Earth Last: Environmentalism in the Age of Trump

Joel Bellman

Kathleen Sgamma, for one, is delighted with the direction of environmental policy in the age of Trump.

As president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group of indie oil and gas companies based in Denver, she recently told the New York Times how thrilled she is with the Trump administration rollbacks of Obama-era regulations on oil producers to limit methane emissions—a potent greenhouse-gas contributor to climate change. Loosening those rules follows earlier decisions this year to allow more carbon dioxide tailpipe emissions, and to relax air-quality restrictions on coal-fired power plants, a change that even Trump’s own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates could lead to 1,400 additional deaths, 15,000 additional upper respiratory infections, and thousands of hours of missed school days for sick kids.

“It all depends on who you trust,” Western Energy’s Sgamma said. “That administration trusted environmentalists. This one trusts industry.”

No kidding. How else to explain putting Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist, in charge of the EPA? Wheeler’s promotion from deputy to acting director followed the overdue exit of his disgraced former boss, Scott Pruitt, who finally fled in July after months of ethics scandals and multiple investigations. Like Pruitt, Wheeler had been a protégé of Sen. James Imhofe (R-Oklahoma), infamous as the most retrograde climate-change denialist on Capitol Hill. Author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” Imhofe last year received a perfect 0% from the League of Conservation Voters on his environmental voting scorecard.

I often think of environmental policy whenever Republicans, embarrassed by Trump, wax nostalgic for Ronald Reagan—that supposedly reasonable, responsible, and compromise-minded conservative. Remember Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt? One of Time magazine’s “Top 10 Worst Cabinet Members,” Watt was a former lawyer for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an industry-funded group dedicated to promoting “liberty,” “property rights,” and “economic freedom,” which in practice meant rolling back environmental standards, worker protections, corporate accountability. He once cited Scripture to justify occupying the land “until Jesus returns,” and called Indian reservations an example of “the failure of socialism.” But Watt’s stupidity was on full, and politically fatal, public display 35 years ago today (September 21, 1983), at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce luncheon, when he famously cracked about the members’ diversity on a federal coal-leasing advisory panel: “I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.” Less than three weeks later, he was out.

This recent destructive trajectory of Republican environmental policy furnishes the political backdrop for the publication of a timely new edition of Susan Zakin’s “Coyotes and Town Dogs,” her popular history of the modern American environmental movement. It wasn’t always so: Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was one of the great naturalists, conservationists, and preservationists of the 20th century, creating forest preserves, bird sanctuaries, and dramatically expanding the national park system, and Republican Richard Nixon signed a number of important environmental bills, foremost the legislation establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.

Zakin’s title, and metaphor, comes from Mark Twain—“coyotes” being wily and tenacious survivors, town dogs more decorous but less tough and resourceful. In her telling, the radical environmentalism of Earth First!, founded in 1980 and inspired by writer Edward Abbey’s fictional monkey wrench gang, was a response to the “visionless, technocratic, corporate version” of the traditional “old-money” conservation movement.

Yet it was that movement that produced Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and banned a wildlife-destroying pesticide that inspired Sen. Gaylord Nelson to organize the first Earth Day in 1970, that established the EPA (1970), that passed the original Clean Air Act (1963) and Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), California Coastal Act (1976), and many other important environmental protection laws.

In every realm, it seems, and environmentalism is no exception, there is a rivalry between the raffish coyotes and the refined town dogs over the most effective strategy to get things done. In a new afterword to this anniversary edition, Zakin makes an important point: in the Trump era, as we have seen, reasoned argument is routinely drowned out by the fake news of the far-Right networks who function like a de facto state media arm of the Trump White House. With a tribune of the coal barons now running the EPA, there is, as Zakin writes, “no time for infighting. Visionaries and pragmatists are both needed: Coyotes to move the goalposts, Town Dogs to close the deal…the trick is to stop fighting each other.”

We are barely six weeks away from the most pivotal mid-term election in our lifetime. I will have more to say on that in my next column, but for now, with the bitter experience of the divisive 2016 campaign fresh in our minds—and all the environmental wisdom and consciousness that has traditionally distinguished Topanga from every other community in Los Angeles County—let us come together and cast a resounding vote in November to save our planet.


Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at

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