An Inside Look at the Horsemen of Our Apocalypse
The prolific author Dick Russell is perhaps best known as co-author of four books by wrestler/governor/TV star Jesse Ventura. But he has also written a family memoir about his schizophrenic son, a book about African-American leaders, an investigation of the JFK assassination, and two books about large fish.
His latest is Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Men Who Are Destroying Life on Earth—And What It Means for Our Children. With a foreword by environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the book takes a close look at the captains of carbon and the damage they are doing to the planet. In profiling the men he calls the "dark lords of the energy underworld,” Russell puts a human face on climate change.
I caught up with Russell by phone at his home in California. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jefferson Morley: You’ve always had an environmental thread running through your books, including my favorite, Striper Wars. Is Horsemen of the Apocalypse related to Striper Wars?
Dick Russell: Striper Wars details a huge citizen effort, mostly led by fisherman, to save a fish, the great Atlantic striped bass. This fish, which goes all the way back to helping the pilgrims survive, was in danger of disappearing through overfishing and poaching. I was part of, and then chronicled, a successful effort to turn this around. It was a grassroots mobilization, and we were up against very powerful entrenched commercial interests that did not want to give up taking as many striped bass as they wanted.
In that sense, there is a parallel: the fossil fuel titans want to keep just keep pumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere. And there is a tremendous need now for citizens to march and rise up and to look for people at the local level to push for change.
JM: Your book gives a personal face to climate change, like an 'America’s Most Wanted' poster. Is that your goal?
DR: Yes it is, actually. When I set out to do the book, I did not anticipate it would turn out to be prophetic. So many of these guys that I profiled are now running the country, from [Rex] Tillerson, to the Koch brothers, to Harold Hamm’s protÃ©gÃ©, Scott Pruitt, running the EPA. The list goes on and on.
I felt like there is such hypocrisy among these people; the Koch brothers decrying subsidies for renewable energy, while they get millions and millions in subsidies for what they are doing. It’s kind of mind-boggling.
I did some traveling for the book. I went to Texas to Rex Tillerson’s hometown. I went to Oklahoma and spent some time interviewing people about Harold Hamm. Not too many people knew of him and he was suddenly Trump’s energy adviser. He was offered the job of Secretary of Energy, which he didn’t want it, so Trump gave it to Rick Perry. Here’s this Oklahoma billionaire who’s not only denying climate change through his fracking practices, but also the disposal of the wastewater was causing this huge problem, making Oklahoma the earthquake capital of the country.
I felt like these guys deserved to have their faces put on a wanted poster.
JM: David and Charles Koch are cultured men with refined tastes in music and the arts. They have a building named after them at Lincoln Center in New York. Should cultural organizations take their money?
DR: [Laughs] That’s a good question. It would be great if some of these cultural organizations could actually say no. In fact, the Nature Conservancy in Kansas did that—the Koch brothers had been funding some of their efforts for up to $1million a year. They just said, No, we’re not going to take it anymore because of your policies. I’d love to see more of that.
JM: I love the story about Rex Tillerson objecting to fracking activities next to his Texas ranch. It raises the question that recurs throughout the book: What is the psychic mechanism that enables such people to be such hypocrites? Is it just greed, or is it more complicated?
DR: It’s probably more complicated, but I think money is at the heart of it: the bottom line, profits. Somebody like Tillerson, his company has become the biggest natural gas provider in the United States—and he objected to having this fracking tower adjacent to his own land because it was an eyesore.
I went to Tillerson's ranch in Bartonville [Texas]. I pulled up in front of his ranch, a big, big horse ranch. In front of the gate to his ranch, there was this big sculpted metal globe. It looked like someone took a carving knife to it and the whole upper part of the globe, along these uneven serrated edges, opened up into this gaping void, and I thought, Wow, that is symbolic. Here is Tillerson’s globe and it’s a world whose apex has been systematically shredded. It was quite a metaphor.
JM: One of the most interesting and hopeful parts of Horsemen of the Apocalypse are the portraits of the children of the fossil fuel barons. What are they doing about the legacy of their parents and grandparents?
DR: Some of them are really trying to make a difference. Chris Lindstrom, who is the late John D. Rockefeller’s grandson, is very devoted to alternative energy… and so is the whole Rockefeller family. Their money came from Standard Oil, which then became Exxon, so they still have some impact as shareholders. They have been pushing for resolutions to force Exxon to address climate change. They’re very active.
I interviewed Katherine Lorenz—her grandfather, George Mitchell, he was a pioneer in fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, about 30 years ago. She took over the family foundation and has really been pushing, not just to reduce emissions fast, but also to go to wind energy. Texas is now the biggest wind energy producer in the country. That’s in part due to what her foundation has raised awareness about.
JM: Was there anything you discovered while doing the book? Anything that surprised you?
DR: I already knew a lot about climate change. I was writing about it as far back as 1989, but I was still surprised by the blatant or wanton disregard so many of these moguls have for the future. It was staggering to me.
I grew up in Kansas City and I went to the University of Kansas. So I went back there to examine what the Koch brothers have done. I had no idea that Kansas, because it has a lot of wind, had been one of the pioneering states in implementing clean power. The Koch brothers came in, for reasons that are hard to fathom, and got rid of all these state legislators who were advocates of clean power and put in these right-wing Republicans. They basically stopped further advances with wind energy. Why? It’s not a threat to them that I can see. They’re still making their millions all over the world. But wind energy is starting to compete a little bit and they wanted it out of the way.