The Thrill is Gone - The Withering of the American Environmental Movement
by Jeffrey St. Clair
The Dark Ages. They haven’t ended yet. ~Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
A kind of political narcolepsy has settled over the American environmental movement. Call it eco-ennui. You may know the feeling: restlessness, lack of direction, evaporating budgets, diminished expectations, a simmering discontent. The affliction appears acute, possibly systemic.
Unfortunately, the antidote isn’t as simple as merely filing a new lawsuit in the morning or skipping that PowerPoint presentation to join a road blockade for the day. No, something much deeper may be called for: a rebellion of the heart. Just like in the good old days, not that long ago.
What is it, precisely, that’s going on? Was the environmental movement bewitched by eight years of Bruce Babbitt and Al Gore? Did it suffer an allergic reaction to the New Order of Things? Are we simply adrift in a brief lacuna in the evolution of the conservation movement, one of those Gouldian (Stephen Jay) pauses before a new creative eruption?
Perhaps, the movement, such as it was, experienced an institutional uneasiness with the rules of engagement during the long cold war in Clinton time. A war (War? Did someone say war?) where hostilities, such as they were, remained buried beneath graceful gestures at meaningful discourse—where the raw passions for rare places are, at the insistence of lawyers and lobbyists, politically sublimated or suppressed altogether.
Environmentalism has never thrived on an adherence to etiquette or quiet entreaties. Yet, that became the mode of operation during Clinton and it has continued through the rougher years of Bush and Cheney. Direct confrontation of governmental authority and corporate villainy was once our operation metier. No longer. Non-aggression pacts have been signed, an unofficial détente declared. Was it sealed in the spring of 1993 on the lawn of Blair House, perhaps, while the cherry blossoms where in bloom? Did the late Jay Hair, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, forge a deal in the fall of that year to green light the logging of the last ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest? (What was the late Vince Foster’s role in all of this? He had one, you know, but that’s another story.) Cold wars, naturally, engender such paranoid perambulations.
More than a decade later, this much is clear: the vigor of the environmental movement has been dissipated, drained by the enforced congeniality displayed in our disputes with Clinton and Bush, the Democrats in congress, and the grim, green-suited legions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Despite the rampages of the Bush administration, the big green groups can’t even rouse themselves into much more than the most reflexive kind of hysteria, fundraising letters printed in bold type.
Like so many vacant-eyed victims of Stockholm Syndrome, most professional environmentalists find themselves conscripts to the conference room and the consensus table, situations about as satisfying as computerized chess or phone sex. (I’ll sign up for one jolt of Electro-shock over four years of group therapy any day.)
Accusations of elitism, hurled at us like political creampies, from the property right jihadis, hit their targets more often than not these days. Once highly regarded (and deeply reviled) as fierce advocates of the “public interest,” environmentalists now are largely dismissed in the living rooms of America as merely another “special interest” group (weaker than most), peddling its meager influence on the Hill, angling for access to the anterooms (never the control room) of power, or, at least, a line item in the federal budget.
What’s worse, our best efforts these days hardly seem to even raise a hackle on the hierophants of industry. After okaying the logging of ancient forests, signing off on anti-wilderness legislation in Oregon, Idaho and Montana, pampering the whims of Bruce Babbitt (and Dick Cheney), endorsing NAFTA and GATT, the failure to stand up for high level whistleblowers like former BLM head Jim Baca, the mainstream environmental groups don’t scare anyone anymore. Except maybe their own members. Yes, they may scare them a great deal, indeed.
The surest sign of decadence in a social/political movement is its engagement in the suppression of internal dissent: such decadence now erodes the moral core of the environmental movement. Stray beyond the margins of permitted discourse, publicly critique the prevailing “strategy,” strike out in an unauthorized new direction and the overlords of the environmental movement crack down. They enfilade the insurgents with legalistic maledictions, gag orders, and accusations of sedition.
Witness the Sierra Club’s threats to sue renegade chapters that publicly opposed anti-wilderness bills proposed by the Club’s political favorites in Montana. Or its attacks on anti-war protesters in the Club’s ranks in Utah. Or NRDC’s attempt to squelch the filing of endangered species petitions, for on-the-run critters such as the Queen Charlotte’s goshawk. Or the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund’s arm-twisting of its own clients in the spotted owl cases. Or the Environmental Defense Fund’s betrayal of at-risk communities across America when it endorsed Dow Chemical’s proposed “revamping” of the Superfund Act. (Col. Fred Krupp, EDF’s CEO, was once overheard telling Carol Browner, Clinton’s head of the EPA, “You are our general. We are your troops. We await your orders.”) Or the sado-masochistic pleasure that NRDC (yes, them again) displayed while boasting about “breaking the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA.”
