Bill Moyers is best known as the broadcast journalist who, for more than 20 years, has brought the public frank, soul-searching, and sometimes frightening examinations of — well, of almost everything under the sun. On air, he’s equally comfortable discussing politics or poetry, scriptures or science.
Born in Oklahoma in 1934 and raised in Texas, Moyers has had a highly celebrated and peripatetic career that has included stints as a Baptist minister, deputy director of the Peace Corps in the Kennedy administration, and press secretary to President Johnson. Moyers later became publisher of the New York daily Newsday, an analyst and commentator on CBS and NBC news, and a cofounder, with his wife Judith Davidson, of Public Affairs Television, where he produced series ranging from “God and Politics” to “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.”
Having racked up more than 30 Emmy Awards during his television career, Moyers is now the host and producer of the Friday night PBS series “NOW with Bill Moyers.” He is also one of the few TV news and culture journalists who believe that there are still plenty of viewers who want to think and learn. At “NOW,” Moyers has focused with increasing intensity on the Bush administration’s environmental record. Since his show launched in January 2002, Moyers has produced more than 20 reports on environmental subjects ranging from mountaintop-removal mining to the industry backgrounds of Bush’s key political appointees. This Friday at 9 p.m. EST, he’ll put the Bush record in a larger context, airing an interview with award-winning scientist David Suzuki, who believes the global environment is in its final moments of sustainability.
Grist tracked Moyers down at his office to discuss environmental policy rollbacks, the ecological concerns that he says “burn in his consciousness,” and the world he wants to leave for his grandchildren.
In the year and a half since the launch of your PBS program “NOW,” you have done extensive reporting on the Bush administration’s environmental record. At a time when most news outlets have focused on war and recession, you and your team have been among the few journalists who’ve consistently taken a hard look at these policy rollbacks. What has been motivating you?
The facts on the ground. I’m a journalist, reporting the evidence, not an environmentalist pressing an agenda. The Earth is sending us a message and you don’t have to be an environmentalist to read it. The Arctic ice is melting. The Arctic winds are balmy. The Arctic Ocean is rising. Scientists say that in the year 2002 — the second-hottest on record — they saw the Arctic ice coverage shrink more than at any time since they started measuring it. Every credible scientific study in the world says human activity is creating global warming. In the face of this evidence, the government in Washington has declared war on nature. They have placed religious and political dogma over the facts.
Can you elaborate on their religious and political dogma?
They are practically the same. Their god is the market — every human problem, every human need, will be solved by the market. Their dogma is the literal reading of the creation story in Genesis where humans are to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing …” The administration has married that conservative dogma of the religious right to the corporate ethos of profits at any price. And the result is the politics of exploitation with a religious impulse.
Meanwhile, over a billion people have no safe drinking water. We’re dumping 500 million tons of hazardous waste into the Earth every year. In the last hundred years alone we’ve lost over 2 billion hectares of forest, our fisheries are collapsing, our coral reefs are dying because of human activity. These are facts. So what are the administration and Congress doing? They’re attacking the cornerstones of environmental law: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act]. They are allowing l7,000 power plants to create more pollution. They are opening public lands to exploitation. They’re even trying to conceal threats to public health: Just look at the stories this past week about how the White House pressured the EPA not to tell the public about the toxic materials that were released by the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.
I’m interested in your explanation of why — I haven’t heard this dogma-based argument before. More often, critics interpret the White House environmental agenda as political pragmatism, as simply an effort to stay in power and pay back corporate contributors.
This is stealth war on the environment in the name of ideology. But you’re right — there is a very powerful political process at work here, too. It’s payback time for their rich donors. In the 2000 elections, the Republicans outspent the Democrats by $200 million. Bush and Cheney — who, needless to say, are oilmen who made their fortunes in the energy business — received over $44 million from the oil, gas, and energy industries. It spills over into Congress too: In the 2002 congressional elections, Republican candidates received almost $15 million from the energy industries, while the Democrats got around $3.7 million. In our democracy, voters can vote but donors decide.
Add to that the fact that in every key appointment at every environmental agency you find someone from industry — a lawyer, a lobbyist, a former executive.
The list is shocking. The Interior Department is the biggest scandal of all. Current Secretary Gale Norton and her No. 2 man, J. Steven Griles, head a fifth column that is trying to sabotage environmental protection at every level. Griles has more conflicts of interest than a dog has fleas. The giveaway of public resources at Interior is the biggest scandal of its kind since the Teapot Dome corruption. You have to go all the way back to the crony capitalism of the Harding administration to find a president who invited such open and crass exploitation of the common wealth.
Protecting the environment has become an increasingly partisan issue under the Bush administration. The GOP has decidedly become the anti-environment party, causing pro-environment Republicans like Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont to defect. And yet historically, there has been a deeply entrenched ethos of conservation in the Republican Party.
Absolutely. But that was before the radical right and the corporations took over the party. Your generation is too young to remember that back in the l970s, when the world began to wake up to the global environmental crisis, the U.S. became the undisputed leader in environmental policy. Richard Nixon signed some of the pioneering measures of the time, including the very Clean Water Act that Bush is now hollowing out. And before that, of course, Teddy Roosevelt put the Republican Party in the vanguard of conservation. This idea of protecting and passing along our resources to future generations was a deeply entrenched ideal among those who were known as conservatives. But this is not a conservative mentality in power today. It’s a new political order.
How do you define that new political order?
