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An Immodest Proposal: Make America Beautiful Again

David Brower once proposed a large-scale focus on the restoration of America’s damaged ecology. The time for that effort is now.

No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening - still all is Beauty!
John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)

Without question, the election of Donald Trump was a perfect storm, driven by many factors, each of which might have drawn enough votes from Clinton to turn the tide.  I want to address only one of them — the lack of an inspiring vision for the Democrats. Make no mistake, Clinton won the popular vote, that much we know.  But the country is deeply split and any effort to move it toward the Left must ask how to best reach a sizeable segment of those who voted for Trump, after having, in some cases, voted for Obama in the past two elections.

abandoned buildingPhoto by Thomas HawkPolitical campaigns must appeal to a moral vision, and one that understands the needs and longings that are common to all of us.

Communications strategist and linguist George Lakoff has often warned that the Left communicates through policies and the presentation of factual data while the Right deals in moral themes and a focus on values. In effect, Democrats speak more to the head and Republicans, to the heart. Short on detail, Trump promised to “make America great again!” an appeal to emotion rather than logic. Clinton countered with “Stronger together!” but with less emotional impact. Trump was weak on facts and policies, and lost the debates convincingly.  But his simple language and appeal to restore an imagined greatness resonated more strongly with a large segment of voters.

Lakoff has suggested that campaigns must appeal to a moral vision, and one that understands the needs and longings that are common to all of us. As for policies, he would focus on themes and legislation that can simultaneously address many of these common needs and longings. He calls such campaigns “strategic initiatives” and, a decade ago, pointed to one — the Apollo Project, a major investment in alternative energy that would simultaneously have created jobs and challenged climate change. 

I want to suggest a new initiative for progressives, a “Make America Beautiful Again” campaign.

Beauty is truth, and truth beauty — John Keats

Whether it is always conscious or not, one thing that almost all Americans share is a love for beautiful surroundings. Though this sometimes atrophies after one lives too long in squalor or ugliness, it seldom dies. I have seen children from devastated inner cities find great inspiration on a backpacking trip to the mountains, for example. In the late 1800s, John Muir marveled that San Francisco’s street urchins, living in squalor, begged him for a flower when he returned from hikes on Mt. Tamalpais.  “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” wrote Muir, “places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

Beauty, in fact, is not only in the eye of the beholder. Witness the diversity of visitors to our national parks, as I have many times, and this becomes clear. One of the most popular Democratic initiatives was Lady Bird Johnson’s 1965 “Beautify America” campaign, about which she wrote: “Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool. All the threads are interwoven — recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local.”   

And one of the most powerful ads ever to grace the television screen portrayed a tearful American Indian in a canoe as he surveyed a littered landscape. In a short time, the idea that it was okay to litter went the way of smoking.

Of course, this is not the beauty that obsesses Trump, whose focus is sexual, and on features that are mostly immutable. But while most of us do not live with supermodels, we are affected by the beauty or ugliness of our surroundings every day. Abraham Maslow included the need for beauty in his hierarchy of needs — at the top, as a factor in self-actualization. Conservatives as well as liberals revel in their flower gardens, and in our parks.

And yet much of America is no longer beautiful or becoming relentlessly uglier. Much of this is easily visible, some of it less so. Parts of our cities are scenes of devastation.  The unplanned, sprawling, strip-mall, Los Angeles version of America mars both the suburban and rural landscape.  The lush hills of Appalachia are stripped and removed, while in the less visible category, a staggering amount of topsoil is lost in middle America, and a hundred million pine trees have died from drought in California, leaving gray skeleton-covered slopes that once were verdant. Even our beloved national parks suffer, with a maintenance backlog of $12 billion.

Twenty-five years ago, my personal hero, the late, great environmentalist David Brower, proposed a large-scale focus on the restoration of America’s damaged ecology. The time for that effort is now.

