The Los Angeles Times
Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Centuryby Philip Shabecoff
<p>"The mission of environmentalism is to mobilize society at all levels to confront the danger and disorder into which human activity has propelled us and guide us to a safer, saner way of living on the planet.... Environmentalism has never been about catastrophe. It is about alternatives, about changing course, about transforming the future." - Philip Shabecoff, from Earth Risin.<p>Philip Shabecoff, America's preeminent environmental journalist, has spent more than two decades thinking and writing about the environment and related subjects, as a reporter for The New York Times, as publisher of Greenwire, and as the author of two books, including the critically acclaimed A Fierce Green Fire. In Earth Rising, he draws on that experience to offer a pointed and thought-provoking critique of the current state and future prospects of the American environmental movement.<p>Based on extensive interviews with a wide range of individuals both within and outside of the movement, Shabecoff elucidates the issues and problems confronting today's environmentalists and analyzes the movement's strengths and weaknesses. Viewing environmental threats as symptoms of flows in our society and its systems, he considers the urgent need for a broader, more inclusive environmentalism, and examines the role environmentalists can - and must - play in:<ul> <li>reforming the education system <li>taming the global economy and making it an instrument of human needs <li>working for political reform, including reducing the influence of corporate spending on the electoral process <li>directing the course of the scientific enterprise as well as making use of its results <li>helping develop a new moral center for people throughout the nation and the world</ul> Throughout, Shabecoff emphasizes the need for national organizations to link together with grassroots groups and to become more responsive to local concerns, and argues that the environmental movement has not yet adequately prepared itself to meet current and coming challenges. He makes a compelling case that another wave of environmentalism is needed - more powerful, diverse and sophisticated, visionary and flexible. Earth Rising offers a detailed road map that can guide environmentalists toward that new and reenergized place in society.
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The Story until Now
About a century ago, in the middle of a thunderstorm high in the Sierra Nevada, a gaunt, bearded man climbed to the top of a wildly swaying evergreen tree, in order, he later explained, to enjoy riding the wind.
A few years later, the first head of the USDA Forest Service, a patrician, European-trained forester, was riding his horse through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., when he had a sudden flash of insight. The health and vitality of the nation, he realized, depended on the health and vitality of the country's natural resources.
The White House, a few blocks away, was then occupied by a president who liked to shoot big game animals but who venerated wilderness and had conceived the idea, radical for the time, that the country's public forests, lands, and waters should be used for the benefit of all the American people, not just to increase the wealth of a few grasping robber barons.
These three charismatic, idiosyncratic contemporaries of a hundred years agoJohn Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Theodore Rooseveltpresided at the birth of one of the great cultural innovations of the 20th century: the modern environmental movement in the United States.
Over the course of the century, the movement grew and changed and achieved results far beyond the dreams of even those three visionaries. Many of their goals and dreams were realized as laws and institutions, in cleaner air and water, and in protected parks and forests, wildlife and wilderness areas. Over time,many, if not most, Americans, informed and prodded by the environmentalists, came to understand and integrate their values.
By century's end, however, it was an open question whether the environmental movement had reached the limits of its effectiveness. The problems had become much bigger, more complex and intractable, the solutions less clear. The forces arrayed against the environmentalists were stronger and more aggressive and sophisticated. The movement as a whole seemed increasingly subdued, less sure of its goals and how to accomplish them.
The roots of American environmentalism were planted well before the 19th century and are deeply embedded in the nation's history. Since colonial times, there were those who perceivedand some who lamentedthe dramatic transformation of a pristine continent as a result of European migration, European technology, European economics, and European values. The great sweep of settlement across North America and the powerful tools and voracious demand for resources created by the industrial revolution profoundly changed the land and its people and did so with astonishing speed.
Some 150 years ago, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, sitting in his tiny cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, was already mourning the loss of the wilderness and the debilitating effect of industrialism on the human spirit. In 1864, another New Englander, George Perkins Marsh, warned in his great work Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action that human activity could permanently damage the earth. The protection of Yosemite Valley by the state of California in that same year and the creation of Yellowstone National Park by Congress in 1872 were signals that the nation recognized the loss of its natural heritage and the need to preserve some portion of it for future generations. Across the young country, citizens in a few communities, troubled by the effects of sewage, unbreathable air, mining waste, or loss of forests and watersheds, organized locally to try to protect their surroundings and their health.
But American environmentalismor conservation, to give it its birth namewas essentially a child of the 20th century, and Muir, Pinchot, and Roosevelt were indispensable in its creation.
For Pinchot and Roosevelt, conservation was a merger of science and democracy. Public lands and resources, they insisted, should be scientifically managed so that they would continue to serve the needs of all Americans, including future generations. Both men were sensible of the aesthetic and spiritual values of nature. But they preached what historian Samuel P. Hays called "the gospel of efficiency," which valued nature for its contribution to the public weal rather than for its beauty and other intrinsic qualities. They helped place huge areas of the public domain under permanent federal protection in the National Forest System and the National Wildlife Refuge System. Their efforts assured the environment of a permanent place on the nation's political agenda.
