Scott Pruitt Got Off Easy: Ecocide Is No Small Matter
Scott Pruitt, the now-former, scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency chief in the Trump administration, got off easy.
Consider the case of the white “settler” William Davis in northern Illinois in the spring of 1832. Two years earlier, Davis, a blacksmith from West Virginia, had moved his wife and six children to Big Indian Creek, 20 miles north of the town of Ottawa. Davis built a house, a blacksmith shop and sawmill six miles downstream from a large village of Potawatomi Indians.
The white newcomers considered the Potawatomi peaceful. Their chief, Shaubena, traveled by horse to warn the white “settlers” about potential attacks from the Sauks, who had been sparked by the old warrior Black Hawk to resist the white invasion of northern Illinois. This included the occupation of Sauk villages and otherwise proved most unsettling to the indigenous people who called the region home.
But Davis spoiled his relations with the local Potawatomi by building a dam to power his sawmill. The dam, it turned out, hampered the upstream migration of fish, on which the native population depended for food and fertilizer.
When the Potawatomi asked him to stop blocking their fish supply, Davis brusquely refused and turned them away. Then, in April 1832, Davis came upon a Potawatomi villager named Keewassee trying to destroy the much-reviled dam. “Davis caught him in the act,” writes historian Kelly Trask, “and gave him a severe thrashing with a hickory rod. Keewassee went away bruised and angry, but he was far from finished with Davis.”
On the unusually hot afternoon of May 21, 1832, more than 60 Potawatomis and three Sauks attacked the Davis homestead, where the Davis family was gathered with two other “settler” clans. The Indians killed 15 whites. “All were scalped. The men and women were chopped to pieces,” Trask notes, “After that, the war party burned down the house and all the outbuildings and wantonly slaughtered the livestock.”
Sparked by a white invader’s arrogant response to indigenous people asking him to cease and desist from spoiling the commons on which they relied for sustenance, the Indian Creek Massacre quickly became part of a white-nationalist narrative justifying the launching of the U.S. Black Hawk War. This one-sided slaughter by the U.S. military resulted in the white ethnic cleansing of northern Illinois and the rapid destruction of Illinois prairie.
Davis (who personally survived the massacre) was just one of many tens of thousands of white un-settlers who “contributed,” in the words of Harry Podschwit in the College of DuPage’s Essai, “to the destruction of the tallgrass grass prairies and other ecological features of Northern Illinois”—including remarkable biodiversity—well before the turn of the 20th century. As Podschwit observes:
Much of the damage to the Northern Illinois ecology was sustained during the period early settlement [the 1830s-1850s], as the rapid spread of urban centers and agriculture dominated the tallgrass prairie and also decimated the remaining woodlands of the region. Thus, to the dismay of many modern naturalists, much of the ecology of the Northern Illinois was disturbed before its nuances could be fully understood. … By 1900 the landscape of Northern Illinois had been abused and defeated, lamenting its fantastic, yet brief reign in North America.
Nearly two centuries after the Indian removal, much, if not most, of the region’s once-luxuriant prairie farmland is ruled by toxic corporate mega-farmers. They apply poisonous chemical fertilizers fence post to fence post to grow giant corn and soybean crops destined for the digestive tracts of industrially penned and slaughtered cows and pigs. The once richly fertile and black earth of the Illinois plains feeds a giant, methane-spewing animal agriculture industry that contributes massively to the destructive overheating of the planet.
Still, William Davis should have listened to the Potawatomis, who at first politely beseeched him to stop endangering their food supply through his selfish distortion of the commons.
White “settler” descendant Scott Pruitt’s crimes against the commons far surpass anything Davis ever did.
Pruitt is a fundamentalist Southern Baptist who thinks that evolution and global warming are scientific hoaxes and that “God” wants human beings to use natural gas and oil, not leave it in the ground. He first made a name for himself as a state attorney general bankrolled by big oil and gas who battled the EPA during the Obama years.
An enemy of environmental regulation from the oil and gas state of Oklahoma, Pruitt was backed for his job as EPA chief by leading right-wing petro-plutocrats, including the billionaire petro-oligarchs David and Charles Koch. Other top Pruitt boosters and allies included the oil and fracking tycoon Harold Hamm (the world’s 90th richest person) and billionaire coal executive Joseph W. Craft III.
In exchange for such deep-pocketed, big-carbon support, Pruitt worked to systematically dismantle federal regulatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. He led the effort to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement, making the U.S. the only country out of 193 nations to declare its intention to withdraw from a modest global effort to curb the ever-growing world climate crisis.
Pruitt might as well have renamed the EPA the “Environmental Destruction Agency.” His career has been dedicated to two things: filling his own family bank account and bending energy policy toward the extraction and burning of every last hydrocarbon on earth.
