Posted by: David Offutt | March 25, 2019

Manifest Destiny and the Gilded Age vs. Man-Made Climate Change (Part 2)

David Offutt at the Grave of Daniel Boone, Dutzow, Missouri (July 1976): As I recall, I’m pointing toward the Missouri River in the valley below. Seeking “elbow room,” Boone epitomized the American thirst for expansion. This is one of two gravesites for the American hero. Kentucky wanted both Daniel and his wife Rebecca reburied near Fort Boonesboro, but Daniel’s slave knew Daniel believed that Kentucky cheated him out of his land and did not want to return there. He identified a stranger buried on one side of Rebecca as being Daniel, which left Daniel on the other side of Rebecca to remain in Missouri. Kentucky contests this claim.

In his influential letter, or manifesto, to the National Chamber of Commerce in 1971, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell professed his fear that capitalism was in danger. He observed that in recent years Americans had been voting for candidates who supported conservation of resources, preservation of public lands, clean water, clean air, safer workplaces, safer consumer products, et al. – and, after all, the first Earth Day was in 1970. Big Business was relenting and making concessions.

Mr. Powell suggested numerous methods that could be led by the Chamber of Commerce to re-educate the voters so that they would reject these policies in favor of candidates who supported the deregulation of Big Business and of instilling fear into voters that a concern for the environment and other regulations would result in the elimination of jobs.

Consequently, billionaires – like the Koch brothers – began funneling millions of dollars into think tanks – like the Heritage Foundation – to figure out how to market anti-environmental policies to the public and into the campaigns of candidates who agreed to do their bidding. The Federalist Society was formed to groom lawyers and judges – like Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh – to work for plutocratic rule.

David Offutt at Fort Mandan State Historic Site in North Dakota (summer 1980): this is a replica of the fort built by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The explorers spent their first winter here near a Mandan village. Thomas Jefferson wanted to know what resources were in the Louisiana Territory and who was living there.

Within ten years their efforts brought forth major Republican Party victories in 1980 that reintroduced a new Gilded Age: Ronald Reagan, the long-time spokesman for General Electric, won the presidency by saying that government was the problem and not the solution; also, Republicans regained the Senate for the first time since the early Eisenhower years – this sent shockwaves through the Democratic-controlled House, resulting in the transformation of the Democratic Party into a much more conservative party that began to ignore the workaday folks that it once represented. The Elections of 2018 indicate that the Democrats may be trying to re-find their roots, but they haven’t gotten there yet.

This all came about just as we had learned about global warming from studies by Exxon’s scientists (1978) and needed to be increasing our concerns about the environment instead of neglecting it and making it worse. The convincing propaganda and the vast spending of plutocratic millions that sprang from the Powell Manifesto certainly were instrumental in turning the public around and getting it to favor plutocratic rule. But why were the people so easily convinced to vote against their own best interests? And why is it so hard to get people to understand why today’s climate change is taking place because of long-time, on-going human activities.

David Offutt at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park near Placerville, Calif. (July 1983): James Marshall discovered gold in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill on the American River and set off the Gold Rush of ’49. The U.S. government offers leases on public lands for mining, oil, and gas, often jeopardizing the pristine nature of the parks.

Ronald Reagan always looked at American history through a rose-colored lens. His “It’s morning in America again” had great popular appeal. He repeated Warren G. Harding’s slogan that we needed to “return to normalcy.” Most Americans may have limited knowledge of our history, but they know our legends and traditions and are steeped in concepts of “patriotism” and “American exceptionalism.”

The term Manifest Destiny may not have been specifically addressed until the Age of Jackson, but the desire for land and its resources helped lead to the American Revolution. The British had prohibited colonial expansion west of the Appalachians with its Proclamation Line of 1763. Great Britain was honoring its agreements with the Native Americans that it had made during the French and Indian War.

After the revolution, the newly created United States of America had no such intention. The Northwest Ordinance provided a methodical manner of settling the areas between the Appalachians and Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, regardless of its occupation by its indigenous peoples. A coerced treaty with Spain gave us Florida and a westward extension of Florida to the Mississippi River, which also was already occupied by Native Americans.

David Offutt and a Conestoga Wagon at Scott’s Bluff National Monument in Nebraska (1980): The Oregon Trail began at Independence or St. Joseph, Missouri. Beyond Scott’s Bluff the trail forks with one route continuing to Oregon and the other to Sacramento, Calif. The one-time three-month trek now may take less than three days. I had a lot of fun on my summertime cross-country trips, but I also contributed to the carbon imprint along the way.

Our early colonists had used farmland abandoned by or taken from the original inhabitants but continued expanding inland. The great forests that consumed carbon dioxide were continuously chopped down to be used for building purposes, to make way for roads, or were burned to clear farmland. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the following Lewis and Clark Expedition led to the inevitable conclusion that it was our “manifest destiny” to expand all the way to the Pacific.

There’s always something in the land that needed to be exploited, and it’s still true. Mining was another thing to be developed. From the first colonists, it seems that there was always “gold in them thar hills.” Gold or silver, it mattered not. And if there were Native Americans already there, well, that didn’t matter either. The “forty-niners” went to California. “Pike’s Peak or Bust” was the mantra that led get-rich-quickers to Colorado. Gold in the sacred “Indian” grounds of the Dakota’s Black Hills resulted in the demise of Custer and his 7th Cavalry.