In the first place, it could be an economic boon for much of rural America, the part of the country that voted overwhelmingly red, and has felt left behind by much of America’s material progress.  Some years ago, I rode trains throughout Europe.  The contrast between the rural towns there — prosperous, well-cared for, in a word, beautiful — and the derelict quality of so many rural towns in America — emptied out, boarded up, in a word, forlorn — could not be sharper.  My cousin’s Letty’s tiny town in the Netherlands boasted seven international restaurants and a plethora of well-supported services for seniors and others.

Restoring Appalachia

old farmhousePhoto by Pat Henson Miners and rural residents of Appalachia do not want to relocate to large cities or suburbs. And though their land has been desecrated in recent years, they still appreciate the green space around them, however depressed their towns have become.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have called for large-scale new spending on infrastructure. Trump focused on America’s admittedly unstable bridges and damaged highways. Clinton, more broadly, proposed support for factories to build solar panels and other investments in alternative energy needed to alleviate climate change. Such programs would target areas of America left behind by the revival of the economy under Obama.

Make America Beautiful Again, too, is first a jobs program. As Clinton pointed out, the coal mining jobs of Kentucky, West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia are not likely to return. And for the sake of the climate, they should not return. Coal must be quickly phased out of our energy menu. But the miners and rural residents of Appalachia need to earn a living. They are independent people, who appreciate working out of doors and with their hands. They are deeply attached to the places where they live and to their neighbors and extended families, and do not want to relocate to large cities or suburbs. And though their land has been desecrated in recent years, they still appreciate the green space around them, however depressed their towns have become. 

I experienced this kind of feeling half a century ago while taking American Indian children from a Wisconsin reservation to New York City. These Indian children had no running water in their homes, and their families’ incomes were lower than those in the Harlem neighborhood our bus passed through. Yet many of them expressed sympathy for the Harlem residents. “I feel so sorry for them” they said. “It must be terrible to live like that, all crammed together, no trees.” However poor the Indian children were, their pain was softened by the green landscape they lived in, the nearby wide river and Lake Superior beaches, and the bird-filled forest that blazed with color in the fall. In many cases, reservation families would move to Milwaukee for work, but though they earned far more there, they would often return to the reservation.

The former miners can stay in the places they love with a Make America Beautiful Again investment in restoring the mountaintops that coal strip mining has removed in recent years. There is ample work to do in rebuilding the tops of stripped mountains and replanting trees. There is real precedent for this. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps did much to restore parts of rural America, build facilities in places like Great Smoky Mountain National Park for people to enjoy, and provide needed jobs for the unemployed. There is no reason except lack of political will that a Make America Beautiful Again Restoration Corps couldn’t do that for Appalachia today. 

Beautifying rural America

Much restoration work is needed in rural America more generally. An effort to restore farmland soils might also include work on streambeds where overgrazing of cattle and sheep has caused massive erosion. Salmon streams have been clogged in various places by logging debris. Salmon do need abundant forest detritus for shade and other reasons, but where clogging prevents them from moving upstream, it must be removed or modified. 

This is complicated restoration work, capable of providing many jobs.

Invasive plants such as kudzu in the American south have wreaked havoc in some part of rural America. Removal provides another source of jobs. Re-forestation is needed in some areas. Healthy forests often provide more value, even in dollar terms, than their timber brings, because of the ecosystem services, such as water filtration, that they provide.

Rural towns can be beautified in many ways. The Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression hired artists to paint the walls of post offices and other government buildings. Artists might well bring greater attractiveness to small towns and cities through mural projects. The towns of Centralia and Toppenish in Washington State offer examples. Economic prospects in rural America would also be improved by more tourism opportunities. Here an emphasis on building bikeways or rails-to-trails projects linking rural communities could both provide construction jobs and encourage healthy, carbon-free vacation travel. Such construction should include campgrounds at the edge of rural towns. 

