A Passion for Writing

I have been writing for fifty years. I wrote my first scholarly article in 1969. I was then a  graduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That was a bold step. My English was still in its early stages of improvement. But more than spelling and vocabulary, I felt I had something to say that might add to our understanding of the past.

The unspoken assumption is that a better understanding of the past leads to avoiding errors in the present and, in general, increasing our appreciation for the work and civilization of those who came before us.

That hope and love of history and the truth continue to motivate me in this difficult but exceedingly satisfying passion for writing.

Some people have accused me of being naïve. I do love the natural world and the Earth and traditional civilizations. These things are not fashionable, now that we have weapons of mass murder and extermination and, foolishly but intentionally, burn fuels warming the planet.

I don’t know what naïve means, but probably my critics thought I was living on the clouds, ignoring reality. However, I am proud that facts, to the degree I grasp them, guide me in all my work.

Dozens of footnotes graced my EPA memoranda and my scholarly articles and books. I don’t use footnotes to impress readers but to inform them of the sources of my information allowing me to speak the way I do. That’s how science works. Scientists study reality and often discover the truth about how the world works. I rely on scientific data to make sense of the complexity of this society, other countries and the global environment.

Second, no matter the nasty politics engulfing us, as they do in the reign of Trump, there are models for emulation: thinking and acting as if this and other societies could and can be better.

The Greeks remain our first model. For several centuries, they reached the heavens. They sought out knowledge and beauty and the good. They put down in writing their knowledge of cosmology, astronomy, mathematics, physics, natural philosophy, engineering, geography, biology and humanities: history, Homeric studies, dramatic plays, poetry, rhetoric, ethics and political theory.

We also know that despite such a record of achievement and civilization, the Greeks did themselves in. They failed to overcome their political competition, which triggered civil wars and foreign conquests.

Nevertheless, the Greeks left us a legacy that, to some degree, guides us to this day.

This explains my constant search for understanding the Greeks. My books and articles reflect this source of inspiration.

The other question nagging me for over fifty years is about this gigantic United States I chose as my second home. What is the national purpose of this country? To be another Great Britain without a king but a president with powers thousands of times greater than any monarch on Earth?

I love Thomas Jefferson. He had tasted classical studies and appreciated Greek civilization. While an American ambassador in Paris in the early 1820s, Jefferson met Adamantios Koraes, a Greek classical scholar that became the subject of my dissertation.

I worked for two years on Capitol Hill and smelled the rot of money buying favors and power. For the first time in my life, I witnessed how large corporations put their own men in positions of influence in the government.

Jefferson’s ideas on the national importance of the yeoman farmer and concern for the monopoly power of corporations found no place on Capitol Hill in late twentieth century.

I also worked for twenty-five years for the US Environmental Protection Agency. That experience was educational, mind-opening, and distressing in the extreme. I liked the easy access to the Library of Congress, books and research. I liked some of my colleagues who educated me in the esoteric details of chemistry, pathology, risk assessment, economics and politics. But I disliked other colleagues and political bosses who converted a national organization established in 1970 to save us from ourselves (EPA) to one protecting the polluters (EPA). Even this taste of bitter reality did not convert me to a silent and obedient servant of power.

On the contrary, I emerged from this inferno armed to fight – with my pen: the abuse of power and corruption all over America and the world.

Writing is an intensely personal experience. I am open to the outside world bombarding me. The Sun, the Moon, the starless skies, forest fires, the melting of the ice, the lies of the climate change deniers, like Trump, affect me.

I wish I had some of the power of Zeus. I would have blasted polluters and tyrants alike with thunderbolts. I would have never permitted the development of nuclear weapons, plastic, agribusiness, logging, commercial fishing, the hunting of whales, the burning of fossil fuels, and the extermination of species.

Does this sound like a utopia? I don’t think so. Each of those activities is bad for humans, wildlife, and the Earth. So, think about it.

Why are humans, or more precisely, why the leaders of the world permit weapons of mass murder and ecocide? And why do they license commercial enterprises responsible for the impoverishment of societies and the planet?

Zeus does not listen to me. I only have the power of writing.

Like the ancients wrote their tragic plays warning the Greeks not to veer from their traditions, I put down on paper modest suggestions for understanding what is happening in our society and the world. I don’t pretend I am a modern tragic poet, but simply a messenger of some useful knowledge. My name, Evaggelos, means the messenger of good news.

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Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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