Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Bill Moyers Repeats a Left-Wing Myth About James Watt

Volokh contributor David Kopel and Lileks are both slamming a recent Bill Moyers article in which Moyers argues that Republican environmental policy is a result of fundamentalist Christians' influence. According to Moyers, fundies affirmatively want to destroy the environment, because those Christians allegedly think the Rapture is coming any day.

Volokh and Lileks didn't comment on Moyer's juiciest assertion, a slam against James G. Watt (Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior) that is, as far as I can tell, completely false.

Specifically, Moyers alleges:

My favorite online environmental journal, the ever-engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."
Moyers said the same thing in a speech at Harvard last month, and I have to admit, it's a shocking quote, and, if true and in context, would provide some support for Moyers' thesis. The only problem is that the quote is almost certainly a myth, and that Moyers, a supposed journalist, should know better.

If you google Moyers' alleged Watt quote, you'll find people all over the internet alleging that Watt said it "in public testimony," "in front of Congress," or making similarly vaguely cited allegations. Most of them cite Moyers, some of them cite Grist, but none of them can say exactly where or when Watt is supposed to have said his "last tree" quote. Moyers says that it was a statement "to the U.S. Congress," and Grist says it was in 1981, but there aren't any more details than that.

As it turns out, the original source for this information is extremely doubtful. Specifically, in a follow up to the original Grist article, the article's author, Glenn Scherer, states that he got the quote from page 229 of the book Setting the Captives Free, by Austin Miles.

So I went to the library and am now looking at page 229 of Setting the Captives Free. You can take my word for it that although Miles says that Watt made the "last tree" comment, he doesn't state when Watt allegedly made this statement. This leads to two problems for the Bible-bashers such as Moyers. First, I have no idea where Moyers or Scherer got the idea that Watt made the statement "in 1981," "in public testimony" or "to the U.S. Congress." Miles certainly doesn't allege any of those things, and Scherer doesn't offer any other sources. Did Scherer just make up the date and setting? Did Moyers republish Scherer's allegation without checking it? My guess is yes.

More importantly, I don't believe the statement ever happened. Miles doesn't offer any date or context, so I can't disprove it absolutely unless Miles reveals his source. Still, if Watt said something that inflammatory, you would think I could find a historical record of my own to verify it. However, I found just the opposite.

After failing to find any specific citation for this alleged statement on the internet, I pulled a couple books on Watt from the library. The first, Ronald Reagan and the Public Lands, by C. Brant Short, is a fairly clinical assessment of Reagan's environmental policy. Chapter 5 discusses Watt's tenure, but makes no mention of the alleged "last tree" comment.

The second book, Caught in the Conflict, is a memoir by Watt's wife, Leilani Watt. Ms. Watt is obviously interested in defending her husband, and tries to explain away a number of his famously ill-considered comments, but makes no mention of the supposed "last tree" quote.

However, a different story suggests where Scherer, Moyers and Miles got their mistaken belief - they are probably misremembering a quote in which Watt actually expressed why his Christian beliefs induced him to preserve the environment for future generations.

Specifically, on February 5, 1981, in testimony before the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, Watt was asked whether Americans should preserve resources for future generations. Watt's answer was:

Absolutely. That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have -- to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns. Whatever it is, we have to manage with a skill to have the resources needed for future generations.
According to Leilani Watt, commentators quickly Dowdified this statement to only "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns," effectively changing a quote about how Christian faith requires its followers to preserve the Earth's resources to a quote in which that same faith allegedly permits its followers to squander those resources. Miles, Scherer and Moyers have gone one step further by restating this quote with words that Watt almost certainly never said.

A note on sources: My source for the "delicate balance" quote is Leilani Watt's book at page 98. However, I've given you the date and setting of the quote. You're welcome to look in the CIS/Index and check the testimony for yourself. By contrast, none of the people peddling the "last tree" quote can come up with a date or a setting other than "1981" and "Congress." Accordingly, I conclude it's almost certainly false, and hope Moyers will either find a credible source or stop peddling what appears to be anti-Christian slander.

A note on James G. Watt: I don't mean to defend Watt other than to say that the idea that he was compelled to destroy the environment because of his Christian faith is almost certainly false and deeply offensive. I debunked it in about an hour of fact-checking, and Moyers, Scherer and Miles should do their homework before making such an offensive accusation.

One last note: In his follow up, Scherer accepts that the "delicate balance" quote is real, but concludes that this shows the "struggle" between the "stewardship" and "dominionist" models of Christian environmentalism. I disagree. Given that (1) Scherer's original source is flimsier than a promise from Wimpy to pay you Tuesday and (2) that the "delicate balance" quote did, in fact, occur in Watt's 1981 Congressional testimony, the more logical conclusion is that Miles was misrepresenting the actual quote.

Update (02/02/05): LorenC points out that (1) he was unable to find any appearances of this quote on Usenet prior to 11/05, or in the NYT and WP archives at all and (2) there are no appearances of this quote in any book on Amazon for which "search inside this book" is enabled. Loren also pointed out that Scherer's allegation that Watt was fired because of the alleged "last tree" comment is implausible; Scherer alleges the comment occured in 1981, and Watt remained on the job until 1983.

Update (02/03/05): Here are more responses to Moyers.

(Shameless trackback ho-ing) See also: the Agora; Dignan.