Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”

—“America The Beautiful,”
played on Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972

Both ends against the middle

A tragedy of three continents

When travelers from China (Mandarin 中国 [Zhung-guo]: “Central-country”) first visited the United States, they marvelled to find a land so unspoiled; awed by its majestic vistas of pristine and unsullied nature, its lonely snow-mantled peaks, its virgin forests alive with bear and deer, owl and cougar, its verdant plains teeming with bison, they called it 美国 (Mei-guo): “Beautiful-country.” In those days, America seemed a new world: Its natives, never numerous, had scarcely marked it, and the freebooters from Europe, still in the process of arrogating the land, had only begun to despoil it.

Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

Like a rainbow of wildfires, flowers blaze across the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
[ Image Source ]

China, on the other hand, was anything but new. Eldest and most populous of the world’s continuous civilizations, the Chinese had already amassed millennia of practice living together in close quarters without strife and sustaining their many millions in an economy that yielded much and damaged little.

Thoughtful Americans saw in this an admirable example and hoped, without contravening America’s founding principles, to build a country on a similar model. But they were outnumbered and overpowered by those who saw the land and its resources as infinite and self-repairing; to these, natural resources existed for a single purpose: to be extracted, none too gently or thoughtfully, but as rapidly and efficiently as possible, that the speculators might take a quick and imposing profit.

Cuyahoga River goop, 1969

Ohio, 1969: Richard Ellers dips his hand in the Cuyahoga River. Today the river has been restored and is a success story for environmental regulation.
[ Image Source ]

It was not long before the “beautiful country” was disfigured by a thousand points of unspeakable ugliness: snow-mantled peaks hewn from their shoulders to expose the coal beneath; virgin forests clearcut for timber, firewood and paper products; fruitful plains denuded of their variegated verdure and cloaked in millions of acres of monochromatic monoculture. Money was its god, and soon much of it resembled hell: Once-pure waters were now filth-ridden conduits for disease, tainted with chemicals and biological pathogens; the earth was torn and flayed, its viscera spread beneath a sullen sky; the very air was heavy, swollen with poison. The obscene lust for lucre had ravaged, had ravished, had raped the land; a desecrated country cried out until its pain echoed from the mountaintops and filled the skies.

Mountaintop removal coal mining in Kentucky

“Purple mountain majesties” are all very well, but
there’s money in them hills!
[ Image Source ]

Wealth there was in plenty for some; sharp agonies alternated with dull misery for many more. Amid a land of plenty, not nearly so filled with people as were the old countries of Europe and Asia, a few achieved dazzling and unprecedented opulence; the rest struggled all the days of their lives for a share of the leavings: It was for this that a continent was defiled and a people all but destroyed.

A century and more later, we would hope to find that the new civilization had grown into itself, learned from the older, and come to an understanding among its peoples and with the ecology that sustained them. But it is not so: Rather, the elder learned from its younger sibling to make strife and plunder to overtake the latter in industrial development in the vain hope of bringing the luxury of the few to its many millions.

Barack Obama (right) meets with European leaders to discuss the Copenhagen climate accords.

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) meets with European leaders to discuss the Copenhagen climate accords.
[ Image Source ]

So it is today that we bear witness to the unedifying spectacle of the central country and the beautiful country making covert and sinister alliance that both may continue to march unimpeded down the path to perdition. And when other older countries, those of a long-despoiled Europe lying between America and Asia, seek to make global accords toward the end of halting and reversing that march, the Mammon-debauched agents of desecration in quest of wealth reach behind their backs to shake hands and agree a separate accord: that both shall continue their march undeterred and undiverted until they shall have dragged the world to the ultimate and ineluctable destination of the defiler’s progress.

Originally published as a review of a Spiegel article on the anti-environmental connivance of the U.S. and China.

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