains?  Or perhaps to preserve our interests in places that have vast natural resources like oil reserves and rare minerals that are needed for our electronics,  for our addictions to fossil fuels and the need for more “stuff”.
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

Unbeknownst to many Americans is the belief that a new form of colonialism exists in the world, whether it takes the form of “nation building” or carbon offset programs like REDD sanctioned by the United Nations and World Bank.  You can read more about what REDD is all about at a U.N. site[8], but suffice it to say that indigenous groups from around the planet have a very different view on this policy than say, the countries of the Global North.[9]

I mentioned above that over 20 states have banned fireworks this year due to the extreme drought conditions and fears of more fires such as have been raging in the West.  It doesn’t seem like a piece on Independence Day is the place to bring up climate change (despite the fires, excessive heat and broken records, the recent flooding in Minnesota, Florida, and India, etc., etc.).  But indeed, instead of being outside in my garden or taking a hike, I sit inside typing this because of the blistering heat and humidity.  The forecast is for the hottest 4th of July in many parts of the country – ever. 

In this piece, I have reflected a bit on the exploitation of land and people and our less-than-stellar treatment of Native peoples.  Our country’s refusal to confront the growing problems associated with climate change shows that we continue our long history of negatively impacting people who live close to the land (and sea) and our tradition of altering natural environments.  But it appears that we are now also seeing the beginnings of what climate change will do to this wonderful nation, all 100% of us.  Not in 2100 as the models predict, but now.

In the text of the Declaration of Independence, the authors list a long “Train of Abuses and Usurpations” of the King of Great Britain, one of which reads:

HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns,

and destroyed the Lives of our People.

Could not this great country now be charged with the same atrocities?

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee.

[2] Several passages of less known verses of America the Beautiful are included in this rambling.

[3] From  See also or the films “Rabbit-Proof Fence” or “The Mission”.

[7] Ura, K., et al. (2012) A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index, available at

[9] For example, see a summary of this issues and concerns at


  1. Thank you Diane. Provocative and probing piece. And in my mind, the perfect day for it. Thanks as well for the references, especially for distributing Chris Hedges' thought. (Appreciate your social activist voice.)

  2. Really powerful writing, Diane. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful piece to ponder.