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Was Thomas Jefferson an alarmist?

The most discussed text of this week, originally posted on 8/20, is returned to the top for the discussion to be easily available.

James Hansen has released a new scientific paper

The Real Deal: Usufruct & the Gorilla
reflecting the most rigorous kind of scientific "thinking" that this director of a NASA institute is capable or willing to perform these days. He explains that all global warming skeptics are court jesters controlled by big fish who cooperate with an 800-pound gorilla to "destroy Creation". He also argues that no errors in his work can ever matter. I suppose that everyone has already seen these "theories" and everyone could be bored if we responded again.

But there is a brand new "argument" in Hansen's new "paper", after all: it turns out that Thomas Jefferson was an AGW alarmist! Who could have thought? That should finally settle the question about global warming! :-)

How does Dr Hansen prove that Thomas Jefferson was an alarmist? Well, he quotes a letter (click) that Jefferson sent to James Madison during their discussion about the Bill of Rights.

The question whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. ... I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;" that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. ...
Hansen interprets this letter by saying that Jefferson was an environmentalist and the Earth belongs to living beings of all generations. He apparently wants you to believe that the "living" in Jefferson's letter means "Gaia" - the union of all plants, animals, and bacteria of all generations.

If you actually read the whole letter, it is very obvious that Jefferson's point was exactly the opposite. Jefferson said very explicitly that the past generations - the dead people - or the people who are not yet living have no right to control the resources that exist at a given moment or bind the future generations to pay any money (or land). That's a good policy because otherwise we would be governed by zombies which would be bad unless they would be lively zombies. ;-) According to Jefferson as well as any other person who understands some of the basic principles of Western democracy, a generation has no right to bind another generation, e.g. by carbon targets or a territorial debt.

Jefferson declares clearly that everything about these resources should be decided by the people who live at the particular moment. The Earth belongs to them in "usufruct". The purpose of this word - meaning the right to use assets of someone else - seems controversial but I certainly assume that the actual owner according to Jefferson is God or Nature and not future generations or anything of this sort. In the fast comments, I explain why Jefferson's "owner" is a secular version of God whose gift is described in Genesis 1:26.

If you wonder why I seem to think to have so much understanding for Jefferson's feelings, it's because I have spent the last six years in the Jefferson Lab. ;-) More generally, we've made trips to the museums of the Founding Fathers around Boston and I was extremely impressed by their souls and minds. The prominent figures of the Czech National Revival were great guys too but the Founding Fathers were a category above them.

According to the Roman law, to own something in usufruct means to be allowed to use it, enjoy it, have profits from the "fruits" of the property (the word derives from "use" and "fruits"), sell it to someone else in usufruct, but the ownership in usufruct doesn't allow one to alienate the property or destroy its long-term potential to produce. Needless to say, what approach is the right one to use the fruits without destroying the long-term potential returns us to the beginning of the debate (see Rae Ann and Larry in the fast comments): should we preserve the economy or the concentration of CO2?

Nevertheless, it is very obvious that the "living" whom the Earth belongs to are those who live right now and not some people from other generations or even other animals. It is the living people who should decide how to use the resources. Only God or Nature - as the real owner - is above them and no other generation should have any impact on this behavior.

In the context of the environmentalist discussion, Jefferson explains that our generation will have no right to determine the rules of life for the future generations and no right to bind the future generations by protocols because in the future, we will be the dead people who have no business whatsoever to determine how they use Earth. And vice versa: no other generation has the right to determine how we use the resources today because only living people have powers and rights over Earth.

Jefferson even states another important rule quite crisply:

If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants.
In the context of fossil fuels, his sentence means that the first generation or generations have the right to use them. How it could be otherwise? The civilization would be completely dysfunctional if people who don't live right now had any rights to decide what happens tonight. Jefferson knows it, every sane person knows it - probably not only in the West. Hansen doesn't.

According to Jefferson, should our generation try to give gifts to the future generations out of the resources that, as he has explained, effectively belong to the living generation? Do these distant generations have such special relationships with each other and obligations with respect to each other? Once again, Jefferson is very transparent - maybe too transparent for our tastes, tastes of 21st century sissies - about the relationship that should exist between different generations:

... but that between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have perceived that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation to another.

If string theory or another law of Nature doesn't take care of it, there should exist no additional laws that would require societies or generations to sign "contracts" with others or feel any other kind of obligation. Can you read, Dr Hansen? Face it: environmentalism is a textbook example of the intellectual impurity that the Founding Fathers wanted America to be protected against.

While Jefferson says that different generations are independent and can't ever have any obligations to do something for other generations, Hansen "summarizes" Jefferson's principle as follows:

Jefferson's philosophy regarding generational relations was based on this "self-evident" principle. That we have an obligation to preserve Creation for today's and future generations is a widely held belief.
The operation that Hansen has performed is known as negation.

Because political correctness has confused many other topics including the natural relations between different nations, let me also say that when Jefferson talks about different nations, he means that the average love/hatred among them is also naturally near zero and they, too, have no lasting obligations in relations with each other. Do you find all these comments cruel? They may be cruel but they are the best definition of a fair relationship that the Founding Father ended up with after years of deep thought: a relationship based on free and dignified individuals, nations, societies, and generations who have the same rights during their lives.

At any rate, his principle doesn't sound like the environmentalist thesis that the well-being of other generations should play a crucial role in the decisions of our generation. Quite on the contrary: I think that Jefferson says exactly the opposite.


To summarize, I find it bizarre that a director of a NASA institute uses an interpretation of a private letter of a person who lived centuries ago to influence the debate about environmentalism. Why? Well, Thomas Jefferson is dead and no longer living. According to his own rules, he has thus no rights or powers to determine what we do today. ;-)

It is a free decision of the current people to have respect for his ideas and achievements.

But I find it equally worrisome that James Hansen is not even able to understand the point of the letter - and the basic values or at least dreams of the Western democracy - properly and prefers to present it upside-down. If Thomas Jefferson were alive, he would completely agree with your humble correspondent and others that it is self-evident that one can't justify a policy influencing land or resources by referring to generations that are not alive right now because such a non-existent generation can have no right or powers about the Earth the belongs to the living in usufruct.

If you want to do something nice because it may (or may not) bring benefits in the future, it's great (or not), but you can never add "votes" of non-existing people to justify your proposed policies. You must rely on your own vote only. If environmentalists want other people to pay 400 billion USD a year, they want the world to pay the money to themselves, the environmentalists, to satisfy their desires, and they can't hide behind generations that are not alive. Quite obviously, this is hardly acceptable and it won't work.

And that's the memo. Via JunkScience.

Bonus climate articles on The Reference Frame

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