You don’t have to be versed in the works of Hannah Arendt or Michel Foucault (although Madness and Civilization ought to be required reading for all activists and other “eccentrics”) to understand the dynamics of power and repression at work here. Activists are now aliens on the political landscape; their relationship to the lawyers, lobbyists, economists, marketing agents, PR flaks and CEOs that manage the environmental movement parallels that of welfare mothers to the welfare bureaucrats: abusive indifference.
To quote Joseph Heller: Something happened. Somewhere along the line, the environmental movement disconnected with the people, rejected its political roots, pulled the plug on its vibrant and militant tradition. It packed its bags, starched its shirts and jetted to DC, where it became what it once despised: a risk-aversive, depersonalized, hyper-analytical, humorless, access-driven, intolerant, centralized, technocratic, dealmaking, passionless, direct-mailing, lawyer-laden monolith to mediocrity. A monolith with feet of clay.
The environmental movement didn’t so much go awry as it simply flatlined, cruise-controlled right into an entropic cooldown—the ultimate thermodynamic fate of all closed systems. The Group of Ten (aka: Gang Green) now manifest all the intensity of an insurance cartel; their executives and administrative underlings are much more likely to own dog-eared copies of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal or (god forbid) Kissinger’s Diplomacy, than Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild, Bill Kittridge’s Hole in the Sky or Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years. Forget the eyes, a person’s bookshelf is the real window to their soul.
National environmental policies are now engineered by an Axis of Acronyms: EDF, NRDC, WWF: groups without voting memberships and little responsibility to the wider environmental movement. They are the undisputed mandarins of technotalk and lobbyist logic, who gave us the ecological oxymorons of our time: “pollution credits,” “re-created wetlands,” “sustainable development.”
In their relativistic milieu, everything can be traded off or dealt away. For them, the tag-end remains of the native ecosystems on our public lands are endlessly divisible and every loss can be recast as a hard-won victory in the advertising copy of their fundraising propaganda. Settle and move on, is their unapologetic mantra. And don’t expect them to stick around to live with the consequences of their deals and trade-offs.
Into this political vacuum rough beasts have already been loosed and others are bound to follow. The decline of a militant environmental movement has been countered by the rise of a militant anti-environmental movement, unrestrained, and all too often encouraged by, the agents of federal and state governments. The new anti-environmental movement, a strange hybrid of Aryan Nationists, gun-fetishists and the loonier incarnations of the Wise-Use crowd, have used arson, muggings and deaths to intimidate local environmental activists across the West.
The ranks of this malicious melange continue to expand up and down the spine of the Rockies and across the Great Basin. Like deranged Deadheads on tour, these neo-militians follow roving weapons bazaars (some of which were reportedly backed by arms merchant and Iran/contra star Richard Secord) across the rural backwaters of the American West, from Libby, Montana to Tonopah, Nevada.
At these moveable conclaves of righteousness, the blonde, blue-eyed penitents can purchase enough firepower to call forth the Second Coming—a stated goal of some attendees. Here’s the Defense Dividend we’ve all been waiting for, where the Pentagon largesse of the Cold War is offered for sale on the homefront at discount prices: tanks, armor-piercing bullets, APCs, night-vision gunsights, Humvees. It’s all there for the bidding.
Living embodiments of the quaint cultural traditions of the West memorialized at places like Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, these characters are preparing to defend what’s theirs and what they think ought to be theirs. By force if necessary—perhaps preferably.
What do they want? Simply unfettered rights to grazing, mining and logging on public lands, the federal lands themselves revested to the states or private corporations and, to quote one Arly Gruder, a rancher from somewhere near Salmon, Idaho, arguably America’s most inhospitable town: “To run all the damn feds, Jews, Spics and homo-enviros the hell out of here.” Run them back across the 100th Meridian, no doubt. But how far? Back to Brooklyn? Back to Juarez? Back to Buchenwald?
