Stewart Udall: Excerpts of “A Letter to My Grandchildren”

My generation’s mistakes, your generation’s epic challenge

To My Grandchildren

This is the most important letter I will ever write. It concerns your future—and the tomorrows of the innumerable human beings who share this vulnerable, fragile planet with you.

It involves changes that must be made if environmental disasters are to be avoided. The response to this challenge will shape the future of the entire human race….

Where the atmosphere is concerned, irrefutable evidence is rapidly accumulating. The carbon in the atmosphere is increasing every day and little is being done to slow this insidious trend. There is no dispute about the huge contribution the United States has made—and is making every day—to the overall problem.

Although the problem is global, and it will take unprecedented global cooperation to develop effective programs to curb carbon emissions, the United States is the world’s economic superpower. So it is obvious that a concerted campaign of countermeasures can’t be mounted as long as this country continues to pretend the world’s scientists should be ignored.

Haunted by Misjudgments

Operating on the assumption that energy would be both cheap and superabundant, I admit, led my generation to make misjudgments that have come back and now haunt and perplex your generation. We designed cities, buildings, and a national system of transportation that were inefficient and extravagant. Now, the paramount task of your generation will be to correct those mistakes with an efficient infrastructure that respects the limitations of our environment to keep up with damages we are causing….

Two Americas

… There were actually two Americas in the 1930s where energy was concerned. Roughly half of all Americans resided in metropolitan areas or in mid-sized cities where industrial activity was dominant. These folks had electricity and were served by railroads that provided first-rate service for passengers and industries. The other half lived in rural areas, small towns, and on farms. Some rural families owned used cars but, in my region in the Southwest, except for large communities like Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver, few homes had access to electric power….

Shattered Hopes, Hardscrabble Dreams

Drastic changes will be in order. That is why I believe the transition my generation made from 1930 to 1946 and beyond needs to be evaluated and emulated. Hopes were shattered and replaced with misery in the first years of the Depression, but everyone realized they had to adapt to a different economy and a spare lifestyle….

All Together Now

Optimism had a brief surge in the 1930s with the advent of radio and talking pictures. Radio had a positive influence on national culture. It gave a president the power to tell the country what he was trying to accomplish. It also enabled families to sit in a circle to hear news reports—and be entertained….Those technologies made families more cohesive and created a “we’re all in this together” spirit that encouraged positive thinking at a time when there was no national “safety net.”…

Now Is the Time

It is now time to redirect that sweat, genius, and hope in a brand-new direction. After a decade of dillydallying, it is clear that the world is waiting for the United States to step forward, as it did so often in the postwar period, and organize a bold agenda of technological cooperation that reverses global warming. A comprehensive action plan is needed that will inspire your generation to develop inventions that provide universal benefits for humanity.

…Moreover, the ticking of our planet’s clock is getting louder, so all-embracing action is needed.

Using new tools, scientists, engineers, and designers can develop super-efficient ways to use existing energy and invent permanent energy supplies to sustain life on earth. This can be accomplished if the world’s richest countries, with the U.S. in the vanguard, provide bold leadership….

Big Trouble, Big Opportunities

A time of big troubles can also be a time of big opportunities. Imagine that the 20 most prosperous nations—whose belching energy industries have put three-fourths of all manmade carbon emissions into the atmosphere—joined together and created a scientific consortium to both deal with the urgent problems posed by the end of cheap oil and the warming of the earth, and develop renewable sources of energy for the world at large….

Such an exciting agenda would have many facets. Architects, builders, and designers are already telling us that the built environment is a sector where huge amounts of electricity can be saved. They are convinced that a design revolution involving reconfiguring and renovating residences, offices, and factories can drastically reduce heating and cooling costs. Indeed, they believe the built environment can be made “carbon neutral” and reduce future demand for electric power by perhaps as much as 40 percent.


…Why am I so optimistic about your future? Because the world has had its fill of fear and is hungry for hope….

The challenges that your generation faces will test your ingenuity and generosity. Your eyes will scan horizons that human beings have never contemplated.

Whether you are a person of faith who believes the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, whether you are an individual who has had mystical experiences that link you to the network of eternity, or whether you are a fervent conservationist who wants to leave a legacy for your progeny, the earth needs your devotion and tender care.

Go well, do well, my children! Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our planet. Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!

Steward Udall, who would have been 100 years old yesterday, served as the Secretary of the Interior from 1961-69.  In this role, he helped enact many of America’s most meaningful conservation laws, including the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  His leadership and determination also led to the creation of more than one hundred beloved parks and protected places,  including Canyonlands National Park in Utah, North Cascades National Park in Washington, Redwood National Park in California, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail from Georgia to Maine.  In the decade preceding his death in 2010, Udall published several versions of this beautiful “Letter to My Grandchildren.”  You can find the final version of the full letter on the Santa Fe Conservation Trust website here.                                                        

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