Reviewed 9/30/2004

Strategic Ignorance, by Pope & Rauber

Why the Bush Administration is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress1
Carl Pope
Paul Rauber
San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2004




ISBN 1-57805-109-6 303p. HC/WCI $24.95

Before George W. Bush assumed the presidency in 2001, I was concerned that his record of care for the environment might not be very good. Experience has confirmed those fears, and then some. As the 2004 election fast approaches, I endeavor to read and review a few more books that analyze his performance as President of the U.S. Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, is well qualified to comment on the Bush administration's performance as a protector of the environment. Some will argue that Pope weighs environmental quality too heavily, labeling him derisively as a "tree-hugger". That label invokes the image of the stereotypical environmental extremist: someone who thinks wild animals are more important than people, trees more important than buildings. While such people do exist, Pope is not one of them. But clearly, ideological stance is important as a guide to someone's future actions. Its importance is proportional to the amount of power and authority that someone possesses. My advice to anyone inclined to dismiss Carl Pope as a "tree-hugger" is to compare ideologies. Suppose Pope got everything he asks for in this book. What sort of a world would result? Now do the same with the ideology of the people he describes. What sort of world would they create? In which world would you be better off?

This is no mere academic exercise. The people portrayed in Strategic Ignorance have considerable power and authority. The actions and events Pope describes in this hard-hitting book have repercussions for every living American, and for generations of Americans yet to come.

As with every advocacy book I read, the next issue I must consider is whether Pope exaggerates the problems he describes, or glosses over facts that weaken his arguments. My opinion is that he does — but only in a few instances. (I discuss those instances below.) Once again, it is a question of balance: Which side does more of this? Here, too, power enters the equation: To the degree that Pope has less of it than Bush, he must stick to the facts. To do otherwise would be tantamount to destroying his own case. That would be stupid. Carl Pope is not stupid. Also, the facts described here (fortunately for the future of America) are mostly a matter of public record; anyone who cares to can verify them. In my judgement, Pope makes a very strong case.

He begins by describing the strategy the Bush administration uses in seeking to reverse the momentum this country has built up in over a century of environmental progress. Ten rules, Pope avers, codify that strategy. He presents them in Chapter 1, showing the destructive effect each has had. But, rather than merely thundering against the boulders the Bush administration has thrown in front of the train of environmental progress, Pope seeks to understand the reasons for that obstructionism. To that end, he looks back into history. In a masterpiece of understatement, he compares its approach to that of the Reagan administration, with its disastrous Interior Secretary James Watt2 (page 25)

Interior Secretary James Watt baldly announced, "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber." When asked if it might not be wise to save something for future generations, Watt replied, "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns." This made people worry.

M E A   C U L P A
23 June 2005

When I wrote this review, I accepted the above passage from page 25 of the book as an accurate quote. Today (23 June 2005), I leaned that Interior Secretary James Watt never said "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber." The second line Pope attributes to Watt, "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns," is essentially accurate. However, it is taken out of context and, juxtaposed with the other line, totally distorts Watt's meaning.

I made a mistake in not checking the validity of those quotes. It was a mistake I should not have made, since I've previously been made aware of similar errors. I have now corrected this one.

Early this year (2005), Bill Moyers made a similar mistake with the bogus James Watt quote. Moyers apologized on February 9th. His apology can be found here in Editor & Publisher. To read what Watt actually said, and learn the rest of the story, go to this entry in the Power Line blog.

In contrast, Pope writes, the Bush administration relies on public relations: it tries to mislead the public about its similar policies by labeling them with titles like "Clear Skies" or "Healthy Forests". This is rule #3 on Pope's list. The list also serves as an "executive summary" for the book, and a pointer to the chapters relevant to the various rules. Taken together, this set of rules represents an application of "social Darwinism" — otherwise known as "might makes right" or "the end justifies the means".

As Chapter 2 reminds us, the history of wilderness preservation goes back much further. It dates to the dawn of the twentieth century, when Republican president Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, giving the presidency the power to set aside public lands for their intrinsic natural qualities. Use of this power has always been hotly contested. But it has also been frequently applied, not only by Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and (more recently) Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, but by Dwight David Eisenhower, by Richard Milhous Nixon and by George Herbert Walker Bush, father of the current president — by the majority of recent Republican presidents, in fact.3 These conservative actions add up to millions of acres of protected wilderness, including the crown jewels held by the National Park System: The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and the rest.

After World War 2, advances in the chemical and nuclear industries called for ways to control their toxic by-products. The modern environmental movement, dedicated to protecting the world against pollution by the byproducts of these and other industries, found its inspiration when a government wildlife biologist released her findings on pesticides. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962, made the need for such protection impossible to ignore.

The tradition of respect for the environment, therefore, goes deep into American culture — both historically and popularly: it has long been favored by two-thirds of the public. But neoconservative ideologues are determined to roll back the laws supporting that majority viewpoint. Ronald Reagan, as noted, presided over a concerted effort to gut the laws designed to provide both wilderness preservation and pollution control. Newt Gingrich led a similar effort with his Contract with America campaign. Fortunately, those efforts failed. But George W. Bush now leads a renewed attack, born of the same ideological biases but more persistent, more duplicitous, and more effective. It is this attack that Carl Pope lays bare in this book.

Like any attack, this one requires a group of like-minded leaders. In Chapter 3, Pope lays out brief biographies of many of the top people. The remaining chapters go into detail about their methods of attack on specific areas of environmental progress and the laws that support them — such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the highly popular "Superfund" law.

The book closes with a chapter proposing a common-sense ten-point plan to get environmental progress back on track. With one possible exception, these proposals are thoroughly practical and eminently desirable. The exception is Project Apollo, a plan to re-industrialize America by investing $300 billion over ten years into a new-energy economy. This too is eminently desirable, but may be a bit grandiose.

A 14-page Appendix provides a month-by-month chronology of the Bush administration's actions on the environment from January 2001 through November 2003, when the book went to press. This gives the exact date for each decision it presents. There are 36 pages of chapter notes and a 22-entry annotated reading list. Finally, Pope provides an extensive index. There are no photographs, but seven political cartoons by Auth, Oliphant and others in the top rank are reproduced to illustrate specific points.

My assessment: Strategic Ignorance is a very well written book that presents a compelling case for the argument that George W. Bush is the greatest enemy the environment has had since "the environment" became recognized as something worthy of preservation back at the end of the nineteenth century. Some passages could be clearer, and there are a few minor technical errors. It contains views and interpretations I don't agree with. (I discuss my differences with Pope in the rant linked below.) It is remarkably free of typographical errors. I am tempted to call it "distressingly free" of such errors; Pope and Rauber even avoid the very common goof of describing some activity that is going on as being "underway". However, I did manage to find a similar error. I present it along with some other quibbles in the errata list linked below.

1 Note that the dust jacket shown in this image has a subtitle beginning with the word "How". Later printings (like the one I used to write this review) have corrected that to "Why". So did I.
2 I recall clearly how controversial Watt was at the time. Reagan defended him as long as possible, leading David Brinkley to famously comment that the president stuck by his top man at Interior "through thin and thin".
3 Respect for the environment has generally been bipartisan. It was "Ike" who, in 1960, created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Richard Nixon signed the original Clean Air Act in 1970. And while the first president Bush had less of a positive impact, he at least moderated the worst of Reagan's anti-environment measures.
Valid CSS! Valid HTML 4.01 Strict To contact Chris Winter, send email to this address.
Copyright © 2004-2014 Christopher P. Winter. All rights reserved.
This page was last modified on 10 June 2014.