Remember James G. Watt? If you do, you’re probably my age or older. If you don’t remember Watt, he served as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983.
Being that Watt left government 35 years ago, you don’t hear much about him in the media today. Nevertheless, Leonard Krishtalka, the director of the Biodiversity Institute and professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, wrote about Watt in a column entitled “Conspiracy theories are not harmless” in the April 24 issue of the Lawrence Journal-World:
Repeated end-times pronouncements pose another danger: the insidious notion that we no longer need to take the long view of human affairs, of wisely stewarding the state of the nation or the planet. Such crackpot notions can reach the highest levels of government and policymakers. Remember James Watt, President Reagan’s secretary of the interior? Charged with stewarding the nation’s natural lands, parks, forests and wildlife, he famously defaulted, proclaiming that we don’t have to protect the environment because the end times are at hand.
This characterization of Watt’s position on the “end of times” seemed suspect to me, so I emailed the esteemed professor to see if he could share his source(s) with me.
“References for his views include his testimony before the House Interior Committee and articles in the Washington Post and NY Times when he was secretary,” Krishtalka responded. He provided no links.
I then emailed Krishtalka and said if he cannot substantiate his claim with a source, he should consider asking the Journal-World to publish a correction.
“My statement about Secretary Watt is supported by the record,” he responded. “You are free to disagree, which I respect.”
There is a reason why Krishtalka could not provide a link to a source. Contrary to his claim, the record simply does not support his statement. In fact, during testimony in February 1981 before the very same committee Krishtalka mentioned in his email, Watt said the following:
That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have, to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.
In an October 1983 letter, Watt wrote the following to President Reagan:
Because of our concern for and commitment to stewardship, we have accelerated the efforts to bring about the recovery of…endangered plants and animals. By the end of this year, we will have approved or reviewed nearly three times as many recovery plans as were developed in the four-year period 1977 to 1980.
These statements are extremely different from what Krishtalka claimed Watt proclaimed. In fact, Watt’s comment before the House Interior Committee sounds like much like what Krishtalka said during an online chat hosted by the Journal-World in 2005:
“If we do not steward the environment and its natural resources more wisely than we are now, we won’t survive for another million years.”
So, how did Krishtalka get it so egregiously wrong?
The mischaracterization of Watt’s position on being a steward of the nation’s natural resources goes back several years and has been covered extensively by John Hinderaker, a contributor to the Powerline blog. In 2004, Powerline played a major role in ending Dan Rather’s career at CBS News after the anchor tried to pass off phony documents regarding George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service as authentic. Watt contacted Hinderaker in 2005 after the Minneapolis Star Tribune published as an op-ed the text of a speech liberal commentator Bill Moyers delivered when the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School presented him with the fourth annual Global Environment Citizen Award. In the speech, Moyers said the following:
Remember James Watt, President Ronald 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.’
Indeed, Grist magazine did report what Moyers said in his speech. In an October 28, 2004 article, Glenn Scherer wrote the following:
But a scripture-based justification for anti-environmentalism — when was the last time you heard a conservative politician talk about that?
Odds are it was in 1981, when President Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back,” Watt said in public testimony that helped get him fired.
Today’s Christian fundamentalist politicians are more politically savvy than Reagan’s interior secretary was; you’re unlikely to catch them overtly attributing public-policy decisions to private religious views. But their words and actions suggest that many share Watt’s beliefs. Like him, many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future.
On February 4, 2005, Grist offered this correction:
In fact, Watt did not make such a statement to Congress. The quotation is attributed to Watt in the book Setting the Captives Free by Austin Miles, but Miles does not write that it was made before Congress. Grist regrets this reporting error and is aggressively looking into the accuracy of this quotation.
A week later, Grist offered Watt and its readers an apology: “Grist has been unable to substantiate that Watt made this statement. We would like to extend our sincere apologies to Watt and to our readers for this error.”
Moyers and the Star-Tribune also issued corrections.
Miles Austin, a former circus ringleader, published Setting the Captives Free: Victims of the Church Tell Their Tales in 1990. An obscure environmentalist magazine picked up his bogus quote and added another layer of fabrication. Bill Moyers then repeated Grist’s embellished fabrication.
It’s not clear where Krishtalka found the gross mischaracterization of Watt’s position. He could have gotten from the Grist article or any of the numerous atheist blogs that have repeated Grist’s bogus mischaracterization. He certainly didn’t get it from the Washington Post, which he mentioned in his email. After all, Watt himself corrected the record on the op-ed page of that newspaper on May 21, 2005. “I never said it,” Watt wrote. “Never believed it. Never even thought it. I know no Christian who believes or preaches such error. The Bible commands conservation–that we as Christians be careful stewards of the land and resources entrusted to us by the Creator.”
It is also not clear if Krishtalka was unaware of Grist’s debunked article and merely failed to do even a little research. If that is the case, it doesn’t reflect well of his research skills. Watt’s 1981 testimony before Congress is available on the C-SPAN website. Krishtalka—as well as Grist, Moyers, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and others who have shared the debunked article—could have easily found that Watt did not say what they claim he said.
Or is it possible that Krishtalka knew the article had been debunked and included the fabrication anyway because it fit with the argument he was attempting to make in his column? If that is the case, it doesn’t reflect well on his integrity.
But one thing is clear: Krishtalka refuses to acknowledge his error even after being presented with the facts. He has chosen faith over reason.
Yes, Prof. Krishtalka and the Lawrence Journal-World, conspiracy theories are not harmless. But neither is fake news. Consider the May 9, 2005, issue of Newsweek, in which the magazine reported that American interrogators at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a copy of the Koran, the sacred Muslim text, down a toilet. Newsweek retracted the story and apologized several weeks later, but only after rioting in Afghanistan left at least 15 dead.
Once a lie is shared on the Internet, that lie can live on long after those initially responsible for spreading the lie have issued corrections and apologizes. Fortunately, in Krishtalka’s case, it is unlikely anyone will die as a result of his dissemination of fake news. However, following the lead of a circus ringleader does make him look a bit like, well, a clown.
Kevin Groenhagen is the author of The Tea Party Challenge: Understanding the Threat Posed by the Socialist Coalition.