Fifty years ago today, May 22nd, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson gave a commencement speech to graduates at the University of Michigan that outlined an incredible – and in many ways radical – idea about what America could become in the next half-century. It was a far-reaching idea that challenged his audience to completely rethink the “American dream,” and in doing so would help propel the United States toward what he called “The Great Society.” In the end, Johnson’s legacy would be forever colored by the Vietnam War, but his approach to the goals we should set for ourselves as a country and as community members is one that deserves equal attention.

It is extremely telling that now, in our current state of affairs, one of the most radical elements of Johnson’s outline for the Great Society was that America should value the happiness of its people above wealth, power, growth, and military prowess. Indeed, Johnson proclaimed that the pursuit of happiness was the “test of our success as a nation.” Consider that notion for a moment: that an American President would stand before tens of thousands of young people and academics and proclaim that our happiness is the key to American prosperity above all else. The thought that any politician today would make such a claim is so far-fetched that it seems absurd. With all the rhetoric we hear thrown about concerning the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it seems that most have forgotten that the authors of that document put Happiness – with a capital H – right at the beginning. That fact alone should be reason enough to give us all pause, and to really consider the direction we’re all headed.

Certainly, it’s not enough to simply say happiness is key without defining what that means or how we attain it. But Johnson, and his speech writer Richard N. Goodwin, were very clear about what, if not wealth, unchecked growth, and power, we should hold as most important to better our lives and our society.

The central elements behind Johnson’s idea of the Great Society were peoples’ ability to form communities, to value quality over quantity, to hold dear the chance for leisure and a connection to nature. At nearly every turn in today’s society we are barraged with a reality in direct contrast to these ideas. Growth for growth’s sake is the order of the day, as cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas expand ever outward and import more and more natural resources in an attempt to sustain such growth. Leisure time is not leisure at all; for most of us the scarce moments not dedicated to our commute, our incomes, and our technology are filled with more technology and plans to rid ourselves of down time. Johnson said to those graduates in Michigan that the Great Society “is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.”

Time to reflect, in Johnson’s mind, was key to building communities, and healthy communities kept people from isolation. He saw unbridled growth as an oppressive force, one that could bury people under its weight and destroy the connections they’ve forged. Johnson said that expansion erodes community and the values inherent in it, and that the “loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.” As you read the news today, it’s hard not to conclude that he was absolutely right.

One of the most important ideas of the Great Society is that it’s not only a society that values the benefits of commerce, communities, cities and culture. The Great Society has an inexorable need for nature and open spaces. A connection with nature gives people that ability to appreciate the wonders of the world, giving us a chance to see that the quantity of wealth or “stuff” in our lives has little meaning in the larger picture. Of this, Johnson remarked:

“[The Great Society] is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake … We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are over-crowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.”

In the Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra, some of the most incredible and unspoiled natural settings in all of America, there are issues at hand concerning industrial development, growth, and the use of resources. In all such dialogue we should always be considering what the ultimate goals are for such development, and what the long-term price is for the natural world and for future generations that will want and need it.

Over fifty years before Lyndon Johnson addressed the University of Michigan, another American was already proclaiming the invaluable importance of nature and opens spaces. John Muir already knew that time in nature could relieve the pressures of the citied world, noting that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” Johnson saw the same value in nature, and tried to express how important the connection to and preservation of nature will be if we’re to make a truly great nation for ourselves. One wonders if Johnson had been reading about Muir before delivering his speech; in her book about Muir, Linnie Marsh Wolfe notes that Muir saw it an imperative that humans “be made conscious” of their connection to nature, and by doing so they “see that [they are] not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue [their] fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole.”

Much of what John Muir has written runs parallel to the ideas in Johnson’s speech, and yet still today, 100 years after Muir and Johnson both explained how vital our natural world is to our well-being, we still must fight tooth and nail to protect our open spaces and the splendor of nature. Johnson eloquently explained our options: “Today we must act to prevent an ugly America. For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”

At its core, the Great Society was about one thing: meaning. What is it to live a life of meaning? How do we give that to ourselves? Johnson’s work during his presidency (aside from the inexcusable political hubris that eventually led him into the tragedy of Vietnam) is tied to the idea of how we find meaning. Programs enacted in the mid-sixties broke down racial barriers, gave help to the poor and elderly, and lifted the arts. In other words: service and care. A connection to other people and the natural world, and the quality of those connections, gives meaning that cannot be found in material goods and the relentless pursuit of wealth and growth.

Johnson explained that “The challenge of the next half-century is whether we have the wisdom to use [our] wealth to enrich and elevate our national life and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” He saw that in fifty years it could be possible for our nation to create as its loftiest – and obtainable – goal that its citizens find happiness, quality and meaning to be far more important than growth, development, and accumulation of wealth. Now, as we watch our climate suffer, the disparity between the rich and the poor widen, the slow disintegration of the middle class, the isolation and lack of community among generations old and young, we know the painful truth that the Great Society is even further away than it was half a century ago.

Our efforts through the next 100 years should be to do everything we can to realize Johnson’s idea of that Great Society. It will take incredible imagination, initiative, and dedication. It will take the preservation of our open spaces and the natural world. It will take love and compassion and a deep want for strong community and caring. All easier said than done, to be sure. But as you consider the world around you, from the highest Sierra peaks, to the depth of Badwater in Death Valley, to the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles and its thirsty people, consider the choices needed to start down the path Johnson described. There are those out there that hope to preserve and protect, those that search for and share meaning, and those that place quality of life over quantity of goods and unbridled growth. Are we putting those people in positions to help and serve?

We should be.

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