In the Critics this week

John Gray on science and myth, Alex Preston on tax havens and Will Self on the connection between qu

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, now available in good newsagents everywhere, our lead book reviewer, John Gray, enjoys the "light and graceful prose" of Philip Ball's Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People but finds this exploration of scientific ambition to be ultimately "self-defeating". Also in Books, our City and finance columnist, Alex Preston, is swept along by a forceful stream of invective in Nicholas Shaxson's Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, which exposes a murky system of offshore wealth.

Meanwhile, Olivia Laing considers the stylistic influence of Ernest Hemingway on David Vann's grief-ridden novel Caribou Island. The popularity of computer games proves an intriguing topic for Helen Lewis-Hasteley to ponder in her review of Jane McGonigal's Reality Is Broken and Toby Litt discusses the "morbid textures" created by the twin film-makers, brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay. Roy Hattersley discusses the strengths and weakness of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a "bible of sentimental socialism", on the centenary of the author's death.

The modernist poet Ezra Pound is the subject of this week's Critic at Large, Helen Carr, who urges us to appreciate a "superbly gifted writer" regardless of his disastrous flirtation with fascism. Elsewhere, our film critic Ryan Gilbey praises the subtlety of David O Russell's The Fighter, while Rachel Cooke finds that HBO's Boardwalk Empire fails to live up to the hype. The NS culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, reports on an inspirational celebration of the German writer W G Sebald, which featured Patti Smith. Finally, Will Self muses on the "connections between ordinary eateries and mass murder".


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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.


There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.


Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.


Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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