The new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, addressed the agency’s employees for the first time on Tuesday morning, and a widely reported viewpoint is that he at least tried to be conciliatory. No talk about downsizing or eliminating the agency in this speech. No mention in his remarks of canceling the Clean Power Plan or rolling back water pollution protections. There will be plenty of time for that, after all, once the rumored executive orders come from the White House. Instead, Pruitt talked about baseball, the founding fathers, and the importance of civility. Pretty uncontroversial stuff. Then, right at the end, in the Rachel Carson Room, he quoted the founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir:
“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in.”
Here’s how Pruitt interpreted Muir’s words:
“We as an agency and nation can be pro energy and jobs and environment. We don’t have to choose.”
That’s actually not the choice that will confront the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency. When oil and gas companies want to drill in our national parks, we have to choose whether to let them. When the methane emissions from natural gas operations are polluting our atmosphere, we have to choose whether to regulate them. When coal companies want to dump toxic waste in the streams of Appalachia, we have to choose whether to look the other way. Those aren’t theoretical examples — they’re (bad) choices that are happening right now.
John Muir knew this. He understood that there will always be people who are prepared to make the wrong choices for selfish reasons. If Scott Pruitt had actually read The Yosemite (the book where Muir wrote those words), instead of plucking them from Brainy Quote, he would have encountered this passage later in the same paragraph:
“…our magnificent national parks… have always been subject to attack by despoiling gainseekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial, with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy, industriously, shampiously crying, ‘Conservation, conservation, panutilization,’ that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation made great.” [italics mine]
Wow. Like Shakespeare, John Muir wasn’t afraid to invent a word if he needed one, and shampious is the perfect description of the Trump administration’s attitude toward the environment. “We’ll be fine with the environment,” said candidate Trump. “We can leave a little bit ….”
The irony is that Pruitt is correct when he says we don’t need to sacrifice jobs or the economy to protect the environment. After all, jobs in the solar sector are growing at 12 times the rate of the rest of the economy; there are four times as many solar workers as coal miners. But we still have to make choices. The health of the economy, for instance, will depend on whether we choose to invest in achieving 100 percent renewable energy, choose to upgrade our power grid, choose smart transportation solutions, and choose reduce the danger of climate change. If we truly care about jobs, then instead of obliging “despoiling gainseekers,” we should choose to help workers make the transition from polluting fossil-fuel industries to the renewable future. And always, always, we should choose to protect public health — which is not only the right thing to do but also makes economic sense.
Tough days may lie ahead for the EPA. It seems like just yesterday that we were celebrating the 40th birthday of this agency that has saved tens of thousands of lives (every single year) and trillions of dollars. But if the administration and Congress decide they want to return us to the dark days before we had an EPA, we’ll be making some choices of our own. The EPA has been protecting us for almost half a century. It’s time we fought for them.