Calling Out Trump’s Assault on Nature

Johann Heinrich, “Teiresias”


Trumpism’s all-out assault on Nature has begun, prompting me to turn once again to Euripides’s The Bacchae. The indispensable surveys what we are facing.

First, here’s Brian Plumer last week:

In a sweeping new executive order, President Trump ordered his Cabinet today to start demolishing a wide array of Obama-era policies on global warming — including emissions rules for power plants, limits on methane leaks, a moratorium on federal coal leasing, and the use of the social cost of carbon to guide government actions.

Everyone knew this was coming: Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to repeal US climate regulations and unshackle the fossil fuel industry. But Tuesday’s order is only a first step. Trump’s administration will now spend years trying to rewrite rules and fend off legal challenges from environmentalists.

Sarah Frostenson, meanwhile, reported Tuesday on leaked EPA documents that reveal how the Trump administration plans to eviscerate the agency:

Leaked documents reveal just how President Donald Trump plans to decimate the Environmental Protection Agency and cut 31 percent of its funding.

The more detailed vision for the EPA appears in an internal memo by its acting financial officer that was shared with Vox. It includes the elimination of more funding for decade-long programs, drastically scaling back different departments within the agency, and more staff layoffs than initially proposed.

Some 50 programs are on the chopping block, including state grants for fighting environmental hazards such as lead and radon and at least 10 specific geographic programs, like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay program. Discretionary funds worth $21 million for “state-defined high priority activities” have been stripped, according to the memo, dated March 21.

What’s more, staffing cuts to the agency are now estimated at 25 percent, up from the 20 percent in cuts proposed in the March 16 “skinny” budget.

The staff cuts are intended to undermine state regulatory efforts:

[T]he current budget proposal would cripple state enforcement and regulation efforts, particularly for states already facing severely strapped budgets.

On average, the EPA funds 27 percent of a state’s environmental agency budget, often in the form of categorical grants, according to the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), a nonprofit association of state environmental agency leaders. And in the Trump budget, categorical grants get a 44 percent cut.

“What’s important to realize about these grants, is they are essentially ‘fee for service,’ or what we as a state receive for implementing federal programs on behalf of the EPA,” said Patrick McDonnell, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “We have the responsibility for implementing the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act … but cutting that funding in half impacts our ability to get permits out as well as our inspection coverage.”

It is all of a piece with what else we are seeing from the Trump administration: assert dominion over Nature, over women’s bodies, over all perceived enemies, at home and abroad. At such moments we need Teiresias, who challenges Pentheus after he declares war on Dionysus and his followers. Speaking truth to power, the seer tells the king he is mad:

                                    So Pentheus,
listen to me. Do not mistake the rule of force
for true power. Men are not shaped by force.
Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are.

At the end of his speech, Teiresias defiantlyasserts that he will continue to worship the god of Nature, regardless of what Penthesus does:

[N]othing you can ever say will make me
turn against the Gods. For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure,
no madness can undo.

Sound public policy carefully examines tradeoffs between economics and the environment in a way that does justice to both. Or as the Greeks put it that respects both Apollo and Dionysus (a.k.a. Bromius), civilization and wilderness. The chorus of Bacchae applaud Teiresias for honoring the balance:

Your words, old man,
most wisely balance
respect for the Gods.
Without shaming Apollo
you honor our Bromius, as a great God.

We face the danger that Trump’s madness will prevail and we will come to accept his assault as the new norm. Our seers strive to open our eyes.

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