Listen to Hugh McKeen, a rancher and former commissioner in Catron County, New Mexico, who told reporter Tony Davis that his neighbors and friends are arming themselves, preparing for a new range war, against greens and their sidekicks, the illegal immigrants: “The people have fought for this land in the past. There have been killings over water. It runs in the genes. You have very independent people here. They want to be left alone. But the government oppresses them. And the environmentalists come in here and want to oppress their life.” Apparently, the West is theirs to waste by virtue of the Doctrine of Manifest Genetics.
The absence of a forceful opposition from progressive greens and the appearance/reality of collaboration with the federal government by Beltway groups, only strengthens the cause of the extreme right. As the left migrates toward the center, the right repels further to the right—and the government follows suit. This a recipe for a future in which things, to crib from Thomas Pynchon, will not be quite so amusing.
Toward a Resolute Clarity of Place
Still there’s no reason to beginning strumming a threnody just yet. Beneath the six-figure salaries, limo-driven executives, and glossy magazines clotted with ads for SUVs, there’s a flickering pulse to the grassroots environmental movement, in the hinterlands and barrios, in the secret gardens of the Bronx and amid the toxic detritus of New Orleans. Foucault and Tom Paine sang the same refrain: the more pervasive the repression, the more profound the rebellion to come. Well, the rebellion has started.
In the southwest, a small outfit called Living Rivers is campaigning to decommission Glen Canyon Dam and restore the Colorado River. In Montana, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies remains the grizzly bear’s most unflinching ally and advocate. In the Pacific Northwest, the Western Land Exchange Project is nearly alone in challenging the disposal of public lands to private concerns and the Center for Environmental Equity is chasing the big gold mining companies out of Oregon. In the Midwest, Heartwood is defending the incredibly diverse hardwood forests of the Ohio Valley and waging an intense campaign against the proliferation of noxious and inhumane confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs. In the heart of cancer alley, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (aka LEAN) is taking on chemical and oil companies, as well as the toxic sludge left behind by Katrina. In South Dakota, the Lakota Student Alliance is waging a courageous battle to have the Black Hills and other sacred lands returned to the Sioux Nation. Deep in Appalachia, Save Our Cumberland Mountains is fighting the most destructive form of mining ever devised by man or satan: mountain top removal.
Like snowpeaks sprouting from a far horizon, these scattered pockets of resistance can help us triangulate our way back home, entrench with a resolute clarity of place. And that move, as Terry Tempest Williams suggests in her shimmering book The Unspoken Hunger, may be the most radical act of all.
Environmentalism was once a people’s cause, unaligned with any political party and independent from the demands of the shadowy syndicate of mega-foundations (Pew, Rockefeller, Ford) that now hold the mortgage on the movement—those high priests of what Foucault called “condescending philanthropy.” Environmentalism was once driven by a desire for social justice and an unremitting passion for the wild. We need to tap back into those populist currents. Let the vision attract the money and don’t allow it to be refracted through the ideological prism of neoliberal foundations.
The power of the environmental movement derives from its essential and shared imagery, its sensual tangibilities. Simply put: the destruction of the wild sparks militancy in the heart. At least it does for me. Wild places communicate their own passion and power, sensations that are the antithesis of political abstractions.
It’s all about the singular sense of openness on the Snake River plains. The way light plays across ancient petroglyphs on the canyon walls of Navajo sandstone outside Moab. The smell of sagebrush in the high desert on the north slope of the Ruby Mountains. A cool rush of wind unleashed by distant storms hammering the Gallatin Range. The bluegray fogbanks that sleeve up the North Santiam River canyon on an August morning in Oregon. The crisp shock of being busted out of a raft by a rapid on the Selway River. The carcass of a grizzly-clean salmon annealed by the Alaskan sun to a granite boulder along the MacNeil River. The surrealistic explosion of October color from dense forest of oaks, poplars and maples on Nebo Ridge in southern Indiana. The cry of a lone coyote trembling across the sepia sky in the predawn badlands of South Dakota. These are the threatened images that haunt my nights, the green fires that burn in my soul. You have your own. Nearly everyone does. Everyone with a heartbeat.
The power of the people can still overwhelm the influence of big money. Look at Chiapas. Read Edward Abbey. Listen to Mandela and Evo Morales. Anything is possible. Find your place, take a stand. People will join you.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon.