Did James Watt Really Say This?

National Review points to this Bill Moyers op-ed which includes this line,

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.”

Watt said a lot of stupid things — he was the guy who complained that the Beach Boys would attract “the wrong element” to a planned event. But did he say this line above?

Color me suspicious. The Grist article, which can be found here, gets key details wrong (emphasis added),

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.

Watt was not fired over what he said in testimony to Congress. Watt was fired because he had a breakfast meeting with lobbyists at which he explained that the decisions made by his coal advisory commission would stand because, “I have a black. I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” Besides, Watt was fired in 1983, not 1981.

So Grist completely gets the details of Watt’s firing wrong, which raised my spidey sense. Moreover that sentence, “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back” doesn’t appear at all in Lexis-Nexis. It’s hard to believe that Watt could have said something that silly without anyone quoting it in the intervening 20+ years except Grist.

The statement is also inconsistent with other things Watt said when linking his Christianity with environmentalism. For example, in 1981 Watt testified in Congress,

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.

It’s certainly possible Watt said this — the man said enough wacky things for three lifetimes — but given the poor sourcing and the lack of any corroboration in Lexis, I consider the claim to be suspect.

I’ve e-mailed the author of the Grist piece asking him for a corroborating source on the Watt quote.

Update: The Grist author hasn’t replied personally, but he has provided a source for the Watt quote and it’s not looking good. Where would you go for a quote from James Watt? A book on environmental controversies in the 1980s? Perhaps any number of histories of the Reagan administration?

Nope, the apparent source for the quote is a recently published book about the Catholic church’s sex scandals! My library happens to own a copy so I’m going to check out what sort of sourcing author Austin Miles used later today.

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