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Liberty of the Community

Cut-over forest destruction in Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

by Paul Bray

A footnote in a FDR biography by Kenneth Davis led me to find a Franklin D. Roosevelt draft for a luncheon speech the former state senator with a future gave at the People’s Forum in Troy in 1912.

What first caught my curiosity was whether the People’s Forum had any similarity to the Albany Roundtable civic lunch forum. That quickly slipped my attention after I read the speech that was as provocative and relevant today as it was when delivered.

FDR began his Troy speech by saying there was a “spirit of unrest” wherever you look around the world. The same can be said today. While he mentioned “the tariff”, “oppression of capital” and “the awakening and education of the labor classes”, FDR was primarily making an argument for conservation of natural resources under the notion of “liberty of the community”. He stressed the need for cooperation amongst people. More than a hundred years after FDR’s speech, President Obama articulated a similar theme in his second inaugural address when he brought up the subject of climate change.

FDR called for finding the underlying reasons for the unrest of his day. This led him first to discuss liberty of the individual. As the fruit of a thousand year struggle to obtain individual freedom, FDR declared “as a whole to-day, in Europe and America, the liberty of the individual has been accomplished.” Yet, he pointed out individual freedom has not created “Utopia.”

Conservation was identified as the primary example of liberty of the community.

Roosevelt did not believe if a man owns lands he should be permitted to do what he likes with it. His explanation was: “The most striking example of what happens in such a case, that I know of, was a picture showed me by Mr. Gifford Pinchot last week. It was a photograph of a walled city in northern China. Four or five hundred years ago this City had been the center of a populous and prosperous district, a district whose mountains and ridges were covered with significant trees. Its streams flowed without interruption and its crops in the valleys prospering. It was known as one of the most prosperous provinces in China, both as a lumbering exporting center and as an agricultural community. To-day, the picture shows the walled town, almost as it stood 500 years ago. There is not a human being within the walls. There are but few human beings in the whole region. Rows upon rows of bare ridges and mountains stretch back from the City without a vestige of tree life, without a vestige of flowing streams and with the bare rocks reflecting the glare of the sun. Below the plains the little soils which remains is parched and unable to yield more than a tiny fraction of its former crops.”

Today Roosevelt could point to the destruction in the northeast from Irene, Lee and Sandy as well as floods, droughts and storms in places around the world as caused by lack of liberty of the community.

Conservationist Bill McKibben is spot on when he says there are a “whole range of avoidance options” to control the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but “we don’t want to deal with it because it’s painful and it’s going to hurt the economy, so we’re going to stick our fingers in our ears and hope it goes away.”

The threats are known. In the late 1990s I saw a presentation by Columbia University’s Earth Institute on how vulnerable New York City was to hurricanes. Yet, the international, national and local responses ranging from controlling emissions of greenhouse gas to adaptations along coast lines and elsewhere to the effects of rising sea levels and storms have been pitifully small. Community interests are being denied.

Let us continue the conversation about liberty of the community articulated by FDR in Troy and by President Obama at his inaugural address until we are as passionate about liberty of the community as the Tea Party and NRA is about liberty of the individual.