First 100 Days

Trump, the Environment, and Our Cultural Lessons

As a candidate, and now as president, Donald Trump has had many labels slapped on his back, but un-American is not one of them. America’s political and social fabrics feature many strands, so diverse and clashing in color and texture that almost every cultural variant fits in somewhere. Trump’s environmental policies, though, emerge not from lesser cultural strands of our shared fabric, but from long-dominant ones. Indeed, they magnify and draw attention to cultural elements that pervade American society. They, and their flaws, are more American than we may care to admit.

Our nation’s cultural trajectory began early. The continent’s natural riches appeared measureless to the first European colonists, or invaders (take your pick). Scarcity-based, Old World economic constraints hardly seemed needed in the face of such bounty. As settlers spread out they embraced land-use and consumptive practices that European visitors viewed as astonishingly wasteful. As historian Bill Cronon has put it, “ecological abundance and economic prodigality went hand in hand”; the “people of plenty” in colonial New England soon became “a people of waste.”1 Guiding the new culture was what historian Donald Worster has recently termed the “theory of the green light.”2 With resources so vast, why not simply charge ahead?

This core element of American culture—a mixture of perceived abundance, freedom, individualism, and capitalism—remains strong despite efforts to counter it, beginning 150 years ago. Technology and rising populations have played key roles in our misuses of nature. But, culture has been even more influential. We use and abuse nature because of the ways we perceive it and value it, because of the ways we think about ourselves in relation to it and in relation to one another, and because of our shaken, but still-substantial, confidence in our abilities as morally unique beings. We charge ahead willy-nilly, overcoming shortages, cleaning up messes, and keeping nature under heel.

As we survey the environmental stances of the Trump administration, we need to see their consistency with these and related cultural values and attitudes, which scholars have identified as root causes of our environmental ills. The Trump administration may display these values and attitudes with uncommon vividness, but they pervade the political spectrum. Better than other factors, they explain why environmental reform efforts over the past generation have accomplished so little.

As promised, President Trump proposed deep budget cuts to the nation’s environmental programs, including a 30% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) budget. He moved to curtail Obama-era steps to reduce climate change, particularly the Clean Power Plan. He cut back methane-reduction programs, proposed more fossil-fuel exploitation (including within National Parks), and questioned auto-fuel-efficiency standards. The Republican-led Congress rescinded the Stream Protection Rule at his request, which was designed to reduce strip-mining pollution.

Accompanying these steps have been similarly broad cuts to the enforcement of federal pollution laws and federal oversight of state environmental-control programs. Efforts are afoot to curtail regulatory limits on pesticides and other hazardous substances. If the White House can overcome resistance from EPA head Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration will also cut funding of brownfields site clean-up efforts. If Great Lakes region legislators can be pushed aside, then an end will come to programs to clean up Great Lakes waters and protect them from Asian carp and other invasive species. In the works are plans to curtail Clean Water Act provisions that protect waterways and wetlands from dredging and filling.

It is tempting to attribute these Trump policies to disdain for environmental protection. They display that, to be sure. But, to see them as simply that, as the mis- or malfeasance of a temporarily ascendant political group, is to overlook their American cultural roots. For Trump, as for many Americans, nature is something we can tame and make obedient. When our manipulations of nature run awry, we manipulate even more. Humans are the only morally charged creatures in the world; the rest of nature, big animals included, are morally empty objects. We see nature in fragmented terms, as tracts of land and natural resources readily divided, extracted, and valued through market means. By equating value with market prices, we implicitly mean value to humans living today (well-funded ones most of all), not to future generations or to other life forms. Nature’s parts are valued as discrete objects and not for their roles in sustaining ecological systems.

President Trump’s denial of climate science is, as critics say, anti-science. But, it is more than that and more also than a resistance to elites. The challenge to climate science taps into our longstanding cultural confidence in our own cleverness. It reflects our tendency to assume that we know enough, or can learn enough, to handle future problems when, and as, they arise. We charge ahead with new technology and chemicals without taking time to learn their likely consequences. It is up to those who claim to foresee problems to bear the high burden of proof

Buried in President Trump’s executive order on climate change was a revealing change in the way the federal government would calculate the social cost of carbon emissions. Since carbon’s harms mostly lie in the future, we need to discount them to present value (so we assume) when setting policy. Obama-era rules used a 3% discount rate. Trump’s executive order raises that to 7%. At that higher rate, $100 worth of harm taking place 100 years from now costs us only about 12 cents today. The upshot: it is hardly worth worrying about such future costs. On this point, too, we expose an important cultural trait—our short-term attitude and our unwillingness to think and plan in anything like the time frames associated with natural change.

As for Trump’s actions related to waterways, wetlands, and the like, they similarly reflect a longstanding unwillingness to embrace nature’s inherent interconnection and interdependency. Guided by culture, we see nature in fragmented terms and interact with it as such. We overlook the ecological reality that natural systems are organic, functioning wholes. We struggle to see the paramount truth that our long-term flourishing is based on the healthy functioning of these wholes.

Trump’s environmental policies are unlikely to bring net job gains in the short run and will yield harms over the long term. They are misguided by any standard that cares about the long-term and that reflects good science and economics. But, Trump’s stances and character offer us much-needed learning opportunities. Southern racist governors in the 1950s brought America’s widespread racism into clear view for Americans everywhere. Trump’s cultural flaws, similarly distilled and magnified in his arrogant, short-term, anti-science policies, could do the same for us today. To varying degrees, more than we recognize, his flaws are our flaws.

* Professor of law, University of Illinois College of Law. He has written widely on issues of nature and culture, including the recently published A Good That Transcends: How U.S. Culture Undermines Environmental Reform and the forthcoming Our Oldest Task: Making Sense of Our Place in Nature, both with the University of Chicago Press. A native of central Illinois and long active in conservation organizations, he serves on the Boards of the National Wildlife Federation and the Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network.

1 William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England 170 (1983).

2 Donald Worster, Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance 5 (2016).