Financial support for the construction of farmers’ markets would also be helpful in many smaller communities. Farmers’ markets provide fresher, healthier food and build a sense of community. Bill McKibben reports that on a per capita basis people have 10 times as many personal conversations in farmers’ markets as they do in supermarkets. Another idea is the construction of town plazas or village greens throughout small communities, as seen in New England towns and some places in New Mexico, Santa Fe for example. They could be as beautiful as the marvelous piazzas of Italy.

An important element in making America beautiful again is the elimination of the ugly strip developments with hideous, unregulated signage that have proliferated in both suburbs and small towns. We could in this case, take a lesson from Vermont, which has banned billboards and off-site signs for businesses. In Vermont, the visitor notices only small, uniform and tasteful signs that indicate the location of various businesses or agencies. It is a visual shock to the system to cross from Vermont into places like West Lebanon, New Hampshire, where unregulated strip development makes a lovely landscape ugly.

Restoring the character of older small towns can also be financially beneficial over the long run. Nevada City, an old California Gold Rush town with 3,200 residents, has benefitted in a substantial way economically from its decision to maintain its homey old look and ban out-of-town franchise businesses which, like the aesthetically boring box stores of Walmart, K-Mart and Costco with their immense asphalt sprawl, deaden the spirt at the same time as they lighten the wallet.

The Rust Belt

Rust Belt ReflectionPhoto by Bob JagendorfMedium-sized cities in the Upper Midwest “rust belt” are ideal for a revival of the Apollo Project, with factories producing solar panels and batteries and other needed alternative energy technology.

Medium-sized cities in the Upper Midwest “rust belt” have provided another important source of “red” votes. Since the 1980s, both automation and trade deals such as NAFTA, as well as layoffs driven by stockholder drives for higher returns (remember Chainsaw Al Dunlap?) have hollowed out many such cities. In Muncie, Indiana, where I frequently speak at Ball State University, I drive past the empty General Motors Factory, blocks long, grim and forlorn. In such places, where unemployment is high, low-paying service jobs have replaced the one-breadwinner wages of the industrial period. 

Places like this are ideal for a revival of the Apollo Project, with factories producing solar panels and batteries and other needed alternative energy technology. These are still places where housing costs are moderate, and many residents might choose to stay even with lower wages than they might receive in bigger cities. Some such cities have been making great progress in downtown beautification, bike trails and pathways, and park improvements. Even minimal additional federal support would go a long way toward making such places more beautiful and appealing.

Medium-sized cities, unblemished by unregulated sprawl, will be an attractive option for many of America’s young people, who want more free time, less onerous commutes, less congestion and pollution, easier access to nature. Students in places like Bellingham, Washington, where my son lives, often wish to stay in that city of 90,000, for its beauty, natural surroundings, and vibrant local businesses and culture. I suspect that is less true in Muncie. 

Medium-sized cities that offer beauty and culture can also, especially in the Internet age, provide a rich intellectual life. Paul Goodman once pointed out that only 30,000 people lived in Renaissance Florence. But the market alone will not create these life enhancements. They depend on public funding and cooperative planning.

The Big Cities

Even in urban America, there is much that a Make America Beautiful Again campaign could accomplish. When my friend Caterina Rost’s parents visited her in Seattle, they were surprised by the powerlines everywhere. In Leipzig, Germany — part of the former East Germany — where they live, such lines are buried. My friend Yolanda Cieters says the same about her hometown in Belgium. This not only improves the beauty of city streets, it prevents the frequent power outages that result from windstorms. In the long run, it would be economically advantageous as well as beautifying. Burying power lines might also be a lifesaver for enormous numbers of birds and bats. One study finds that as many at 64 million birds die each year in the United States from collisions with, or electrocution by, powerlines.

In rapidly-growing, wealthy cities like Seattle, land is at a premium. But many poorer cities have large swaths of open space where buildings or parking lots once stood. A beautification campaign could tear up the asphalt, replace it with soil and offer subsidies for urban, organic food production. Detroit, Chicago and even New York offer fine examples of urban farming. Such farming would also be enhanced by an investment in a training program for would-be farmers and gardeners. The result would not only be a more beautiful city but an important supply of nutritious food in areas that are now known as “food deserts.”

