The Founders and Climate Change

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

It must get a Republican’s hackles up when a Democrat talks about the founding fathers. After all, it was Republican Warren G. Harding who coined the term, first using it in his keynote address at the 1916 Republican National Convention. The term is less than one hundred years old, much younger that our family roots in Virginia where ancestors named their male children after well known revolutionaries from the state. Leave it to a Republican to omit women as founders, but women’s suffrage and the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution wouldn’t come until four years later. Harding, while elected as president in a landslide in 1920, was never a visionary, unable to see the scandals in his own administration.

What we know about the founders was they were part of a natural aristocracy, or gentry, as Stow Persons described it in his book “The Decline of American Gentility,” based more on talent and taste than birth or financial status. 13 were merchants, seven were major land speculators, 11 were large scale securities speculators, 14 owned or managed plantations or large farms operated by slaves, eight received a substantial percentage of their income from holding public office and the rest were occupied as small farmers, scientists, physicians, retirees and other occupations. There is no evidence my forbears were included in this group, although they were in Virginia by 1680.

I never thought much about the founders while growing up, focusing on those revolutionary figures who were from Virginia, where my father’s family settled: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison. I also liked Thomas Paine, who while not a Virginian, wrote the practical sounding and popular pamphlet “Common Sense.” He also wrote “The Age of Reason,” his book that advocates deism, promotes reason and freethinking, and argues against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular. We’re getting to the point of this post.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen and George Washington were deists, or influenced by them. Deists insisted that religious truth should be subject to the authority of human reason rather than divine revelation. Consequently, they denied that the Bible was the revealed word of God and rejected scripture as a source of religious doctrine.

They were also products of the Age of Enlightenment which was a cultural movement intending “to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method.” These views proved to be unpopular, and emblematic of this was the fact that only six people attended Thomas Paine’s funeral as he had been ostracized for his ridicule of Christianity.

Anyone who knows this history must see the irony of modern day citizens who constantly refer to the founders, yet eschew the scientific method, especially as it pertains to climate change. We know why that is.

In mass society, media plays an important role in educating the public, just as Paine’s “Common Sense” informed the American Revolution. The public’s attention has been bought and sold by the hydrocarbon industry through prolific and continuous advertising. The executives of the oil, coal and gas industry must know the science of climate change, and that they are mortgaging their children’s future to make a buck near term. Yet they continue their work as slaves in the fields of corporatism.

There was an age of enlightenment, but its promotion of scientific inquiry has today been replaced by something else. A combination of misinformation, partisan politics and fundamentalist faith. Arguments about the science of climate change fall on many deaf ears, and opposing voices create a voluminous din that echoes in valleys carved over millennia that predate Europeans on this soil.

As I write this post, I am reminded of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

My response to this is simple, climate change is real, it’s caused by us, the effects on humans are getting worse, and we can do something about it without changing our way of life or hurting our economy. We should do something about it before it’s too late. The founders resolved the issue of their time, now is the time for us to return the favor by solving the climate crisis.

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