historian and author of “Dust Bowl -- The
Southern Plains in the 1930s,” is a member
of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute,
AUGUST 13, 2003: After much denial, Americans
are finally beginning to admit that we are indeed an imperial
nation. What Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers openly
dreamed about two centuries ago has become reality, and the
United States has taken Britain’s place as the seat
of empire, dominating the globe.
What does an empire cost and is that cost worth paying?
The most obvious expense is the Pentagon’s war machine,
now costing about $400 billion a year, nearly half the world’s
military expenditure. Our $7 trillion national debt has come
largely from past wars, police actions, invasions of other
countries, long-term military occupations and arms races.
Interest on that debt and military spending together take
28 percent of our federal taxes every year.
Ultimately a nation’s taxable wealth comes from its
soil. The United States could dream of empire because it acquired
the greatest natural treasure enjoyed by any modern nation.
We had unparalleled riches in our forests, rivers and mines.
Above all, we had riches in our deep soils, the best on the
Canada and Australia also aspired to empire, but they quickly
abandoned those dreams when it became clear that they lacked
the requisite soil. The soils of ancient Rome, the soils of
modern Europe, the soils of China and the soils of the United
States have all allowed empires to grow in those places, but
not in glacier-scoured Canada or in nutrient-poor Australia.
Partly because of limited resources, Canada has only one-tenth
of the U.S. population, Australia one-fifteenth. Through hard
effort they have become wealthy countries, but they have no
chance at world empire.
The United States is a nation with incomparable natural advantages,
but we are depleting them rapidly. We cannot pay for the Pentagon’s
endless appetite, or sustain a military presence on every
continent, or pay interest on the national debt without spending
those natural resources. Each year we have to pound our land
harder to extract its wealth. A hard-pounded land soon becomes
a degraded land. Environmental degradation at home is the
true cost of empire abroad.
In the pursuit of global supremacy, we have polluted every
part of our nation. And now we are told that we must live
with that degradation as the price of glory. We cannot afford
to clean up rivers, preserve ancient forest ecosystems, save
native prairie, refrain from mining or oil drilling regardless
of the resulting damage. We have to put up with losing hundreds
of millions of tons of topsoil every year. We have to accept
the drenching of our soils with chemicals to stay on top.
If we do not pay those costs, we are told, we will slip backward
and someone else will take our place as the world’s
Eventually all empires falter and collapse. They don’t
deliver on the visionary promises they make. They fall because
they bankrupt themselves and, more often than not, they bankrupt
the environment that supports them.