That is no small criminal record. The collapse of livable ecology planetwide by anthropogenic (really capitalogenic) climate change in the name of development and “jobs” is a transgression unparalleled in history. All bets are off on prospects for a decent future unless Homo sapiens wake up and act quickly to move off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy—a technically viable project. Curiously enough, the world’s leading intellectual, Noam Chomsky, has noted that “those [most urgently] trying to mitigate and overcome” [the climate crisis]” are the least developed societies, the indigenous populations, or the remnants of them; tribal societies; and first nations in Canada.”
To be sure, the environmental crisis is nothing new. Earth scientists have been warning us for many years about the imminent risk of environmental downfall, identifying the reckless extraction and burning of fossil fuels as the leading driver behind the approaching calamity. Under the commons-plundering command of capital, we are careening to the fatal mark of 500 carbon parts per million by 2067, if not sooner. That’s goodbye Greenland ice sheet and so long Antarctica (which recently lost an ice chunk so large that National Geographic had to reconfigure its world atlas), both critical life support systems.
The World Bank warns that millions of Latin Americans are endangered by the loss of their continent’s giant natural water towers for irrigation, drinking and hydropower as the Andean glaciers disappear. Among the most ominous recent developments, environmental writer Robert Hunzinker explains that:
Permafrost thrives on global warming, like bees to honey, as it releases massive quantities of methane. The Siberian region may be on the verge of collapse, which will heat up the planet by several degrees; agriculture couldn’t possibly survive. Russian scientists have identified 7,000 ‘pingos’—mounds of earth pushed upwards by melting permafrost and erupting methane gas, often imploding into huge craters (there may be as many as 100,000 pingos). … Alaskan permafrost is mimicking Siberia as global warming strikes hard, and a tipping point is being triggered. A two-year scientific expedition registered 220 million tons of carbon emissions spewing out of Alaska’s permafrost, equivalent to all U.S. commercial emissions per year.
Billionaire climate-denying and planet-cooking savages like Donald Trump, the Kochs and Harold Hamm and their servants like Scott Pruitt hardly invented our “ecological rift,” which is rooted in what John Bellamy Foster rightly calls “capitalism’s [longstanding] war on Earth.” With the U.S. in the oil-coal-and-gas-addicted, commons-plundering and poisoning lead, humanity has been steering madly toward the cliff of environmental self-extermination for decades. But with his determination to “deregulate energy”—to go full bore with the greenhouse gassing to death of life on earth (a crime destined to the make the Nazis look like small-time criminals)—Trump represents what Chomsky has called “almost a death knell for the species.” The Trump presidency’s extreme commitment to fossil fuels is no small part of why the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock ahead by 30 seconds to two minutes to midnight.
A young mother with her baby in her arms confronted Pruitt at a Washington restaurant just days before his resignation. “Hi” she said, “I just wanted to urge you to resign because of what you’re doing to the environment and our country. This is my son. He loves animals. He loves clean air. He loves clean water. Meanwhile, you’re slashing strong fuel standards for cars and trucks, for the benefit of big corporations.”
Pruitt took his two bodyguards and left in shame before the mother and her child could return to their seats.
He got off easy. The loss of a government job and public humiliation is a small price to pay for playing a leading role in the eco-exterminist destruction of livable ecology.
People like Pruitt should feel lucky to be able to walk freely and breathe fresh air, or what’s left of it on a planet he’s been trying to destroy.
Four terrible things are darkly noteworthy about Pruitt’s forced resignation last week. First, it was absurdly belated. The fact that he lasted as long as he did atop the EPA makes one wonder just how far one of Trump’s favorite petro-plutocratic swamp creatures has to sink before he can lose his job in Washington. Pruitt’s departure came after months of seemingly endless controversy surrounding his personal corruption. The Pruitt scandal timeline includes the following:
● April 12, 2017: The Washington Post revealed Pruitt requested and received an around-the-clock security detail at huge cost to taxpayers (nearly $3.5 million during his first year in office).
● Sept. 26, 2017: The Post reported the EPA illegally built Pruitt a $25,000 (later revised to $43,000) soundproof phone booth.
● March 21, 2018: Politico reported Pruitt spent $105,000 on first-class flights.
● March 29, 2018: ABC News reported Pruitt had rented a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by the wife of an influential energy lobbyist during his first year in office. Bloomberg News later reported Pruitt paid just $50 for each night he stayed there.
● April 3, 2018: The Atlantic reported Pruitt gave large pay raises to two close aides after the White House rejected requests for the increases.
● May 1, 2018: The Post reported an influential energy industry lobbyist helped plan a trip to Morocco for Pruitt. It was later reported that a Washington energy industry consultant sought to plan a Pruitt jaunt to Australia.
● June 4, 2018: Democratic congresspeople revealed a close Pruitt aide told House Oversight Committee staffers that Pruitt enlisted her help in personal tasks, including a search for housing, shopping for skin moisturizer, picking up dry cleaning and trying “to secure a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington.”
● June 5, 2018: The Post reported Pruitt used his position to seek a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife.