I’ll give an example that says it all: Jim Jeffords, the former chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is an environmental champion. He made his priority efforts to curb global warming and protect the environment while advancing the economy. His successor is [Republican Sen.] James Inhofe of Oklahoma. He’s the man who once characterized the Environmental Protection Agency as “gestapo.” That’s the new political order.
Can you describe any instances where you or your colleagues were shut out by the administration in your effort to report a rollback story?
A press officer at the Interior Department told one of our producers no one there would appear on or speak to “NOW.” We get [that response] all over town — “We’re not talking to ‘NOW.'”
Has the Bush administration been more effective at pushing their environmental agenda than the Reagan and Bush I administrations before it?
Ronald Reagan came to power with the same agenda, but made a mistake when he appointed James Watt head of the wrecking crew at the Department of Interior. Watt made no attempt to disguise his fanaticism. He was outspokenly anti-environment and he inflamed the public against him with his flagrant remarks. But he took over a bureaucracy of civil servants who had come of age in the first great environmental wave of the l970s — people who believed they had a public charge to do the right thing. When Watt stormed into office, these civil servants resisted. Now, 20 years later — after eight years of Reagan, four years of Bush the First, and three years of Bush the Second — that generation of civil servants is gone. The executive branch is a wholly owned subsidiary of the conservative/corporate coalition.
And surely their public-relations strategies have become far more sophisticated.
Absolutely. They learned a big lesson from the Watt era. Not to inflame the situation. Use stealth. If you corrupt the language and talk a good line even as you are doing the very opposite, you won’t awaken the public. Gale Norton will be purring like a kitten when she’s cutting down the last redwood in the forest with a buzz saw.
Doesn’t it seem inevitable that this tremendous discrepancy between the Bush administration’s actions and words will be exposed?
There is always a backlash when any administration, liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, goes too far. In this case, all the scientists that I respect and all the environmentalists that I listen to say to me, “What’s different this time, Moyers, is that it could happen too late.” Let’s say by 2008 the consequences of all these policies become clear and the public rises up in protest. We don’t have between now and 2008 to reverse the trends; it will be too late then.
What do you mean by “too late”?
Every policy of government that is bad or goes wrong can ultimately be reversed. The environment is the one exception to the rule of politics, which is that to every action there is a reaction. By the time we all wake up, by the time the media starts doing their job and by the time the public sees what is happening, it may be too late to reverse it. That’s what science is telling us. That’s what the Earth is telling us. That’s what burns in my consciousness.
Consider the example of Iraq. Once upon a time it was such a lush, fertile, and verdant land that the authors of Genesis located the Garden of Eden there. Now look at it: stretches upon stretches of desert, of arid lands inhospitable to human beings, empty of trees and clean water and rolling green grasses. That’s a message from the Earth about what happens when people don’t take care of it. No matter what we do to Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains a wasteland compared to what it was. American policy makers see only the black oil in the ground and not the message that all the years of despoliation have left.
The irony is that despoliation doesn’t just wipe out the verdant land, it makes it impossible to have a healthy, diverse economy.
It stuns me that the people in power can’t see that the source of our wealth is the Earth. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a capitalist. I don’t want to destroy the system on which my livelihood and my journalism rest. I am strongly on behalf of saving the environment [in no small part] because it is the source of our wealth. Destroy it and the pooh-bahs of Wall Street will have to book an expedition to Mars to enjoy their riches. I don’t understand why they don’t see it. I honestly don’t. This absence of vision as to what happens when you foul your nest puzzles me.
Do you consider yourself a pessimist?
I once asked a friend on Wall Street about the market. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “Then why do you look so worried?” I asked. And he answered: “Because I’m not sure my optimism is justified.” I feel that way. But I don’t know how to be in the world except to expect a confident future and then get up every morning and try in some way to bring it about.
It sounds like for you the environment is a very personal issue, an emotional issue.
For me it comes down to our most cherished values. To our ethics. You’re asking, rightly, questions about science and economics, but this is a deeply moral issue. Economics and politics are a poor excuse for the moral imperative that we need to follow to save what is not our own so others that come after us can have a life.
A couple years ago, I took my then eight-year-old grandson to Central Park for a walk and we were on the rocks there looking out on the park and the skyline of the city and he said, “Pa, how old are you?” And I said, “I’m 66.” And he said, “What do you think the world will look like when I’m as old as you are?” And for the first time I could imagine a concrete future. The future wasn’t abstract anymore — my grandson would be a real person living in a real place, the future. In some ways, what worries me the most is that Laura and George Bush don’t have any grandkids. The president would see the world differently if he just had grandkids.
Yes, it seems as though on some level Bush is lacking some kind of emotional intelligence on these matters — as though he’s sort of tone deaf to the environment.
We had Devra Davis, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon, on the show recently. She described how Laura and George Bush designed their ranch at Crawford to be environmentally efficient, with solar paneling and lots of new technology. She pointed out that they seem to understand these issues somewhat on an individual level, and yet they don’t understand that the personal is not enough. It takes policy to translate. There is a disconnect between how they live privately and how they act publicly.
What, on a public level, do you want to see happen?
Moyers: The same thing that should happen with the war against terrorists. Terrorists want to kill us, they want to bring democracy down. The environment will kill us, it will bring us down. Why not appoint an emergency panel of Democrats and Republicans to recommend a course on global warning? I really do believe that if George Bush announced that saving the environment was more urgent than everything at the moment except the war on terrorism, if he were to call a global conference at the White House on how we can create a new vision and a new process for addressing this, the world’s greatest challenge — then I believe they’d change the Constitution to elect him to a third term.
Get Grist in your inbox