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Watt wants to be judged by his actions and not by the things he has said. But, as was made clear again last week, it can be argued that his words have, in fact, had a far greater social impact than his deeds. He's preeminently a man of ideals, and he has used his office as a pulpit to preach in favor of his ideological causes and against their enemies. Watt's sermons may not have moved the national congregation in the ways he intended, but they have moved it nonetheless. Most obviously he has energized the environmental movement as no individual or phenomenon previously has. The reaction to him has translated into thousands of new members and millions of dollars for the private environmental organizations that are most hostile to him. More important, Watt has forced conservationists and preservationists to rethink and reform many of their long-held principles and practices.
During the 1970s environmentalists became spoiled and arrogant as a result of too much attention and too little critical examination. Odd theories and proposals that had little to do with nature, science or the common welfare found support because, like balanced diets, environmentalism was thought to be so patently good that it was gauche to object to anything that traveled under that name. With his conspiratorial view of the political world, Watt identifies the cause of extreme environmentalism as "creeping socialism" and has energetically lambasted it as such.
Creeping silliness might be a more accurate description. Rocks Have Rightists got out of hand. Preservation of nature, as though it were a rare artwork, became an end unto itself. The observable fact that the web of life is an intricate multiple-use arrangement was, in some quarters, obscured by the ideological fantasy that the only decent and harmonious natural relationships are nonconsuming ones. Also, there have been many examples of individual environmentalists confusing their private esthetic conceits with natural law and trying to convert them into public policy. Some may like snowmobiles in national parks and others may not, but it's a matter of personal taste, not a question of ecology or morality. Backpackers camping in the wilderness are no better, worse or natural than a family vacationing in a parking lot in their camper.
Despite Watt's beliefs, environmental socialists—or sillies—hadn't captured the Interior Department. Largely it was manned by pragmatists who knew that development of resources could be accomplished without seriously befouling nature. Often they had more trouble with and less sympathy for the preservationist "wild-eyes," as they have been called by President Carter's Interior Secretary, Cecil Andrus, than they did with reasonable users of public resources. However, if the environmental extremists had gone unchallenged long enough, they might have gained the sort of control over public policy that Watt thinks they had. This would have led to another sort of disaster. Just as for a time anything environmental was considered beyond reproach, too much of this brand of nonsense would have given even the best sort of environmental protection a bad name.
Watt has presented a broad hint of the kind of backlash that environmentalism carried to excess could produce. Perhaps because it takes one extremist to know another, he was the right man at the right time with the right style to shake up the sillies.
It's quite possible to imagine someone of the same persuasion as Secretary Watt, but more politically adept—or perhaps more unprincipled—wreaking far greater havoc on the environment than he has. Watt has come on as such a wild and woolly radical that he hasn't been able to accomplish anywhere near as much as he said he wanted to when he took office. Nevertheless, even while occasionally nicking himself in the foot with his rhetoric, he has continued to fire away from the hip at anything that looks or sounds to him to be preservationist. In the process, he has antagonized even the most moderate of those who consider themselves to be environmentalists and warned the most activist that if they are truly serious about advancing their cause they had better stick to the mainstream and jettison some of their more bizarre notions. This much-needed shaping-up process is going on now.
Watt's ideas about a balanced environmental policy aren't shared by many Americans. Were his ideas to truly prevail for long, the country would be in some real trouble. However, because of the challenge he has posed, it seems likely the U.S. will have a much stronger consensus about what it can and should do with nature. In fact, Americans already are more certain about some of these things than they would have been had not this man come blazing out of his Denver law office and started them thinking about what is important rather than just about what is nice.
There's a related matter: The U.S. hasn't had much experience with ideological leaders. There has been a feeling that they can't get power in America. Watt is perhaps the most radical and zealous ideologue to reach a high public office in the U.S. in a long time—maybe ever. His administration has been instructive because it shows how True Believers behave when they get their hands on the keys to the most important things. Watt may have provided us with a valuable case study for future reference.
I have been following environmental affairs for 35 years and am of the opinion that during that period the three people who have had the greatest impact on how we think about and behave toward nature are Aldo Leopold, the naturalist-author who after his death became the spiritual father of the environmental movement; Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring: and James Watt. The last name is listed with absolutely no ironic or sarcastic intent.