● June 24, 2018: Politico reported the U.S. Office of Special Counsel was examining charges Pruitt retaliated against EPA staffers who had questioned his management and spending decisions. Six staffers were either fired or reassigned within the agency.
● July 2, 2018: The New York Times reported a former senior aide at the EPA told lawmakers Pruitt had asked her to help his wife obtain a job as a fundraiser for the Republican Attorneys General Association. When the aide warned Pruitt he would have to report his wife’s income on financial disclosures, he told her he would establish a limited liability corporation to hide the “earnings.”
Throughout all this and almost to the very end, Trump defended his “great EPA chief” against criticism from the “Fake News” media. Trump praised Pruitt as a champion of working people who was helping “create jobs” by slashing supposedly dysfunctional and anti-growth environmental regulations. Never mind that (as environmentalists rightly point out) “there’s no jobs on a dead planet” and that (as the economist Robert Pollin has shown) alternative energy investments create more and better jobs than those ones connected to the extraction of fossil fuels.
Second, Pruitt has been forced out with remarkably little pressure from the Republican-led Congress. The hard-right, white-nationalist and eco-exterminist GOP is ready to tolerate almost any level of petroleum-drenched corruption in the Trump White House. This does not bode well for the future if, as seems distinctly possible (thanks in no small measure to the openly reactionary and authoritarian atrocity that is congressional gerrymandering), the Democrats are unable to regain control of the House and Senate during the upcoming midterm elections.
A third disturbing thing to reflect upon about Pruitt’s demise is that it was driven almost completely by his personal corruption, not the vastly more significant crime of ecocide—the ruination of livable ecology.
One of the most alarming things about the Trump presidency so far is the chilling fact that the single most grave threat it poses, the acceleration of the climate crisis, has been a shockingly invisible non-story in the dominant Trump-obsessed U.S. news media. That media has been even more fixated than usual on the misbehavior of the current U.S. president, but it has refused to focus seriously on the most important danger Trump presents: the escalation of the march to environmental calamity.
As Chomsky told political scientist C.J. Polychroniou last April: “It is hard to find words to describe the fact that the most powerful country in world history is not only withdrawing from global efforts to address a truly existential threat but is also dedicating itself to accelerating the race to disaster, all to put more dollars in overstuffed pockets. No less astounding is the limited attention paid to the phenomenon.”
Global warming, the left philosopher John Sanbonmatsu once wrote me, is “the biggest issue of our or any time.” You wouldn’t know it from U.S. news reporting and commentary, even with the ascendancy of a president dedicated to increasing the dire peril.
Fourth, Pruitt’s replacement as EPA chief for at least the next few months is Scott Wheeler, a veteran coal lobbyist who is no less committed to climate denial and “energy deregulation” than Pruitt, Trump and the Koch brothers. Wheeler is likely to be a slicker and more effective agent of big carbon than his predecessor. As the New York Times reported:
Andrew Wheeler [is] a former coal lobbyist who shares Mr. Pruitt’s zeal to undo environmental regulations. … But unlike Mr. Pruitt—-who had come to Washington as an outsider and aspiring politician, only to get caught up in a swirl of controversy over his costly first-class travel and security spending—Mr. Wheeler is viewed as a consummate Washington insider who avoids the limelight and has spent years effectively navigating the rules. …. For that reason, Mr. Wheeler’s friends and critics alike say, he could ultimately prove to be more adept than his controversial former boss in the job.
… Mr. Wheeler[’s] … career was built around quietly and incrementally advancing the interests of the fossil-fuel industry, chiefly by weakening or delaying federal regulations. … Mr. Wheeler has worked in Washington for more than 20 years. He is a former chief of staff to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the conservative Republican who has become known as Washington’s most prominent denialist of the established science of human-caused climate change. … Mr. Wheeler also worked at the E.P.A. during the administration of the first President George Bush. More recently, he lobbied for the coal company Murray Energy, whose chief executive, Robert E. Murray, has been a supporter and adviser of Mr. Trump’s.
The exchange of Wheeler’s “steady hand” for Pruitt’s messy, moisturized ones is probably “trading up” as far as the chieftains of big oil, gas and coal are concerned. Wheeler will be a more valuable vehicle of environmental catastrophe. As journalist and historian Terry Thomas told me, “Pruitt was an egomaniacal criminal who couldn’t help flouting his power. The next guy will do his business of destroying the planet in a very matter-of-fact way. The planet will be that much more destroyed but with no distracting sideshow.”
This is yet another of many reminders that we need revolutions of policy and (more deeply) power structure, not merely changes of personnel (new faces in high places), if we are going to have any chance of sustaining prospects for a decent future.
For his part, Pruitt should thank his lucky stars. He still has his scalp, his family and no doubt a sizable bank account, though nothing remotely on the wealth scale of the billionaire gas, oil and coal oligarchs he’s been serving all these years.