European cities also add to their charm and beauty by banning automobiles from large parts of their city centers. I think of the lovely Vaci Utca in Budapest or the area around the Duomo in Florence. Freiburg, Germany, was among the first cities to close off its center to cars. When I visited there 20 years ago, I marveled at how vibrant and beautiful the city center was and how visited. Business owners who had once protested the change were soon thrilled by it. We have good example of car-free malls in American cities, in places like Burlington, Vermont and Santa Monica, California. They make their cities more beautiful and pleasant places to live or visit. By contrast, my own city, Seattle, could not even keep one city block free from auto traffic. When it tried, the city council was besieged by protesting developers and corporations.

Many European cities also understand that beautiful cities are places where people want to linger, and that people who linger and talk with each other in turn build stronger communities. My friend Jennifer Lail, who studied in Copenhagen, came away marveled by the tables and benches placed along its busy streets so pedestrians could “stop and chat” with each other. Pedestrian friendliness not only makes cities more aesthetically pleasing. It also improves health, and trust—a fundamental factor in life satisfaction and one reason the Danes report the highest levels of happiness in the world.

Resilience

Mount Baldy_dune RestorationPhoto courtesy of National Park ServiceDune resoration work at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. For communities rural and urban, tackling climate change will require building new resilience through restoration.

Finally, for communities rural and urban, climate change is already causing damage and dislocation. Unusually high tides from a rising ocean already frequently flood Miami streets. The suburbs of Los Angeles, Denver, and other cities are threatened by fire — great conflagrations driven by increasing drought or hot temperatures. More powerful hurricanes like Katrina devastate cities like New Orleans. 

For many of these places it is too late to completely avert such disasters. They can only be mitigated by building new resilience through restoration. Dunes need to be restored along southern coasts, Fire breaks need to be created around cities and carefully-planned cleanup work must eliminate some of the easily-ignited undergrowth and dead wood in our forests. All this must be done with careful attention to other ecological needs — bird habitat, corridors to roam for large predator animals, for example. Such attention should mean many jobs, and a need for more training.

Beyond jobs

Trump wanted to “make America great again.” In some ways, it’s a vague concept: does it mean militarily strong, materially rich, resilient, more honest and democratic? Who knows, and it is not hard, considering Trump, to suspect the worst. When it comes to making America beautiful again, the understanding is easier. Conservatives and liberals do not truly differ about what beauty in the rural and urban landscape looks like. They may be more willing or less to sacrifice beauty for utilitarian goals like economic growth, but they value it. Republican pollster Frank Luntz once found that parks and open space were considered desirable across the political spectrum, warning his GOP funders to not appear as anti-nature. 

Making America Beautiful Again is a jobs creator. But like construction work on the Dakota Access pipeline, the jobs will not necessarily be long-term and they will not generally be lucrative. They are a stopgap measure to stem the potential avalanche of jobs that will be lost to robotization in the near and distant future. To be successful, they should be combined with a program of work-sharing, including a shortening of the workweek, to open more employment possibilities as digitization destroys the jobs of other working-class people in such areas as truck and taxi driving or retail sales. 

We need also to begin considering a Basic Income Guarantee as is now being debated in Ontario. A guaranteed income could allow greater freedom of choice of work, help those in rural America stay on, even with lower-wage job prospects, supplement incomes for lower-skilled workers involved in restoration and beautification. It is not a simple proposition and must not be so large as to be unaffordable or unsustainable or to seriously discourage paid labor, yet large enough to assure that recipients can meet basic needs.

