The Future of the US Navy & Walden and Thoreau

Sunday October 17, 2021

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What Happens Next is a podcast where experts are given just SIX minutes to present their argument. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

This week’s topics include the future of the US Navy and Henry David Thoreau and Walden.

Our first speaker today will be Greg Easterbrook who is the author of The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity-And Why We’re In Danger of Losing It.

Since the end of the second world war, the US Navy has been the guardian of the global ocean commons. Safe global navigation has led to massive increases in global trade and higher living standards for everyone and particularly for the previously poor nations in Asia.

I hope to learn from Gregg today is what the likely consequences are for the new naval arms race between the US and China. And will it lead inexorably towards war, or continued peaceful coexistence?

Technology has always played a key role in naval wartime success. The replacement of coal to oil allowed the Royal Navy to succeed in the first world war. And the dominant role of the aircraft carrier explained the US naval success in the second. I want to find out from Gregg how the US navy will adapt to the Chinese challenge to its dominance, particularly in the South China Sea.

Our second speaker today is Laura Walls who is the William and Hazel White Professor of English at Notre Dame and the author of the biography entitled Henry David Thoreau: A Life.

Henry David Thoreau and his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson were the leaders in American Transcendentalism. I want to find out from Laura how the ideas of transcendentalism are still driving the intellectual and environmental movements today.

Walden and Self-Reliance were required reading in my junior year study of American literature, but it was not taught to either of my children who attended NYC private schools. I want to learn about whether the Thoreau should continue to be a part of the high school curriculum.


Gregg Easterbrook

Topic: Future of the US Navy
Bio: Author of 12 books including It’s Better Than It Looks
Reading: The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity – And Why We’re In Danger of Losing It is here


Gregg Easterbrook:
Here is the six-minute version of my new book, The Blue Age. First, I want to make a brief pitch for the interdisciplinary approach to life. I live in Washington, DC. We do policy debate all the time. We do it mainly poorly. But a lot of our policy debate, and the current budget debate is an example of this, boils down to expert number one argues for more funding for field number one. Expert number two argues more for more funding for field number two. Laura, probably you find similar phenomenon in the world of academia. But what really matters is how do all these things fit together? And that’s why I want to pitch all of you listening to the interdisciplinary view of the world. Yes, it’s great to hear from experts, but it’s more important to learn how all the pieces fit together.

And why I start in my book, The Blue Age, is about how three big pieces fit together. Although it begins and ends with the U.S. Navy, the middle of the book is about economics and about environmental protection and governance issues because when you go down to the oceans that cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, all three of these things are happening at once. And how they fit together is the key to the story.

The first part of my book is about American naval power. We are living in the longest period without combat at sea since Phoenicia 4,000 years ago. And I’m not kidding. That’s not an exaggerated comparison. You really have to go back 4,000 years to find a time when nations didn’t fight each other brutally usually at sea on a regular basis. We’re living in this pause. And it’s been great for the world. Let’s hope it continues, this pause I call the Blue Age. And there are several reasons. It’s clear that the main reason is the power of the United States Navy. The United States has obtained something that many nations, Britain, Spain, the Dutch and others, sought in the past. We finally actually have total hegemony over the sea. And political science assumes that hegemony is a bad word. Hegemony is bad when it’s abused.

The United States Navy has not abused its power. Instead, it’s served as a guardian force for almost all the nations of the world, even guarding the commercial ships of our competitor nations. The main thing that’s going on right now on the seas is the United States Navy has total rule. There’s some question about what will happen with the Chinese later. But remember when we talk about competition with the Chinese, we talk about how we might fight in the South China Sea, which is their backyard. Nobody ever talks about fighting in the Gulf of Mexico, our backyard, because that’s not going to happen.

Now the second major point is the result is the unprecedented flowering of international trade that’s happened in our lifetimes. 25% of the global GDP, which is a gigantic number when you phrase it in dollars, now moves by seawater. 100 years ago, that figure was five percent. Now we’re up to 25%. The flowering of international trade has allowed for higher living standards in the United States. It has controlled inflation. And we see inflation rising right now in 2021 for the first time in 20 years. And why is that happening? Because global supply chains are disrupted, trade has been disrupted.

The benefit is rising living standards. What we don’t see, Larry alluded to, is the incredible decline of poverty in Asia. This decline has been caused almost entirely by global trade and is one of the greatest achievements in human history and not visible to us in the west, but something that matters every day to more than a billion people who are now living in a decent standard instead of in poverty.

The third piece of this puzzle is ocean governance, that 75% of the Earth’s surface is essentially ungoverned. There’s the Law of the Sea Treaty, but it’s weak and has no enforcement mechanism. Environmental abuse, abuse of labor, especially in the Asian fishermen industry is rampant at the sea. We don’t see any of it happening. And all of this is about to spread to the Arctic Ocean, which is about to become navigable. We need a very improved way to govern the seas. And I speculate on what that might be in the book.

Finally, I’ll wrap up this six-minute introduction about a new naval arms race that has begun with not only China, but the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Japan, and India are participating in the new naval arms race. Naval arms races came before both world wars. Will the new naval arms race start a third world war? I don’t think so. And I state the reasons why, but it’s a genuine concern. And it’s a concern that we in the United States should be much more aware of than we seem to be today.

