The Burdensome Brand: TrumpClimate, TrumpHealth & TrumpMemes in the Trumpian Age
I have taken to starting my days reading books about the natural world. My shelves are full of them: The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold.
I first read Sand County—published nearly 70 years ago—while working on a television documentary about a wolf reintroduction in eastern Arizona. A National Wildlife Federation scientist who had joined the crew began reciting Leopold’s essay Thinking Like a Mountain as we sped past the Aldo Leopold Wilderness near the Gila National Forest:
“…In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy…
… We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sense that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view…”
In ways both subtle and profound, reading Leopold’s words, written long before I was born, changed my life.
Now I am in the midst of Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which is being savored at the appropriately mossy rate of one chapter a day.
For a few precious minutes just before dawn I am transported by stories at once timeless and immediate, primordial and utterly mind-bending. Who knew there were more than 20,000 moss species? Or that mosses have been hanging onto whatever could be hung onto on land for the last 470 million years? Moss has seen continents come and go, asteroids slam into the planet, seas rise and fall, glaciers advance and retreat, species emerge, evolve and exit.
By contrast, we humans are the last species standing (literally) in the Homo branch of the Hominid family. Our evolutionary lineage goes back two million years, maybe. Anatomically modern humans first appeared on the African savanna 200,000 years ago. Evidence of tool-making to make paint—a complex recipe that required a sophisticated knowledge of chemistry—can be found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave, dating back at least 100,000 years. Indonesian cave paintings, the oldest trove of well-preserved art discovered so far, are 35,000 years old. It took just 5,000 years to go from cuneiform tablets to the iPhone. All told, not even a blink in moss time.
I find myself holding as tightly onto moss as moss holds onto rock. In the maelstrom of Trumpian attacks on truth, fact, science and nature itself, moss has proved a steadying anchor. Like Senator Warren, moss persists.
IT DOESN’T TAKE AN ASTEROID
Unfortunately not everything has been able to hang on. We are already in the midst of what has been called the Sixth Great Extinction, losing an estimated 100 species each and every day to pollution, deforestation, urban sprawl, poaching, climate change, the exotic animal trade, parasites and pathogens. This is 100x the normal extinction rate. Biologists estimate that 20% of species are currently teetering on the brink, while fully half will cross the fatal threshold by the end of the century.
So serious is the crisis that the Vatican recently hosted a conference—a Workshop on Biological Extinction—that bridged both in symbol and practice science and faith. Co-sponsored by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, the crisis was framed in moral and practical terms: As goes the planetary ark, so, too, will we.
Moves by the Trump administration to gut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), throttle back the climate change research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and wriggle out of COP21 will only increase the scope and speed of the unfolding catastrophe.
The fossil fuel beholden climate change deniers now in charge (at least two of whom, Senator Inhofe and EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, hale from Oklahoma, the frackquake capitol of the world) are on a mission to strip away “burdensome” regulations that cut into the profits of their powerful corporate sponsors. Nevermind if burdens shift to the public in the form of poisoned water, air and food.
Yet the wholesale destruction of environmental protections is only one piece of a larger puzzle that includes:
- Tactics designed to hamstring research guaranteeing that “the best research available”—a favorite flack phrase—won’t be very good.
- An immigration ban that although still facing legal challenges has already had an impact on research and academic collaborations. Foreign students and faculty will likely opt to bypass American universities. Likewise, foreign tech talent may leave Silicon Valley for friendlier countries. An immigration ban will also have a direct impact on healthcare: more than a quarter of doctors and one fifth of all healthcare workers in the US are immigrants.
- CDC budget cuts hobbling the agency’s ability to proactively address health threats.
- NIH budget cuts crippling or eliminating funding for thousands of medically significant research projects.
- Trumpcare threatens millions with the loss of insurance. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CMB) calculations, as many as 14 million people could lose insurance in the short term. The number of uninsured could top 50 million over the next decade.
Mix all this together and it’s a sad Dickensian picture of a fouled environment, less research, more sick people, fewer healthcare providers and spikes in personal medical debt.
On the up side, Trumpcare proponent and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan notes that over the next decade, according to the CMB, the budget deficit will be cut by $337 billion. The cost, however, may be so high that it zeros out or worse. Beyond the cruelty of setting people up to suffer, it just isn’t sound economics. People who are sick don’t go to work or school. They don’t pay as much in taxes. They don’t live happy lives. It is a fast downward spiral multiplied by millions.
