A Nation Run by Billionaires and Lobbyists

Photograph Source: Lord Jim – CC BY 2.0

In 1961, I left Greece for the United States. The reason for that life-changing decision was education. The University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin welcomed me and gave me a free education. I earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Illinois and my doctorate from Wisconsin.

In college

My education was a mixture of science and humanities. I combined zoology with Greek (ancient, medieval and modern) history, as well as Roman history and modern European (Russian, Soviet Union, Southeastern European and British) history. To this multidisciplinary bowl I added the history of science from my postdoctoral studies at Harvard.

I did all this book reading, test taking, and writing a dissertation in ten years. The next step was finding work. By the time I graduated from Wisconsin, in 1972, I was married with my first child. This made earning a living imperative.

I worked on Capitol Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency for twenty-seven years.

Sporadically, I taught at several universities about things I learned at work: how the federal government regulates or fails to regulate pesticides and agriculture.

The hidden truth

If this sounds obscure, technical, and of little value, it is not. There’s complexity in these things, but within this complexity there are gems of truth on how this country works.

Imagine a group of bureaucrats led by a political representative of the president deciding how much pesticide poison goes into each fruit, vegetable, grain, bread, cheese  and meat Americans eat. That’s what the Office of Pesticide Programs does. The responsibility is awesome. The science is dubious; the ethics abhorrent. I did not want to do anything with it, save for criticizing the very idea of poisoning our food under the guise of environmental protection, which translated into protecting the farmer and poison maker from legal suits. The moment I came across evidence of massive and chronic malpractice and fraud in the testing of pesticides, I knew my early suspicions were legitimate; I knew how agribusiness rules America.

This experience helped me understand the meaning and practice of “environmental protection” in an industrialized America. In other words, I brought to the classroom information not in environmental policy textbooks

History, and especially the history of science, hovered around me, always tempting my thought to precedents: how did people of earlier times and other societies face the natural world or raise food?

The message to my students 

I probably overwhelmed my students with data, facts and explanations about the environment and how America works. But the take-home message to my students was a warning:

”Your elders have abandoned your protection to the unkind and often corrupt industry and politicians. Study the natural world, study the science of the environment and, once out of school, reform or change the politics of this country for your protection and the protection and health of the natural world. A polluted natural world is your enemy. It will make you sick or kill you.

“Do away with pesticides, industrial agriculture, nuclear bombs, nuclear power plants, plastics, and toxic chemicals. They were the products of war, ignorance and hubris.

“Build a society with different values, one based on carbon-free and toxic pollution-free technologies, including respect for nature. Don’t approve any industry disrupting ecosystems, poisoning the natural world, and causing the extinction of species. Learn from science and older traditions and wisdom how the world works. Learn from the natural world.”

I don’t know if my students understood me. I treated them like graduate students. I opened their eyes to the beauties of science and truth as well as the secret and corrupt ways of the chemical industry. I let them see and examine original documents showing industry-government corruption. Some of them might have passed my ideas to their parents and, possibly, administrators.

I knew college and universities were rarely on the forefront of justice or truth, much less political change. In many instances, like the land grant universities, they become the inventors of hazardous chemicals and technologies that enable agribusiness to control rural America. At other instances, universities legitimize pollution.

With some exceptions, my college colleagues were indifferent to me and my teaching.

At Humboldt State University in northern California, I taught about society and the environment in a sociology department. There was a possibility for a permanent position for me but the chairman of the department said not to bother to apply because my doctorate was in history, not sociology. I asked him to come to my class, so he could form his own opinion about my teaching. “I care less about your teaching or the admiration students have for you,” he said.

Twice at two different schools (the University of Maryland and Pitzer College) I spoke to the Dean about expanding teaching and research on the fate of black farmers in America who declined by 98 percent in the twentieth century. The Deans were black. They listened to me politely but did nothing.

These anecdotes may be a fly in the ointment, but they suggest a deeper malady.

America after WWII

Since World War II, the culture of America is becoming inimical to democracy and civilization. By civilization I mean justice, the rule of law, the employment of science for making decisions, equal opportunity for humans to make a living, relative equality among citizens and ethical and science-based government rules regulating corporate and business behavior. Moreover, protecting human and environmental health should be at the core of this civilization.

