Can an economy destroy the environment and still be considered ‘strong’?
In this Oct. 12, 2018 file photo, water contaminated with arsenic, lead, and zinc flows from a pipe out of the Lee Mountain mine and into a holding pond near Rimini, Montana. The community is part of the Upper Tenmile Creek Superfund site, where dozens of abandoned mines have left water supplies polluted and residents must use bottled water. | Matthew Brown / AP

Ronald Reagan notoriously once asked, “Where would this country be without this great land of ours?”

As ridiculous as Reagan sounded asking that question, the question has taken on a renewed seriousness given Donald Trump’s assault on the American land itself and thus, by extension, on us Americans who depend on a safe and well-managed environment to provide clean water and myriads of other resources to make our lives possible.

And I’m not just talking about the fact that William Perry Pendley, appointed last July to head the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees a substantial chunk of the nation’s publicly owned lands, advocates for selling off public lands, basically robbing taxpayers of this “great land” and hence “this country.” Pendley would indeed prefer to leave Americans pondering literally the question Reagan asked.

I’m talking about the fact that Trump has proudly rolled back not just Obama-era regulations spelled out in the 2015 Waters of the United States rule but also key elements of the Clean Water Act legislated in 1972 and amended multiple times in the 1970s and 1980s to ensure Americans had access to clean water by regulating the dumping of pollution into the nation’s surface waters, including lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and coastal areas.

Without a lot of fanfare, Trump issued the Navigable Waters Protection rule at the tail-end of last January, completing his obliteration of the Obama administration’s water protections—and worse. Derrick Z. Jackson, a Fellow of the Union of Concerned Scientists, points out, Trump’s rule is somewhat ironically named, allowing clear navigation for polluters.

Coral Davenport, writing for The New York Times, elaborates the damage of Trump’s roll-back, writing, “The new water rule for the first time in decades allow landowners and property developers to dump pollutants such as pesticides and fertilizers directly into hundreds of thousands of waterways, and to destroy or fill in wetlands for construction projects.”

Her reporting highlights the actually informed perspective of Blan Holman, a lawyer specializing in federal water policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center. In Holman’s expert judgment,

“This will be the biggest loss of clean water protection the country has ever seen. This puts drinking water for millions of Americans at risk of contamination from unregulated pollution. This is not just undoing the Obama rule. This is stripping away protections that were put in place in the ’70s and ’80s that Americans have relied on for their health.”

According to experts, Trump has again ignored basic scientific evidence in ways that will imperil the lives of all Americans by threatening our access to the resource most fundamental to our existence: clean water. The ruling, scientists agree, does not acknowledge the connections in our ecological system between various bodies of water. Wetlands, which are now subject to the dumping of pollutants under Trump’s rule, play key roles in filtering surface waters that often make their ways to larger bodies of water. Opponents of Trump’s rule point out, for example, that the deregulation threatens to pollute the Colorado River, which provides water to 17 western states.

Supported by lobbying groups for farmers, real estate developers, miners, and other industries, the rule is aimed at supporting American business and economic development.

But let’s think about that.

The main purpose of an economy is to most efficiently produce and distribute goods and services to meet the needs of people living within that economy. In other words, the purpose of an economy is to support human life.

So, we might ask, how can laws aimed at undermining the health of the ecology on which humans depend for their lives be part of sound economic policy? How can laws that enable the pollution of an essential resource for sustaining our lives be sound economic policy?

We hear Trump and others brag all the time about the performance of our current economy, its low unemployment rates and record-setting stock market averages.

Can an economy really be successful if it is undermining the lives of the people living within it? The proverbial piper always has to be paid, and the costs of not creating a sustainable economy and environment will come crashing down us if we don’t change course.

We need, clearly, a different set of criteria for measuring economic health that go way beyond the performance of the stock market and unemployment rates. We need criteria that measure the ability of human survival and sustenance for the long haul of history.

Consider, for example, the costs of Trump’s hostility to addressing climate change in meaningful ways.

Trump’s own scientists issued a report on climate change in November 2018, focusing on its environmental and economic impacts, highlighting the need for urgent short-term action to ensure our long-term survival. Among many alarm bells, the report warns,

“Extreme weather and climate-related impacts on one system can result in increased risks or failures in other critical systems, including water resources, food production and distribution, energy and transportation, public health, international trade, and national security.”

It attributes the many floods and wildfires in recent years, increasing in frequency and intensity, on human-caused climate change, underscoring the urgency of action and the limited window of time we have in which to enact policy and change behavior to preserve the very basis of our lives.

Taxpayers cover the costs of these disasters, meaning tax dollars are diverted or the deficit is increased. Poor treatment of the environment is poor economic stewardship.

Is Trump taking good care of American land and lives? Hardly.

We won’t have a country without this great land of ours. The struggle of keeping our republic now includes the struggle to keep our land.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.