There are plenty of examples of the bottom line costs of a degraded environment. In China, air pollution has nicked 6.5% off the nation’s GDP and shaved more than two years off life expectancy. That makes it a potent political issue, too. In response, the latest Five Year Plan crafted by the leadership in Beijing calls for a radical turn-about away from coal (or as President Trump calls it, “beautiful coal”) toward a cleaner, greener energy future.
In every sense, fossils are the past.
IT DOESN’T TAKE A CRYSTAL BALL
The consequences of the Trump administration’s ideologically-charged policies are all too easy to predict, from wildlife die-offs to tainted drinking water and a spike in cases of asthma.
Dots can now be connected, too, between specific weather events and climate change through the science of extreme weather attribution.
“…Just like with cigarette smoking and lung cancer, I can’t say that that cigarette is what caused someone’s lung cancer. It’s the same thing with climate change and extreme weather. But what we can say is that climate change increased the likelihood or increased the intensity of a specific weather event.”
The probability that a flood, drought, tornado, hurricane, blizzard, windstorm, heatwave or b’rrrr cold visit from the polar vortex is driven by climate change can be calculated. This is the kind of data to which insurance companies pay close attention, weaving it into actuarial calculations and premium estimates, which become a defacto climate tax. Likewise, supply chain disruptions due to extreme weather can affect the availability of consumer goods, leading to higher prices.
Also completely predictable: speeding up the spread of insect vectors and the pathogens they carry. Ticks and mosquitoes can more readily overwinter (mosquitoes go into a kind of hibernation called diapause) as the climate warms, while longer, hotter summers speed up reproductive rates and extend breeding seasons. That means more ticks to spread Lyme disease, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, anaplasmosis, Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever, and tularemia; and more mosquitoes that can carry everything from West Nile, Yellow Fever, dengue and chikungunya to Zika.
Zika in particular has the potential to pack a financial wallop: Lifetime costs to care for a microcephalic child can easily spiral into millions of dollars, most of which will be born by the public because only those as rich as Trump and the billionaires club that makes up his Cabinet have the money to cover such an expense themselves. A thousand Zika babies—not an unreasonable number to expect over the next 10 years—could easily make a dent in any promised Trumpcare deficit reduction. In addition to the cost of care, Zika’s economic impact can be felt in everything from lost tourist dollars to additional expense screening blood supplies. (Aside: The virus can survive in semen for months, prompting the CDC to issue a warning regarding Florida sperm banks. In lab mice, the virus has also been shown to shrink testicles, impacting fertility. No news yet on whether human males are similarly affected. If research budgets are cut, we may never know.)
The newly formed Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change and Health representing 400,000 American physicians just released a report with the none too subtle title, Medical Alert! Climate Change Is Harming Our Health, detailing the dangers.
The ramped up disease threat also targets livestock and wildlife. It pays to care, if only in terms of enlightened self interest. Most pathogens are zoonotic, meaning they can affect multiple species, including humans (for example, dozens of species are vulnerable to West Nile). Cuts to clean water programs coupled with loosening of regulatory controls make it that much more likely that toxins such as mercury, along with carcinogens and hormone disruptors, will flow into waterways, poisoning fish and traveling up the food chain onto our dinner plates. Deep budget cuts at the Department of Agriculture will likely affect the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which will put us all at greater risk for the next Mad Cow, bird flu or as yet unidentified plague.
In a warming world, plant pests and pathogens are thriving, too, putting crops such as wheat, corn and rice at risk. And then there are the bees besieged by viruses, mites and neonicotinoid pesticides. Pollinators are essential to an estimated 90 different commercial crops just in the US, with honeybees alone contributing $15 billion to the economy. Lose the bees and say good-bye to your favorite fruit pie.
Start saying good-bye as well to antibiotics, an estimated 70% of which are used in agriculture. The rampant use of antibiotics in livestock — often as “growth promoters” and prophylactics — has turbocharged the emergence of antibiotic resistance, with vast implications for human health. The emergence of superbugs could, experts warn, “kill 300,000,000 people worldwide and stunt global economic output by $100 trillion” over the next few decades. Market disincentives—the goal of using the minimal amount of antibiotics necessary limits sales—means that government funding to develop new drugs is absolutely essential. This is not a problem that the market alone can address.
A sick world comes at a steep price.
THROUGH THE FOG OF WHY
There has been a fiendish thoroughness to the wreckage. No detail is too small:
- Defunding the Energy Star program, which has saved millions of Americans hundreds of billions of dollars in energy costs annually.
- Legalizing the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle — responsible for poisoning millions of animals annually — on federal lands.
- Cutting data transmission from a satellite monitoring climate change — the second least expensive NASA program at $1.2 million per year.
- Cutting $40 million, or a little less than half the budget, for Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity (ELC) program, which plays a critical role in early disease detection and surveillance.