David Offutt at a reconstructed sod house at Ash Hollow State Park in Nebraska (1980): Lewis and Clark’s description of the Great Plains as the “Great American Desert” wasn’t quite right. The trick was irrigation and nature. Too much rain brings flooding and too little rain brings drought. Both of these extremes will be even more prevalent as we continue to change the climate. Memories of the Great Depression are always there. The recent flooding of the Missouri River inundated much of Omaha’s Offutt Air Force Base, the Strategic Command Center, reminding us of the Defense Department’s warning that anthropomorphic climate change threatens our national security.

Mining frequently led to the pollution of the drinking waters of man and beast. The Trumpistas today are eagerly trying to open more of our public lands to mining and drilling, and if they have to reduce the size of our national monuments (like the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments), so be it. A ban on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon is about to expire and probably won’t be renewed by the current administration. This will jeopardize the water supply of the Havasupai tribe at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Improvements in transportation and communication eventually had a negative impact on air quality. Big surprise, huh? Steam engines and railroads were vital to the development of the nation in the early 19th century.  California and Oregon were originally reached by wagon train and the overland walk across the mid-continent. The South’s absence from the U.S. Congress allowed the passage of bills to build a transcontinental railroad and the Homestead Act. Both were signed by “that abolitionist” Abraham Lincoln.

David Offutt at the Great Western Cattle Co. in Abilene’s Old Town in Kansas (1980): James G. McCoy owned this company, and it was said that if you bought your beef from him, you were sure to get “the real McCoy.” Abilene was the end of the Chisholm Trail which led north from the ranches in Texas. Herds were led to the rail head to be shipped to the Chicago stockyards and meatpacking plants. We now realize that cow poop adds methane into the atmosphere and methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Fueled by logs or coal, trains eventually crisscrossed the nation chugging their carbon dioxide-laden smoke into the atmosphere. Today, railroad transportation is one of the most efficient and environmentally responsible solutions to our crisis, but the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world and is resistant to improving it. Amtrak provides a great service, but it’s only second or third rate compared with transit systems in many other countries.

Our great wealth was created by the development of electricity, iron, steel, oil, and the financial industry. Many industries that provided jobs were/are powered by coal-fired plants that cough an abundance of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Colonel Edwin Drake’s first oil well in Titusville, Penn., in 1859, made oil accessible and changed the world. The 20th century introduced the automobile to replace the horse, trucks to replace wagons, and airplanes to unite the planet – and all have added to the greenhouse gas impact in our atmosphere.

David Offutt in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana (1980): This marker is not a grave stone. It marks where one of George Armstrong Custer’s cavalrymen was found dead on June 25, 1876. Crazy Horse achieved a tactical victory here and wiped out the 7th Cavalry. However, it was a strategic blunder because it united most U.S. citizens against the Native Americans and accelerated the loss of lands they had lived on for generations. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the U.S. violated its treaty with the “Indians” and allowed prospectors to invade sacred lands, thus setting off the rebellion. It was a clash of two distinctly different cultures.

The stench may have been unpleasant and the air and water unhealthy to consume, but only a few, until 1978, realized that we were also burning up the planet. Exxon’s scientists figured out what we were doing, but Exxon’s management began a systematic campaign to sow doubts in what their own people had discovered. Now, one of our two major parties has become devoted to denying that what we are doing to the atmosphere has anything to do with why the temperature continues to rise.

Since oil, coal, electricity, and transportation have been so important in human progress for so many years, how do we get enough people to recognize that we can’t continue to burn fossil fuels and maintain the quality of life on earth as we know it? How do we get those industries that make money from the destruction of our environment to do anything about it?

David Offutt at Mooney Falls on the Havasupai Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (July 1997): It’s been our tradition to support development over preservation, and it’s also been our tradition to ignore the needs and wishes of our indigenous peoples. I’ve been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon five times, and two of those times were not land maintained by the National Park Service. The Havasupai have a public campground near two beautiful waterfalls, which makes it my favorite destination in the canyon. Here, I am at Mooney Falls, which is the most difficult of the two falls to reach – the descent to where I am would never be certified safe by national park standards. The ban against uranium mining near here will soon expire and the current administration plans to not renew the ban. The potable drinking water of the Havasupai will then be in jeopardy. Do we care?

We have been intentionally perpetuating the crisis for the past 40 years. Since it’s still going on, you can see why it’s so hard to change. It’s who we are: expansion, exploitation of our “unlimited” resources, dreams of becoming millionaires – Manifest Destiny and the Gilded Age all rolled into one. Greed is a powerful preventative for change. It’s easier to listen to those who say we can keep doing what we’re doing than it is to ask, “What do we need to do to save our planet?” And then, it’s really difficult to get anyone to take action – especially our own government.



  1. “Within ten years their efforts brought forth major Republican Party victories in 1980 … won the presidency by saying that government was the problem and not the solution”

    Umm … you skipped over the part where Jimmy Carter’s neoliberal policies screwed up the economy so bad that voters were willing to vote for anyone but Carter. The Democratic party’s failure to learn from its mistakes results in those mistakes being repeated again and again.

    “resulting in the transformation of the Democratic Party into a much more conservative party”

    That transformation was well underway with the election of our first neoliberal president, Jimmy Carter. Some would say the transformation actually began in 1944, when Democratic party bosses rigged the convention to shove Henry Wallace aside and replace him with Dixiecrat Harry Truman.

    “why were the people so easily convinced to vote against their own best interests?

    Maybe because no one who represents their best interests has ever been on the ballot? Maybe because the Democratic party has a history of rigging the candidate selection process?

    “I had a lot of fun on my summertime cross-country trips, but I also contributed to the carbon imprint along the way.”

    Yep. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

    “It’s who we are.”

    Yep. Good essay, David (other than your usual glossing over of Democratic party failures). I will share it later today after I get out of Facebook jail.

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