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Gifford Pinchot

American Conservationist

1865-1946

A selection from
THE FIGHT FOR CONSERVATION

Narrated by Norman Dietz

Download mp3 file: The Fight for Conservation

This file is 2.9 MB; running time is 12 minutes
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The Moral Issue

The central thing for which Conservation stands is to make this country the best possible place to live in, both for us and for our descendants. It stands against the waste of the natural resources which cannot be renewed, such as coal and iron; it stands for the perpetuation of the resources which can be renewed, such as the food-producing soils and the forests; and most of all it stands for an equal opportunity for every American citizen to get his fair share of benefit from these resources, both now and hereafter.

Conservation stands for the same kind of practical common-sense management of this country by the people that every business man stands for in the handling of his own business. It believes in prudence and foresight instead of reckless blindness; it holds that resources now public property should not become the basis for oppressive private monopoly; and it demands the complete and orderly development of all our resources for the benefit of all the people, instead of the partial exploitation of them for the benefit of a few. It recognizes fully the right of the present generation to use what it needs and all it needs of the natural resources now available, but it recognizes equally our obligation so to use what we need that our descendants shall not be deprived of what they need.

Conservation has much to do with the welfare of the average man of to-day. It proposes to secure a continuous and abundant supply of the necessaries of life, which means a reasonable cost of living and business stability. It advocates fairness in the distribution of the benefits which flow from the natural resources. It will matter very little to the average citizen, when scarcity comes and prices rise, whether he can not get what he needs because there is none left or because he can not afford to pay for it. In both cases the essential fact is that he can not get what he needs. Conservation holds that it is about as important to see that the people in general get the benefit of our natural resources as to see that there shall be natural resources left.

Conservation is the most democratic movement this country has known for a generation. It holds that the people have not only the right, but the duty to control the use of the natural resources, which are the great sources of prosperity. And it regards the absorption of these resources by the special interests, unless their operations are under effective public control, as a moral wrong. Conservation is the application of common-sense to the common problems for the common good, and I believe it stands nearer to the desires, aspirations, and purposes of the average man than any other policy now before the American people.

The danger to the Conservation policies is that the privileges of the few may continue to obstruct the rights of the many, especially in the matter of water power and coal. Congress must decide immediately whether the great coal fields still in public ownership shall remain so, in order that their use may be controlled with due regard to the interest of the consumer, or whether they shall pass into private ownership and be controlled in the monopolistic interest of a few.

Congress must decide also whether immensely valuable rights to the use of water power shall be given away to special interests in perpetuity and without compensation instead of being held and controlled by the public. In most cases actual development of water power can best be done by private interests acting under public control, but it is neither good sense nor good morals to let these valuable privileges pass from the public ownership for nothing and forever. Other conservation matters doubtless require action, but these two, the conservation of water power and of coal, the chief sources of power of the present and the future, are clearly the most pressing.

It is of the first importance to prevent our water powers from passing into private ownership as they have been doing, because the greatest source of power we know is falling water. Furthermore, it is the only great unfailing source of power. Our coal, the experts say, is likely to be exhausted during the next century, our natural gas and oil in this. Our rivers, if the forests on the watersheds are properly handled, will never cease to deliver power. Under our form of civilization, if a few men ever succeed in controlling the sources of power, they will eventually control all industry as well. If they succeed in controlling all industry, they will necessarily control the country. This country has achieved political freedom; what our people are fighting for now is industrial freedom. And unless we win our industrial liberty, we can not keep our political liberty. I see no reason why we should deliberately keep on helping to fasten the handcuffs of corporate control upon ourselves for all time merely because the few men who would profit by it most have heretofore had the power to compel it.

The essential things that must be done to protect the water powers for the people are few and simple. First, the granting of water powers forever, either on non-navigable or navigable streams, must absolutely stop. It is perfectly clear that one hundred, fifty, or even twenty-five years ago our present industrial conditions and industrial needs were completely beyond the imagination of the wisest of our predecessors. It is just as true that we can not imagine or foresee the industrial conditions and needs of the future. But we do know that our descendants should be left free to meet their own necessities as they arise. It can not be right, therefore, for us to grant perpetual rights to the one great permanent source of power. It is just as wrong as it is foolish, and just as needless as it is wrong, to mortgage the welfare of our children in such a way as this. Water powers must and should be developed mainly by private capital and they must be developed under conditions which make investment in them profitable and safe. But neither profit nor safety requires perpetual rights, as many of the best water-power men now freely acknowledge. Second, the men to whom the people grant the right to use water-power should pay for what they get. The water-power sites now in the public hands are enormously valuable. There is no reason whatever why special interests should be allowed to use them for profit without making some direct payment to the people for the valuable rights derived from the people. This is important not only for the revenue the Nation will get. It is at least equally important as a recognition that the public controls its own property and has a right to share in the benefits arising from its development. There are other ways in which public control of water power must be exercised, but these two are the most important.

Water power on non-navigable streams usually results from dropping a little water a long way. In the mountains water is dropped many hundreds of feet upon the turbines which move the dynamos that produce the electric current. Water power on navigable streams is usually produced by dropping immense volumes of water a short distance, as twenty feet, fifteen feet, or even less. Every stream is a unit from its source to its mouth, and the people have the same stake in the control of water power in one part of it as in another. Under the Constitution, the United States exercises direct control over navigable streams. It exercises control over non-navigable and source streams only through its ownership of the lands through which they pass, as the public domain and National Forests. It is just as essential for the public welfare that the people should retain and exercise control of water-power monopoly on navigable as on non-navigable streams. If the difficulties are greater, then the danger that the water powers may pass out of the people's hands on the lower navigable parts of the streams is greater than on the upper non-navigable parts, and it may be harder, but in no way less necessary, to prevent it.

It must be clear to any man who has followed the development of the Conservation idea that no other policy now before the American people is so thoroughly democratic in its essence and in its tendencies as the Conservation policy. It asserts that the people have the right and the duty, and that it is their duty no less than their right, to protect themselves against the uncontrolled monopoly of the natural resources which yield the necessaries of life. We are beginning to realize that the Conservation question is a question of right and wrong, as any question must be which may involve the differences between prosperity and poverty, health and sickness, ignorance and education, well-being and misery, to hundreds of thousands of families. Seen from the point of view of human welfare and human progress, questions which begin as purely economic often end as moral issues. Conservation is a moral issue because it involves the rights and the duties of our people—their rights to prosperity and happiness, and their duties to themselves, to their descendants, and to the whole future progress and welfare of this Nation.

More information about Gifford Pinchot from Wikipedia

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