Democracy in Crisis: What we can learn about Trump's executive order on the environment from John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and Jason Isbell

Democracy in Crisis: What we can learn about Trump's executive order on the environment from John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and Jason Isbell

"I know you're tired and you ain't been sleeping well, uninspired, likely mad as hell," Jason Isbell sings on his new beautiful new song "Hope the High Road."

"Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know," he continues.


He's right, it was a son of a bitch, but now I can only think that eventually 2016 might seem like the last good year.

I've been trying to write about the climate-killing executive order that Trump signed this week. I got on a background press call the evening before it came out, listening to a "senior administration official" explain "that each executive department and agency in the United States government will be responsible for identifying all regulations, all rules, all policies, guidance documents that serve as obstacles or impediments to domestic energy production."

I talked to a professor at Department of Environmental Health Sciences who told me that, if we want to know what this energy policy will result in, we can look to China, where air pollution is a major problem.

But we don't have to look to China or anything futuristically sci-fi to see what kind of hell bad policy can create. We only have to look to the recent past. We still talk about the "dust bowl" because it was a catastrophe. Environmental factors drove tens of thousands of people, like the Joads in Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," which I can't stop thinking about, from their homes. It was an environmental crisis that was exacerbated, if not created, by humans, who depleted the plains and loosened the topsoil with aggressive agricultural practices. When big winds came, all the loosened dirt blew away, swirling around.

At the time, people did not know what the fuck had happened. But we know now. They caused it. And decent policies fixed it.

If you wanna get a sense of it, listen to the incredible Smithsonian interviews with Woody Guthrie. The music is great, but you get a sense of just how bad things can be without regulations to help people who are falling. We remember the Great Depression part, especially since 2008—but have failed to recall the environmental catastrophe that went along with it.

There are so many other versions of this despair on gorgeous display for us now. The blues carry even so much more. Guthrie's friend Leadbelly from Angola. Because these things aren't separate. But these few are stuck in my mind right now along with Lenny Bruce talking in DeLillo's "Underworld," thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"We're all gonna die!"

If we don't, it is grim shit.

We talk about driving away refugees from Syria. But what happens when Californians see people from Oklahoma or Georgia as refugees? You don't have to imagine. It happneed, less than a hundred years ago.

But, you know, maybe there's hope, maybe the Republicans are right, maybe we can take care of each other without government.

Here's what it might look like. These are the last lines of "Grapes of Wrath" so if you're worried about spoilers stop now–and also, come the fuck on and read it already. Rose of Sharon just lost a child. But everyone is hungry.

"For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort around her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. 'You got to,' she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. 'There!' she said. 'There.' Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously."

So, as we strive to "get out of the bubble" and find these disgruntled people who think their lives are worse than those their parents, we might also want to remember that their lives are a hell of a lot better than those of their grandparents and great grandparents.


So tonight my wife and I stood and held each other and listened to Jason Isbell sing.