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Economic Self Interest

Economic Self Interest

Does self interest almost always trump the common good? Will pocketbooks rule the ballot November 6th? Will Americans reject hard actions to protect ecosystems up until they believe their survival is at risk?

“Yes” is the answer to all three questions, and we have Thomas Jefferson, an American hero who made it onto Mount Rushmore, as historical backup from the ranks of the brightest and the best. Jefferson was an idealistic 33-year-old in 1776 when he wrote the original draft of what became the Declaration of Independence. His first draft attacked slavery as an “execrable commerce,” an “assembly of horrors,” and “a cruel war against human nature itself.” Jefferson’s anti-slavery sentiments did not survive into the final draft; representatives from the Southern colonies would not agree. Jefferson never embraced slavery intellectually and did sign as President Congress’s 1807 bill which outlawed importing new slaves; he also clearly saw its dangers to the experiment he helped start, referring to human slavery as “a fireball in the night” which threatened to destroy the country.

But Thomas Jefferson’s economic self-interest, his very lifestyle, depended completely upon slaves and systematic brutality to compel their obedience, on inflicting whatever violence was needed to push slaves to grind out what Jefferson needed to buy his fine French wines and books. Jefferson’s benchmark phrase in the Declaration, that “all men are created equal,” disappeared when it conflicted with his Monticello estate‘s economic needs. Scores of young slave boys spent years in tedious, dangerous work making nails that Jefferson sold to pay for luxury imports; the founder of the University of Virginia had no interest in educating the boys he owned to do anything beyond what helped Jefferson. The lash, and the overseers Jefferson hired to keep order, sustained Monticello’s economy, along with occasional sales of excess slaves at public auction to the buyers who offered the most money. See October 2012 Smithsonian magazine’s lead article,  “Unmasking Thomas Jefferson” by Henry Wiencek,  for graphic evidence of the  slave economy Jefferson owned and managed.

What chance do the rest of us have if such an icon could so completely dodge ethics, and concern for America’s future, in favor of his own economic self interest? For us today, it’s inconvenient to acknowledge that excessive consumption is fouling Earth’s natural systems and threatening our future. Like Jefferson with his selective vision, we cheerfully consume whatever fruits we can get from a world economy that milks the Earth beyond sustainability. The difference is that Jefferson’s consumption of slavery’s fruits never threatened his survival, except perhaps in weak slave revolts. We know that people act aggressively to survive, as in combat, and I submit that we are at war. Some of today’s best and brightest, such as Drs. James Lovelock and James Hanson, detail evidence that civilization is at war against itself, with unsustainable consumption and survival as the combatants.

Today’s world war lacks Pearl Harbor drama; there has been no single event like the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack which galvanized the American people and silenced most Axis sympathizers. Climate scientists report from ecosystem fronts that the planet is getting warmer, icecaps are melting and greenhouse gas concentrations are climbing. The media give occasional attention to record heat, drought and intense weather events, but none of that has yet produced effective action against the human causes of climate change. Will there be a Pearl harbor, and can we defeat the enemy if we elect to fight back? What do you think?

Image by Dkstotz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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