Trump: America’s pilot-in-chief in the post-ecological age

November 13, 2016

Many Americans are frightened by the idea of Donald Trump as the country’s new pilot-in-chief, fearing he’ll crash the airliner of state (including climate and environmental policies) into a mountain or the ground. Clinton, they argued, for all her flaws, knows how to fly this thing called a country using the federal government and at least won’t end up crashing it.

But my metaphor assumes that every American believes he or she is on the same plane. And, that understanding is what seems to have clouded the minds of so many when thinking about the U.S. presidential campaign this year. For those living in America’s small towns and rural areas and for those in the downwardly mobile working class, their plane has already crashed!

These groups are now dazed and wandering around in the wreckage trying to figure out how to live from day to day. It is no wonder that such voters were immune to cries that Trump would crash the country. The business-as-usual globalism that they believed Hillary Clinton represented seemed to them like it would only make things worse.

Both Donald Trump and Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders told these disaffected groups that a big part of the reason their communities and livelihoods crashed was a set of trade agreements that essentially shipped their jobs overseas. That made sense to them, and for a time they had two competing champions. But only Donald Trump made it to the general election.

Having already seen their lives and livelihoods crash, those disaffected Americans who voted for Trump did so with more than a little glee in the hope that the specially outfitted luxury airliner America’s elite flies would crash as well. I think many of these voters were aware of the irony of voting for someone as their champion who really does fly around in his own private luxury airliner. But, they had simply had enough of establishment candidates and wanted to send a message. They certainly got everyone’s attention when Trump won.

(As I’ve written before, Trump attracted most of the traditional Republican voters–business-oriented voters, social conservatives, and libertarians. What tipped the balance were the excess votes coming from those who might have voted for Sanders had he been the Democratic nominee.)

Whether Trump can or will actually fulfill promises made to those who supported him is unknown. The news out of Washington last week does not bode well for such an outcome as 1) conservatives downplay new infrastructure spending that would help create the jobs Trump promised, 2) Chamber of Commerce Republicans could balk at his levying a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods that is supposed to protect American workers and 3) Trump considers John Bolton for secretary of state, a man who would certainly try to derail a warming of relations with Russia favored by Trump.

Trump may also face Republican attempts to impeach him to make way for establishment Republican Vice President Mike Pence to become president. Even conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks couldn’t resist hinting at the possibility in a recent column. Given the coverage of Trump to date, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that a determined Republican Congress could build a case against him.

The shock of Trump’s victory has been likened to the shock the world felt when British voters narrowly chose to leave the European Union, a move dubbed "Brexit." I detailed then the energy part of the Brexit equation suggesting that Great Britain’s declining oil and gas production from the North Sea since 2004 had undermined the prosperity of the country–except for the financial class mostly located in and around London, a major world financial center.

I noted that stagnant wages were a common theme both in Britain and the United States and suggested a link with the high worldwide price of oil from 2010 through most of 2014.

I also noted in another piece that both major U.S. presidential candidates–while differing on environmental issues such as climate change–embraced speeding up economic growth. My conclusion in this much older piece is that what U.S. political parties differ on ecologically speaking is not whether we should protect the long-term habitability of the biosphere for humans, but rather at what pace we should undermine that habitability for short-term gains, both political and economic.

This is what I mean when I say we have a pre-ecological politics in a post-ecological age. The sciences tells us quite grimly what the prognosis is for the climate, the oceans, the rivers, the soil, the forests, and the myriad other species that share the planet with us, but we do not understand. Most of us cling to the what I call the modern myth, the premises of which I’ll repeat here:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn’t matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

Those who fret about Trump’s climate and environmental policies have reason to be concerned. But, in truth, our trajectory with Clinton would only be somewhat less injurious to the biosphere–though it might have upheld other values such as the importance of maintaining the natural beauty of some public lands. (We should also not overestimate what one person, even the president of the United States, can do good or bad regarding such matters.)

This is not to dismiss the Paris climate agreement from which Trump has pledged to withdraw the United States. The agreement was an important watershed moment in which the world was united at least in saying that climate change was real and an urgent priority. But what we need to do to address climate change goes far beyond what that agreement contains.

Our larger problem is that our political discourse remains pre-ecological. Changing that discourse won’t happen just because another party takes the White House in four years.

Photo: Men with a monoplane in a hanger (1919). Donor: Szent-Istvány Dezső at Fortepan. Via Wikiedia.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.