One of the wonderful inventions of Douglas Adams, in his classic The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, is the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. It is an animal that “assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.” The Beast is one reason Adams gives for always carrying a towel, since you can put it over your head to avoid being eaten. I have been reminded of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast and the towel by some recent actions of the Trump administration. They are putting a towel over the government’s head about environmental problems, because if we don’t see them, they are, of course, not happening. The towel has three parts.
First, don’t study the problems. For example, since 2006 there have been steady declines in the number of honeybees, which are critical for pollination of many crops. A University of Maryland study, released June 20, found the highest honeybee winter losses in thirteen years, with a mite identified as a prime culprit. Hot on the heels of this, the USDA announced on July 1 that “National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) will not collect quarterly data this July for the annual Honey Bee Colonies report,” described “as necessary given available fiscal and program resources” (i.e., budget cuts). This program, begun in 2015, is one of the few nationwide government surveys of honeybee populations. And it was followed soon after, on July 12, by the decision of the EPA to allow broad use, over the objections of beekeepers, of the pesticide sulfoxaflor. Its use had been previously banned by the EPA in 2015. Given the financial value of honeybees and controversies over why they are declining, one would think that more, not less, data would be useful. But, as stated in Chemical and Engineering News (July 15): “The EPA has not said how it will monitor the impacts of sulfoxaflor on honey bees without the survey data.”
Second, stop listening to those with knowledge about the problem. Like the bees, the number of scientists providing scientific advice to government agencies through advisory panels has declined under the current administration. In October 2017, then EPA secretary Scott Pruitt prohibited scientists who received EPA grants to be on advisory panels to the agency. A year later, a panel advising the EPA on particulate matter pollution was dissolved. Many of the dismissed scientists on surviving panels have been replaced by individuals with ties to industry. The New York Times (July 15) reported that: “The percentage of academic scientists serving on one E.P.A. panel, the Scientific Advisory Board, dropped 27 percent during the first year of the Trump administration. Academics on the agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors dropped 45 percent.” The newspaper also reported that the watchdog General Accountability Office found that the turnover in the panels violated federal ethics rules.
Finally, don’t even talk about the problem. A July 8 speech by the President, ostensibly on the environment, never mentioned the topic (ironically, he did brag about a reduction in carbon emissions by the U.S.) Politico reported on July 18 that the Agriculture Department quashed the release of 2017 draft USDA plan on how to respond to climate change. The not-for profit Environmental Data and Governance Initiative has surveyed 5300 pages on government websites for agencies such as the EPA, USDA, and FEMA, and in a report issued July 22, found a 25% drop in the use of terms such as “climate change.” Other news stories indicate that the USGS is stripping the phrase from press releases. Testimony before Congress suggests that scientists at the Department of Interior working on climate change have been subject to retaliation for insisting that their work using the phrase be published. Writing in the NY Times on July 30, Rod Schoonover explained why he quit his job as an analyst for the State Department: “the White House blocked the submission of my bureau’s written testimony on the national security implications of climate change to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The stated reason was that the scientific foundation of the analysis did not comport with the administration’s position on climate change.”
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we encounter the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast again in the description of Vogons, the galaxy’s bureaucrats, who are “bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.” We have Vogons in charge, and it is our children and grandchildren who are in perils from fingers that are not being lifted.