- Removing the word “science” from the EPA’s mission statement.
So single-minded is the mission to dismantle regulatory protections, restrict travel, quash research, shred Obamacare and stamp out any mention whatsoever of climate change that collateral damage, no matter how devastating, is considered acceptable: billion dollar hits to businesses that depend on government data and the travel industry, or the life-and-death implications of tens of millions of people losing health insurance.
It makes no sense if the goal is to foster a healthier, more prosperous, more equitable multi-cultural nation. But if the vision is driven by a fascist, nationalist, racist, alt.right ideology determined to “deconstruct the deep state,” as Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist has outlined, then there is a rhyme to the reason. If, along the way, special interests take a cut, so be it. Oil, once again, is a recommended “buy.”
Already—before the budget is passed or the immigration ban has worked its way through the courts— the Trump administration has installed “beachhead” teams of loyalists to oversee the transformation the federal bureaucracy to better align with the Trumpian mission. According to the investigative news site ProPublica:
“A Trump campaign aide who argues that Democrats committed “ethnic cleansing” in a plot to “liquidate” the white working class. A former reality show contestant whose study of societal collapse inspired him to invent a bow-and-arrow-cum-survivalist multi-tool. A pair of healthcare industry lobbyists. A lobbyist for defense contractors. An “evangelist” and lobbyist for Palantir, the Silicon Valley company with close ties to intelligence agencies. And a New Hampshire Trump supporter who has only recently graduated from high school.
These are some of the people the Trump administration has hired for positions across the federal government, according to documents received by ProPublica through public-records requests.
While President Trump has not moved to fill many jobs that require Senate confirmation, he has quietly installed hundreds of officials to serve as his eyes and ears at every major federal agency, from the Pentagon to the Department of Interior…”
THE LAWS OF NATURE
In a chapter titled The Landscape of Chance describing how a forest rebuilds itself after a rare and devastating windstorm, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
“ …(F)orests exhibit remarkable resilience in the face of disaster. I’m told that the Chinese character for catastrophe is the same as that which represents the word opportunity. And the blowdown, while catastrophic, presented opportunity for many species…”
The Trump budget is a political blowdown. The race is on between those cleaving to ideological fictions and those holding fast to scientific facts to find and seize opportunities that will shape our nation’s future. Scientists have been stirred to action, planning marches and considering second careers in politics.
The truth will out: No matter how insidiously thorough the Trump administration’s efforts may be to obliterate all mention of human-caused climate change, the continued use of fossil fuels takes us ever-closer to a tipping point of no return. Nor can the epidemiology of epidemics be ignored for the sake of a deficit reduction headline (a false, if not entirely vaporous savings). Scientific research and innovation are two sides of the coin essential to navigating the narrow path to healthier, more equitable and prosperous future for all.
Government functions more as a system—like Nature—than a business. Everything impacts everything else. Cut the budget for environmental protections and healthcare needs increase. Institute a Muslim ban and watch academic collaborations collapse. Pull out of COP21 and deny climate change and watch China fill a global power vacuum.
The reverse is possible too: Invest in clean energy and the air improves. Support basic research and all kinds of world-changing, economy-driving inventions will follow. Provide affordable (single-payer) healthcare and the economy improves.
Is this really what running a country like a business looks like? Higher costs, slashed R&D, reduced revenues? Given that six of Trump’s ventures declared bankruptcy, perhaps so.
Where Trump has made money is in branding, licensing his name to slap on everything from buildings and golf courses to steaks and one “so-called” university. Indeed, the Trump Organization continues to rack up trademarks in Mexico and China, oblivious to ethical conflicts or even just the optics.
It seems only right, then, that as our world is reshaped by Trump’s aggressively ignorant and mean-spirited vision, the results are branded to reflect his handiwork. With a hat tip to the “Hooverville” shantytowns of the Great Depression named for then President Herbert Hoover: Trump Water (Special Brew), Trump Smog, Trump Heat Wave, Trump Superstorms, Trumpvilles, The Trumparium (a museum of the newly extinct), Trump Pipeline Spills, Trump Debt and, for those of limited means foolish enough to buy an iPhone rather than health insurance, Trump Coffins.
In Nature, diversity provides resilience, while competition and collaboration are the yin and the yang of stability. An autocracy, by contrast, is like a monoculture: brittle and vulnerable. It may dominate for a time, but cannot last.
Guided by the wisdom of Kimmerer’s long-enduring moss and the spark of green fire in Aldo Leopold’s ever-wise wolf, we will find our way.
It is not too late. It is never too late.