Civilization is in trouble in America. Perpetual wars, the nuclear bomb, and the supremacy of money have made this country an empire. This political transformation is dismantling democracy at home and threatens the planet.

An oligarchy of billionaires are behind this aggression. They have captured the government, milking its fat Pentagon budget while using other government departments like the Environmental Protection Agency to buy legal protection for their chemicals polluting our food, drinking water, air, rivers, lakes and the seas.

The spectacle of Trump

The spectacle of Trump being president says it all. This is a very bad man. Some people, including senior government officials, and especially ambassador Gordon Sondland, are saying Trump urged the government of Ukraine to dig dirt about his political opponent Joe Biden. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) accused Trump of being “a criminal in the White House.” Others charge him with betrayal and infamy for allowing the Turks to slaughter the Kurds who have been faithful American allies.

Trump is threatening democracy. He displays and employs government power for his personal benefit. He does not have a clue about international relations. He is an enemy of public and environmental health.

In desperation, the Democrats in the House are collecting evidence of wrongdoing for “impeaching” him. They know, however, that the Republicans in the Senate will declare Trump innocent of all charges.

This effort of finding Trump guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors is the ethical thing to do. But for me, Trump’s persistent undermining of this country’s environmental laws, including his willful ignorance of climate change, constitute high crimes and misdemeanors. They are translated into policies hurting and killing people all over the country. And pretending there’s no climate change, as the Trump EPA does, exacerbates the onslaught from climate change.

This official apathy and blindness is affecting the country, even the Democratic politicians running for president. The warming of the Earth and the fossil fuels causing it have all but disappeared from public discourse.

With the possible exception of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), I just don’t think these candidates are passionate enough to embrace the climate threat and opportunity for shaping American politics and assuring the survival of civilization and the natural world. Yet they say climate change is the gravest danger America and the world face.

The hegemony of commercial television

Another way of explaining this pathology is the overwhelming power and influence of commercial television. It has remade Americans into obedient corporate subjects. Just like cigarette companies during most of the twentieth century brained-washed Americans to do nothing without a cigarette hanging from their mouth, advertisements and news reporting mix with each other so thoroughly the viewer, in most case, does not understand the difference between the two. The result of this willful malpractice and propaganda is the dumbing down of Americans.

Second, commercial television networks treat the natural world like a  zoo: a place for expensive cruises, hunting, industrialized farming, logging, mining and forest fires. Even the PBS and BBC nature documentaries keep corporate crimes against nature strictly separate from the lives of the threatened species they document.

This television onslaught has been taking place for decades while most Americans live increasingly in cities, which separate them further from the natural world.

Despite this undemocratic and plutocratic record, commercial television is in charge of the Democratic presidential debates. They ask the questions and restrict answers to seconds and minutes.

Undoing this industrial-cultural-academic-television-propaganda complex requires a “political revolution” even greater than the revolution Senator Bernie Sanders has in mind.

The Sanders agenda

Sanders is an angry American prophet who insists in bringing justice back to America. He wants an economy for all. He is lashing at bankers, drug and insurance companies, billionaires, Trump and the Republicans. He is accusing them of theft: sucking trillions to an oligarchy and impoverishing the rest.

Should Sanders be elected, this country may be spared some of the calamity of climate change. He has promised repeatedly to put fossil fuel companies out of business – replacing them with carbon-free alternatives and creating 20,000,000 well-paying jobs.

In addition, Sanders is likely to save America from tyranny. This will demand a Herculean labor: channeling the Potomac River through the Washington stables of billionaires and industry lobbyists.

This would demand the end of exporting American jobs; taxing the billionaires enough to narrow the gigantic gap between them and the rest of Americans: use that money to fund climate change and cleaning up and eliminating pollution; outlawing the fossil fuels industry and funding alternative carbon-free energy technologies; revive the New Deal government programs of President Roosevelt for healthy farming, environment, and rebuilding of rural America; upgrade America’s medical mess to European health standards; make state universities free; give EPA the freedom and independence it needs to embrace its real mission; regulate commercial television: it should not be able to interrupt news with advertisements, nor charge money to politicians running for office; regulate and tax Wall Street; regulate and tax agribusiness: ban pesticides, break up large plantations, and bring back family farms.

Finally, take money out of politics.

Only this broad agenda of economic, social and ecological renewal can put the breaks to a Hothouse Earth and violent political revolution.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.