Funding

Where does the money come from?  That is of course the question that will be posed even by those who see the desirability of a Make America Beautiful Again campaign. There is no question that such a campaign will be expensive, more so even than the trillion dollars Donald Trump would spend on our roads and bridges. I am not qualified to estimate what that cost will be, and I understand that we will need to make choices among these ideas even if we are to go forward with an American beautification plan. But at a minimum, I envision a host of possible funding sources:

  • A substantial tax on carbon
  • Other so-called “green taxes,” which discourage polluting behaviors, resource waste and so forth
  • A substantial speculation tax on stock transfers
  • A windfall profits tax
  • A more progressive income and estate tax
  • Elimination of corporate tax loopholes
  • More progressive land taxation

Some combination of these would provide adequate funding for much of this proposal. It might need to be coupled with more government debt. But these are investments in our future economy and the quality of our lives. Corporations use debt financing to make investments they believe will pay off later. Why should government refrain from the same strategy?

We cannot deny that a program to make America beautiful again will be expensive. Yet David Brower had an answer for that. If these things are necessary for our children’s future and even their lives, for saving our land and resources and wildlife, for filling our lives with beauty and health, for bringing urban and suburban and rural America together again in common purpose, then the question we must ask is a different one: What is the cost of not doing them?

It is a question we have not yet learned to ask but it may be the most important question of all.

Transforming Values

My wish to Make America Beautiful Again is, at its core, a plea for a change of values in our country, from an emphasis on quantity of stuff to quality of life, from a focus on economic growth to economic stability, sustainability and life satisfaction. Over-consumption, or affluenza as I have chosen to call it, has exacerbated American inequality, made ugly its landscape and communities, and worsened its health, while not improving life satisfaction in any appreciable ways. In this sense, even the calls of progressive Democrats like Sanders and Warren are too narrow, too modest. We must reduce inequality but an enforced equality in a fundamentally unsustainable, unhealthy and unsatisfying way of life is not remotely radical enough.

Half a century ago, when we were much more equal than today and more secure as well, the young Americans of the counterculture, Bernie Sanders among them, recognized this truth. During the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, I watched as Mario Savio decried a society that would have us all be “well-behaved children in a chrome-plated consumer paradise.” In his books, One-Dimensional Man and An Essay on Liberation, Herbert Marcuse, the counterculture’s leading philosopher, argued for a “transvaluation of values,” away from the false promises of consumerism and toward solidarity, community and beauty, a great refusal of the competitive performances, aggressiveness, waste and ugliness of consumer capitalism toward a slower, kinder, more feminine, more playful, more cooperative, more harmonious and closer-to-nature existence. 

It was no longer enough to meet the needs of the population as they understood them, argued Marcuse. The needs themselves were regressive, wealth and power-seeking needs whose fulfillment only strengthened the entire system of repression and domination. These are indeed the needs that Trump exploited. 

The counterculture poet Gary Snyder, who moved to the countryside as part of the back-to-the-land movement at the same time Bernie Sanders did, captured the very different ethos of that movement in lines from his poem, For the Children:

Stay together
Learn the flowers
Go light.

Community, beauty, simplicity. 

These are the ideas and values that Make America Beautiful Again embodies and promotes along with jobs and economic security. They are, in this period of small dreams, big and bold ideas. They certainly will not pass in the current Congress, but in 2018, who knows? Yet nothing else can ensure our future. They are the values at the heart of the Standing Rock protests — community, nature, a beautiful landscape, health, love, and stewardship.  They are values greater than money, more powerful than greed and the armed force of the police sent to drive the protestors off.  

A new national anthem?

As I write these words I am reminded of the author of the great song, America the Beautiful a song the Right loves but does not understand.  Katharine Lee Bates was a lesbian and a Christian socialist. On the day when Bates penned the words of the song, she wrote to friends of her fears that if America were “great but not good” and rich in wealth but not in brotherhood, it would go the way of the British empire and others. “America, America, may God thy gold refine,” she wrote in one verse of the song.

It might be time to make that song our national anthem. And it is surely time to Make America Beautiful Again.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to "New Lebanon, New Hampshire." The town is "West Lebanon, New Hampshire."

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