Only in a Humpty Dumpty world

The snail darter, Bush's EPA and a conspiracy of industry tools.

By Andrew Leonard
April 24, 2006 10:43PM (UTC)
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What do the snail darter and William Wehrum, the Bush administration's nominee to run clean air programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, have in common? Follow the links:

A short editorial in today's New York Times recommends against the approval of Wehrum, calling him a "doctrinal hit-man" for Bush administration efforts to undermine clean air regulations. A more detailed, and damning, denunciation can be found in the April 18 Philadelphia Inquirer. The executive summary: Wehrum, who once worked as an attorney for Latham & Watkins, a Washington law firm that represents EPA-regulated utilities, has spent his career at the EPA serving the interests of the energy industry by methodically weakening existing clean air legislation. And he's done a very good job.


That in itself is hardly surprising. Anyone paying attention to what Bush appointees to the EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy have been up to since Day One of their tenures long ago realized that the job of government had been sold off to the industries those departments were supposed to regulate. To compare Wehrum's achievements with his rhetoric is a classic example of the astounding way the Bush administration defines "black" as "white." Indeed, Wehrum et al. have been so successful that it was something of a shock last month when the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned an EPA attempt to interpret the Clean Air Act in a way that would have exempted utilities from being required to upgrade their operations so as to emit less pollution. In a decision that focused on the EPA's laughable attempt to redefine the word "any" so that it did not mean "any," the court noted that "Only in a Humpty Dumpty world would Congress be required to use superfluous words while an agency could ignore an expansive word that Congress did use. We decline to adopt such a world-view."

Reading the decision this morning, I noticed that there was a footnote to the Humpty Dumpty reference. As it happens, this was not the first time that a court had invoked the spirit of "Through the Looking Glass." A previous decision, TVA v. Hill, 1978, made a similar shout out to Lewis Carroll.

TVA v. Hill was the legendary case of the snail darter vs. the Tennessee Valley Authority. Opponents of a dam on the Tellico River attempted to use the Endangered Species Act to halt construction, arguing that the tiny snail darter faced extinction if the dam was completed. In one of the biggest causes célèbres of the environmental movement in the late '70s, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the snail darter prevailed.


Temporarily. Some energetic lawmaking led by Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker got the dam specifically excluded from the act. The dam was finished, and a gorgeous river valley was transformed into an artificial lake. (The snail darter survived. It has since been discovered in other Tennessee rivers and streams, and was taken off the Endangered Species Act in the 1980s.)

Looking back, one can see the snail darter controversy as a watershed movement in the ebb and flow of the environmental movement. Rhetorically speaking, conservative forces managed to turn the snail darter episode to their own purposes. Environmentalists were ridiculed and castigated as activists who cynically used a fish no one cared about to stop economic progress. Ever since, one can argue, environmentalism has progressively lost political potency on the national stage. The Reagan and Bush and Bush administrations excelled at weakening and undermining the landmark environmental legislation of the 1970s, culminating in today's looking-glass world, where industry lobbyists write their own regulations.

But the real story was never the snail darter. It was the river. It was about resisting the willy-nilly remaking of the natural environment at the behest of industry. The underlying impulse, of which the snail darter was only a symbol, was that economic and industrial progress have to be balanced with an enlightened stewardship of the earth. And as the dangers posed by destructive climate change induced by human activity become ever more apparent, that point is ever more salient.


Maybe the title of "How the World Works" should be changed to "Only in a Humpty Dumpty World." Because it is confoundingly bizarre to contemplate that as the daily evidence of humanity's dire impact on the globe accumulates, the most powerful nation in the world is run by people who are under an express mandate to cripple any attempt to correct our missteps.

The conservative free-market ideological response to such a critique, of course, is to argue that global warming fears are just another form of snail darter rhetoric, a ploy used by haters of big business to perpetrate their anti-capitalist ideology. Their success in promulgating such rhetoric is one reason why industry tools like Wehrum are free to wreak their havoc. But that's just more upside-down logic. We decline to adopt such a worldview. And we're fully confident that at some point the damage caused by Bush's conspiracy of tools will become so apparent that the pendulum will swing, again.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works