Questions for Easterbrook

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Laura Walls

Topic: Continuing Relevance of Henry David Thoreau
Bio: William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science at Notre Dame
Reading: Henry David Thoreau: A Life is here


Larry Bernstein:
We’re going to move onto our second speaker, who is Laura Walls. Laura is the William and Hazel White Professor of English at Notre Dame. She is also the author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Laura, why don’t you take us through your six minutes?

Laura Walls:
Thank you, Larry. All right, change of subject here. I would say that Thoreau matters today, because he was trying to change our mind. Of course, he can’t do that, because the only person who can change your mind is you. And Thoreau knows that, but he has to try anyway, because he sees somewhere out on the horizon a new world rising, and he thinks that it won’t rise unless he can get a few of us to open our minds and hearts, so that we can believe it too. Then we might have a shot at a better future together, all of us. And by us he means the Planet Earth that includes everybody

The ones he was concerned with were those that America was working overtime to erase. He points to the Africans whom we enslaved to build the land of the free, the Native Americans whose land er took, the women who were doing the unpaid and invisible work of the household, the Mexicans against whom America had declared a war of conquest, and the Irish refugees who were at that moment fleeing to Boston in such numbers. But Thoreau also meant all of the living beings and vital processes that weave together the cosmos beyond our human-centered world, what we collectively call nature.

We refer to Thoreau as a nature writer, but he was really a writer about the cosmos. Thoreau went to Walden to find the cosmos and our place in it. He came back to town to tell us what he found.

Let’s talk about Walden. Thoreau we often hear was a hermit in the woods. What selfishness, what misanthropy, say the cynics. Hey, didn’t his mom do his laundry?
Well, no actually. Thoreau’s family home was a boardinghouse, and the laundry was done by the Irish immigrants. Walden Pond was a little over a mile’s walk from the center of town, Concord, Massachusetts. Every few days, Thoreau walked home to do his chores and join his family for dinner. If being part of a loving family and having friends one visits and helps out is hypocrisy, then my God, we are all in trouble.

But even back then, there were, yes, cynics and skeptics, folks who mocked Thoreau because he was different. He had a different way of looking at the world. He was shy and awkward, and he loved the wild beings. Some of those critics were popular tastemakers with loud voices, which didn’t help Thoreau’s cause much. As for him, yes, he was a dreamer, but he was also a sworn realist. In my biography of Thoreay, I argue that he had to be. He was born into a family of French immigrants and Yankee tradesmen who were just scraping by.
The family scrimped to send Henry to Harvard, where he was derided because he couldn’t afford a proper coat. They prospered only after he returned from Harvard and applied his learning, his education, to his father’s struggling family business, which was making pencils. Now, Thoreau loved machinery. He loved knowing how things work. He invented both the modern pencil as we know it, and he invented the machinery to make it. After all, everyone needs a good pencil.

And Thoreau needed good pencils too, so he could take notes and make sketches on his long daily walks, jotting ideas and observations in all weathers. These penciled notes were the germs of his many books and essays. Henry Thoreau was restless. He was driven by that need to see into the heart of the cosmos. More than one of his friends thought he could have been a good monk. He relished good conversation, but he also fiercely guarded the solitude he needed for a creative life, the inner life of an artist.

He’d gone to Walden with his life in crisis, after veering from one dead end to another, until the only choice left to this young man was to follow the crazy dream he’d cherished since childhood, which was to go away and live by the pond, and write his way through the changing seasons. And he did just that for two years, from July 1845 to September 1847, on land that Emerson had purchased. While at Walden, Thoreau wrote one book and most of another, and a few essays too.

One of them was Civil Disobedience, to explain to his townsmen why he went to jail rather than pay the taxes that supported slavery, the war against Mexico, and the removal of Native Americans. It’s the mark of an age different than our own perhaps that his fellow townspeople came to his lectured and listened respectfully, and he changed a few of their minds too. Thoreau was eccentric, and sharp-tongued, and funny, and he stepped on toes, and they loved him for it, and they respected what he had to say.

When Thoreau died just as the Civil War was starting, the town released all the schoolchildren that day, so they could attend his funeral. I’ll close with just a handful of things that he told his neighbors and is telling us. One. Keep it simple. That makes both our mistakes and what we care about easier to see. Two. No, you can’t move to Walden Pond. Walden is not a place to live, but a philosophy of life. If it isn’t portable, it does no good. Three. Sometimes Walden Pond isn’t where you need to be in any case. When politics turn the world into what Thoreau called hell, you need to go not to nature, but to a public stage to offer to the world without flinching your most scorching critique of injustice.

And finally, four. But sometimes, Walden Pond is exactly where you need to go, because nature is where you can see how political injustice and environmental degradation share a common cause. Yes, politics is big, but the cosmos is bigger. As Thoreau declared to his conquered neighbors, “Your scheme must be the framework of the universe. All other schemes will soon be in ruins.”

So, is Thoreau a pain and a braggart? Yes, of course he is. But he believed that a true democracy could tolerate a few souls who like himself lived independent lives. He called them democracy’s wild fruits. And as he said of Walt Whitman in whom Thoreau recognized a fellow spirit, there are a few who earn that right. I would agree, and I’m glad that he claimed that right for us as well.

Questions for Walls

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