Our friends at Powerline wrote several weeks back about how the unctuous Bill Moyers had slandered Reagans Interior Secretary James Watt by recycling the canard that "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 never said any such thing, and though this urban legend has been knocked down for more than 20 years, as the Moyers article shows it lives on. Moyers had to issue a public apology to Watt, as did the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where Moyers article appeared. (He also made the same charge in a speech at Harvard.) So, too, the environmental website Grist.org issued an apology and retraction (it had been Moyers source for the quote): "Grist has been unable to substantiate that Watt made this statement. We would like to extend our sincere apologies to Watt and to our readers for this error."
All of this is prologue for considering what is likely an equally spurious quotation, if not in fact a fabrication, that appears in the pages of Jared Diamonds new best-seller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In a particularly frothy passage on page 462 attacking mining companies, Diamond writes:
“Civilization as we know it would be impossible without oil, farm food, wood, or books, but oil executives, farmers, loggers, and book publishers nevertheless don’t cling to that quasi-religious fundamentalism of mine executives: ‘God put those metals there for the benefit of mankind, to be mined.’”
The “mine executive” who supposedly said this is not identified, nor the name of her company. (There are no footnotes or source notes for this quote, or any other in the book.) It is not clear from Diamond’s prose whether this is meant to be a verbatim quotation, or a stylized characterization, The doubt about the authenticity of this quote is deepened by the immediate sequel:
The CEO and most officers of one of the major American mining companies are members of a church that teaches that God will soon arrive on Earth, hence if we can just postpone land reclamation for another 5 or 10 years it will then be irrelevant anyway."
Again, Diamond identifies neither the mining company nor the denomination in question here. These things matter. Precisely because Diamond is a bestselling author of considerable reputation, his distortion or invention of ridiculous quotations threatens to inject them into wider circulation. In fact, it has already started.
Reviewing Collapse in Science magazine, Tim Flannery writes of “the CEO of an American mining company who believes that ‘God will soon arrive on Earth, hence if we can just postpone land reclamation for another 5 or 10 years it will then be irrelevant anyway.’” Suddenly we’ve gone from executives who attend an unidentified congregation that believes this to an unnamed CEO who “believes” this. The next short step will be directly attributing this non-quotation to the unnamed CEO.
It is beyond doubtful that any denomination believes as a matter of doctrine the ridiculous views Diamond describes. To paraphrase Orwell, only a university professor could believe such nonsense. Diamond owes it to his readers, and the mining company executives in question, to come clean with specifics about who supposedly said this and what denomination holds these views, so other journalists can verify the story. Either Diamond was had by some woolly faculty room chatter, or he fabricated another shameful slander reminiscent of the Watt remark.