IF YOU felt a tremor, it might have been more than just the multitudes chanting O-BA-MA. It just might have been the rumble of roots, tree trunks swaying like hips, and branches stretching outward to praise the heavens. If you heard a song, it might not just have been the crowd when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said to Obama, "Congratulations, Mr. President." It might have been the birds serenading as if let out of a cage, soaring to perches to applaud with their wings.
If you heard a roar, it was every stone lion coming to life in front of museums, libraries, colleges, and other ornate buildings around the nation. If you were on the Mall and felt something on top of your feet, it might not have been other people stepping on them. It might have been millions of ants and other insects who marched from their undergrounds to wave leaf particles and blades of grass like American flags.
For it was not just a human message when President Obama said in his inaugural speech that we can no longer "consume the world's resources without regard to effect." The greatest effect is, of course, on untold species mowed down for our consumption. No other president, at least in a computer search, has uttered the phrase "consume the world's resources," and no president has ever so bluntly said that we can no longer consume them without regard to effect.
Obama said this 104 years after Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural speech in which he said, "We are the heirs of the ages, and yet we have had to pay few of the penalties which in old countries are exacted by the dead hand of a bygone civilization."
For Harvard University's 79-year-old Pulitzer-Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, Obama's speech "was like blinds being opened to let light beam into a dark room."
Obama may not have risen to any particular rhetorical heights. But for this nation to resume global leadership beyond military might, Obama sent the unprecedented, sober signal that America is no longer the America of boundless Western frontiers, the America that can endlessly poison rivers for industry and dragnet the oceans for dinner, no longer the America of, as the Republicans said last summer, "Drill, baby, drill." It is no longer the America of Teddy Roosevelt, the conservationist who said in his inaugural speech that Americans "have an assured confidence that we shall be able to leave this heritage unwasted and enlarged to our children and our children's children."
As Wilson put it, the America of the past century is suddenly "a car stopped dead on the prairie."
Obama became the first president to admit on a global scale that we have limits to live within.
Wilson described those limits in his 2002 book, "The Future of Life." He said that if developing countries achieved America's lifestyle, we would need four more planet earths to handle the consumption.
The Bush administration not only did not listen, up until its very last weeks it issued "midnight" regulations that undercut environmental science and benefitted industrial polluters. Wilson said, "we backpedaled more than a decade. Not only was the Endangered Species Act not just left to stagnate, the administration took steps to go around it. I'd say we've lost more (in conservation) than under any president in American history."
Wilson said the first thing Obama should do to demonstrate a new national commitment to conservation is to personally tour some national parks where morale "is at an all-time low. Staff feel like they don't even count anymore." He said the administration might consider giving many national forest lands national park protection status. The new House and Senate are working on proposals to boost park spending to deal with the billions of dollars of backlogged projects.
"A guy in his position has to do the easy things first," Wilson said of Obama. "Upgrade the national parks and give us some uplifting statements on preservation. He'll have Americans on his side."
He will also have trees swaying, the birds singing, the lions roaring, and the ants marching in celebration. Wilson said, "How much time we lost depends on how much we put in.