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Bill Moyers retirement speech
2004-12-31 07:34 PM
|Bill Moyers – who just retired after 33 years in Public Broadcasting –
received an award this month from Harvard Medical School’s Center for
Health and the Global Environment. His acceptance speech:
On Receiving Harvard Medical School's Global Environment Citizen Award
by Bill Moyers
. . . The journalist who truly deserves this award is my friend, Bill
McKibben. . . . His bestseller The End of Nature carried on where
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring left off.
Writing in Mother Jones recently, Bill described how the problems
we journalists routinely cover - conventional, manageable programs like
budget shortfalls and pollution - may be about to convert to chaotic,
unpredictable, unmanageable situations. The most unmanageable of all,
he writes, could be the accelerating deterioration of the environment,
creating perils with huge momentum like the greenhouse effect that is
causing the melt of the arctic to release so much freshwater into the
North Atlantic that even the Pentagon is growing alarmed that a
weakening gulf stream could yield abrupt and overwhelming changes, the
kind of changes that could radically alter civilizations.
That's one challenge we journalists face - how to tell such a story
without coming across as Cassandras, without turning off the people we
most want to understand what's happening, who must act on what they
read and hear.
As difficult as it is, however, for journalists to fashion a
readable narrative for complex issues without depressing our readers
and viewers, there is an even harder challenge - to pierce the ideology
that governs official policy today. One of the biggest changes in
politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal.
It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in
the Oval office and in Congress. For the first time in our
history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.
Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues
hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is
generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their
offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is
the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.
Remember James Watt, President Reagan's first Secretary of the
Interior? 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.'
Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn't know what he was
talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out
across the country. They are the people who believe the Bible is
literally true - one-third of the American electorate, if a recent
Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and
decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index.
That's right - the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the
best-selling books in America today are the twelve volumes of the
left-behind series written by the Christian fundamentalist and
religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe
to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of
immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove
them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions
Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George
Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to
him for adding to my own understanding): once Israel has occupied the
rest of its 'biblical lands,' legions of the anti-Christ will attack
it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the
Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return
for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and
transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God,
they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues
of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of
tribulation that follow.
I'm not making this up. Like Monbiot, I've read the literature.
I've reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the
West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they
feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical
prophecy. That's why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the
Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and
volunteers. It's why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act,
predicted in the Book of Revelation where four angels 'which are bound
in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of
man.' A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared
but welcomed - an essential conflagration on the road to redemption.
The last time I Googled it, the rapture index stood at 144-just one
point below the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the
son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners
will be condemned to eternal hellfire.
So what does this mean for public policy and the environment? Go
to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist,
Glenn Scherer - 'the road to environmental apocalypse. Read it and you
will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that
environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually
welcomed - even hastened - as a sign of the coming apocalypse.
As Grist makes clear, we're not talking about a handful of fringe
lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the
U.S. Congress before the recent election - 231 legislators in total -
more since the election - are backed by the religious right. Forty-five
senators and 186 members of the 108th congress earned 80 to 100 percent
approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right
advocacy groups. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist,
Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chair Rick
Santorum of Pennsylvania, Policy Chair Jon Kyl of Arizona, House
Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt. The only Democrat
to score 100 percent with the Christian coalition was Senator Zell
Miller of Georgia, who recently quoted from the biblical book of Amos
on the senate floor: "the days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that i
will send a famine in the land.' He seemed to be relishing the thought.
And why not? There's a constituency for it. A 2002 TIME/CNN poll found
that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the
Book of Revelation are going to come true. Nearly one-quarter think the
Bible predicted the 9/11 attacks. Drive across the country with your
radio tuned to the more than 1,600 Christian radio stations or in the
motel turn some of the 250 Christian TV stations and you can hear some
of this end-time gospel. And you will come to understand why people
under the spell of such potent prophecies cannot be expected, as Grist
puts it, "to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when
the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought by ecological
collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care
about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the
rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same
God who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a
few billion barrels of light crude with a word?"
