If there is a single slogan that resonates more than any other with Trump’s loyal base it is, “America first.” The sentiment is understandable, given that the United States is no longer the industrial powerhouse that it was throughout much of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it is alarmingly short-sighted.
For one thing, his actions don’t really put “America first.” They put certain industries first. Last year, for example, the president signed a measure rolling back the Obama administration’s prohibition against the dumping of coal waste into nearby waterways. This is mind-boggling. Nearly half a century has passed, after all, since the birth of the modern environmental movement—a movement that was triggered by, among other things, the fact that the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had literally caught on fire because it was so polluted. It symbolized a pervasive problem—the common practice of industries of all kinds of fouling natural resources that belong, theoretically, to all of us.
Thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972, among many other measures and efforts, those practices were curtailed, if not stopped altogether. The Hudson River is another case in point. When I was growing up in New York in the 1970s, the river was virtually an open sewer. Today, much of it is clean enough to swim and fish in.
Trump and most Republicans in Congress are either unaware of this history—or simply don’t care. Their primary concern lies in protecting the interests of their friends (and financial supporters) in the fossil-fuel industries.
At the same time, earlier this year, Trump placed a 30 percent tariff on foreign solar panels—a move that will result in the loss of 23,000 American jobs, according to Goldman Sachs, and increase the cost by 7 percent for consumers.
What the solar industry stands to lose as a result of this initiative, of course, the coal industry stands to gain. And don’t get me wrong: I sympathize with coal miners and their families who know no other line of work.
The trouble is, the industry has inflicted irreversible damage on the country at large. The practice of dumping waste into waterways is only the beginning. There is also the industry’s policy of mountaintop removal, which in addition to destroying natural beauty causes further pollution of waterways. Then there’s the spread of coal dust through the air. As someone who lives a few blocks from Lambert’s Point Terminal in Norfolk, and must remain vigilant toward the coal dust that accumulates on my windowsills, I can attest to this problem firsthand.
The oil and gas industries, meanwhile, present their own problems. As for the former, all we need to do is revisit the horrific effects of the BP oil spill. Given the industry’s greed, and Congress’ unwillingness to impose more restraints, it’s only a matter of time before another such spill occurs. Lobbyists for natural gas argue that theirs is a cleaner energy source. But numerous studies on the damaging effects of fracking suggest otherwise. (For more on this, see the award-winning documentary Triple Divide, produced by my friend and former local resident Melissa Troutman.)
Beyond the immediate effects of these industry practices, there is the problem that these resources are finite. There is a reason, after all, that “green” or “alternative” energies are called renewable. No one knows for sure how much oil, gas and coal we have left, but eventually supplies will run out. Thus, in favoring these industries over solar and wind, for example, our current government is essentially thumbing its nose at future generations of Americans. In other words, once again, these policies don’t put America first—at best they put some segments of the current generation first.
The thing is, it’s reckless to try to put America first in any respect. It is not simply selfish—it’s a delusion. If environmental science has taught us anything over the last half century it is that the 7.6 billion people on this planet all share a common interest in protecting it.
Which leads me to the subject of climate change. Trump—in all of his willful ignorance—insists, along with people like Rush Limbaugh, that the idea of climate change is a “hoax.” More than 97 percent of climate scientists disagree, according to a report issued by NASA. If you’re a fan of Limbaugh and his ilk, you’ll probably reject this by arguing that they’re all in it for the grant money or some such nonsense. If so, I suggest that you sit down and talk with climate-change scientists face to face. The ones I know are people with rock-solid integrity and one primary goal: finding scientific truth. The evidence for climate change—and human “civilization’s” contribution to it—is overwhelming, they assert. And a principal cause is the burning of fossil fuels.
This poses a special threat to Coastal Virginia because—as we all know—it is highly vulnerable to flooding. As sea levels continue to rise, the flooding will get much worse. But we are certainly not alone in this respect.
With this in mind, we must recognize the urgency of aggressively developing alternative energy sources. And if you’re still hung up on the “America first” idea, consider this: Europeans—especially Germany—are far ahead of us in this respect. Consider this little tidbit: Harper’s Magazine recently reported that Germans were paid last year, at times, to use power because supply outstripped demand. Talk about energy independence! Wind, solar and other renewable energy sources now account for 85 percent of Germany’s energy needs. In this respect, in other words, America is far from first—and our leaders are making no effort to correct that.
Petty concern for America’s “competitiveness” would be better than nothing if it were to result in our making efforts to catch up with Germany. But in the long run such thinking is petty, indeed.
As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, it is imperative that we bear a single image in mind: the first iconic photograph of earth from space, taken during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Perhaps even more so than the image of the Cuyahoga River in flames, this picture was responsible for the environmental movement—for it was a stark reminder that we all share one small home. It’s time to stop trashing it.