Because these people believe that until Christ does return, the
lord will provide. One of their texts is a high school history book,
America's Providential History. You'll find there these words: "the
secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the
world as a pie…that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece.'
however, "[t]he Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited
and that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth……while many
secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God
has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to
accommodate all of the people." No wonder Karl Rove goes around the
White House whistling that militant hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers."
He turned out millions of the foot soldiers on November 2, including
many who have made the apocalypse a powerful driving force in modern
I can see in the look on your faces just how hard it is for the
journalist to report a story like this with any credibility. So let me
put it on a personal level. I myself don't know how to be in this world
without expecting a confident future and getting up every morning to do
what I can to bring it about. So I have always been an optimist. Now,
however, I think of my friend on Wall Street whom I once asked: "What
do you think of the market?" "I'm optimistic," he answered. "Then why
do you look so worried?" And he answered: "Because I am not sure my
optimism is justified."
I'm not, either. Once upon a time I agreed with Eric Chivian and
the Center for Health and the Global Environment that people will
protect the natural environment when they realize its importance to
their health and to the health and lives of their children. Now I am
not so sure. It's not that I don't want to believe that - it's just
that I read the news and connect the dots:
I read that the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency has declared the election a mandate for President Bush on the
environment. This for an administration that wants to rewrite the Clean
Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act protecting
rare plant and animal species and their habitats, as well as the
National Environmental Policy Act that requires the government to judge
beforehand if actions might damage natural resources.
That wants to relax pollution limits for ozone; eliminate vehicle
tailpipe inspections; and ease pollution standards for cars, sports
utility vehicles and diesel-powered big trucks and heavy equipment.
That wants a new international audit law to allow corporations to keep
certain information about environmental problems secret from the public.
That wants to drop all its new-source review suits against polluting
coal-fired power plans and weaken consent decrees reached earlier with
That wants to open the arctic wildlife refuge to drilling and increase
drilling in Padre Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of
undeveloped barrier island in the world and the last great coastal wild
land in America.
I read the news just this week and learned how the Environmental
Protection Agency had planned to spend nine million dollars - $2
million of it from the administration's friends at the American
Chemistry Council - to pay poor families to continue to use pesticides
in their homes. These pesticides have been linked to neurological
damage in children, but instead of ordering an end to their use, the
government and the industry were going to offer the families $970 each,
as well as a camcorder and children's clothing, to serve as guinea pigs
for the study.
I read all this in the news.
I read the news just last night and learned that the administration's
friends at the international policy network, which is supported by
ExxonMobil and others of like mind, have issued a new report that
climate change is 'a myth’, sea levels are not rising, scientists who
believe catastrophe is possible are 'an embarrassment.
I not only read the news but the fine print of the recent
appropriations bill passed by Congress, with the obscure (and obscene)
riders attached to it: a clause removing all endangered species
protections from pesticides; language prohibiting judicial review for a
forest in Oregon; a waiver of environmental review for grazing permits
on public lands; a rider pressed by developers to weaken protection for
crucial habitats in California.
I read all this and look up at the pictures on my desk, next to the
computer - pictures of my grandchildren: Henry, age 12; of Thomas, age
10; of Nancy, 7; Jassie, 3; Sara Jane, nine months. I see the future
looking back at me from those photographs and I say, 'Father, forgive
us, for we know not what we do.' And then I am stopped short by the
thought: 'That's not right. We do know what we are doing. We are
stealing their future. Betraying their trust. Despoiling their world.'
And I ask myself: Why? Is it because we don't care? Because we
are greedy? Because we have lost our capacity for outrage, our ability
to sustain indignation at injustice?
What has happened to out moral imagination?
On the heath Lear asks Gloucester: 'How do you see the world?" And Gloucester, who is blind, answers: "I see it feelingly.'"
I see it feelingly.
The news is not good these days. I can tell you, though, that as
a journalist, I know the news is never the end of the story. The news
can be the truth that sets us free - not only to feel but to fight for
the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair,
the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me
from those photographs on my desk. What we need to match the science of
human health is what the ancient Israelites called 'hocma' - the
science of the heart…..the capacity to see….to feel….and then to act…as
if the future depended on you.
Believe me, it does.
Published on December 28, 2004