John Muir, a naturalist, writer, and mystic, introduced a different theme into the opening chapter of modern environmentalism. Imbued with a transcendental reverence for nature, Muir eloquently and passionately insisted that the natural world be preserved for its own sake as well as for humanity's. Everything in the universe, he maintained, is "hitched" to everything else, and humans tampering with any one part were interfering with the great cosmic plan. Muir also was a founder of the Sierra Club, the first of the major citizens' organizations that would increasingly rally to the defense of the environment over the course of the century. Among the other private conservation organizations founded in the first half of the 20th century and still in operation are the National Audubon Society, the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Izaak Walton League of America, The Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, and Defenders of Wildlife.
The early conservation movement, the "first wave" of environmentalism, was somewhat elitist. Its cadre and adherents tended to be affluent white Protestant males eager to protect wildlife for hunting and fishing and to preserve open space for aesthetics and recreation. Several early national conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, were for a time largely social organizations that existed to provide outdoor excursions for their members.
Over the course of the century, however, rapid demographic, economic, and industrial growth created increasingly difficult, dangerous, and challenging risks to the environment, risks that could not be addressed by the tools of traditional conservation. The disappearance of wildlife, the fouling of the country's waters, the darkening of its skies from pollution, the loss of soil from erosionespecially during the dust bowl yearsthe onset of urban sprawl and disappearing farmland, and the introduction of hazardous chemicals and other substances into the air, water, and land by new industrial and agricultural processes grew as nagging concerns in the national consciousness.
But for much of the century, environmental dangers remained at the periphery of the nation's affairs. Public health officials and a few social activists tried to do something about the effects of environmental degradation on communities and workers. These efforts, however, were regarded as something apart from the nascent environmental movement. Preoccupied by two world wars and the hardships of the Great Depression, Americans paid little attention to the effects of a ballooning population and rapid industrial growth on the natural world and on themselves. In the years after World War II, citizens were engulfed in a rising tide of materialism and a careless optimism tempered only by the cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
In those same postwar years, however, powerful new technologies and explosive economic expansion created environmental pressures that could not be ignored. The country's quickly growing automotive fleet, powered by high-combustion engines, spread across the land on the new Interstate Highway System, pouring pollution into the air. Smoke from coal-fired power plants thickened the witches' brew of contaminants in the air, helping to produce a noxious haze that darkened the air in cities and dropped acid rain on streams, lakes, and forests. Nuclear testing put dangerous amounts of radioactive materials, including strontium 90, into the atmosphere. Off the coast of California, oil from offshore wells fouled waters and beaches as, elsewhere, did massive spills from the new supertankers. A growing culture of consumption created mountains of solid waste and rivers of sewage. Poisonous chemicals were carelessly buried or left in leaking steel drums to contaminate underground water supplies; one river burst into flame. The production of hazardous substances made workplaces dangerous, even deadly. The country's crops were drenched in insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, its livestock infused with synthetic chemicals and hormones.
Americans grew increasingly uneasy about the squandering of the country's once seemingly limitless resources, about the sullying of the landscape by industrial detritus and consumer trash. There was a growing suspicion that something was amiss in our affluent society, that we were fouling our own nest and poisoning our own wells. Our very affluence prompted many Americans to see environmental degradation as an obstacle to their search for a higher standard of living. A growing body of scientific testimony seemed to verify that something was going very wrong. Neo-Malthusians, including Fairfield Osborn, Garrett Hardin, and Paul Ehrlich, warned that human numbers and consumption were outstripping what the earth could provide in perpetuity. Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, an amalgam of science and ethics that is now one of the sacred texts of American environmentalism, admonished that humans are no more and no less than members of the entire community of life. Leopold called for a new land ethic that "changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it." Barry Commoner, the biologist, author, and political activist, and others pointed out that our technologies were breaking the chemical and biological cycles that sustain the planet. And in her acclaimed book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson presented clear, chilling evidence that the destructive technologies deployed by industrial society threatened all life, including human life.
Public concern about the decline of the environment became a flood that could not be contained. It burst over the dam on April 22, 1970the first Earth Day. Millions of Americans took to the streets and campuses to demonstrate their deep concern and to demand that environmental problems be addressed. On that day, environmentalism emerged for the first time on the national stage as an unmistakable mass social movement. The inchoate fears, anger, and longing of the public had been vivified into a suddenly potent political and economic force.
The immediate effect of the new tide of public opinion was to prod the federal government into action. President Richard Nixon, no "green" radical but keenly attuned to the political zeitgeist, stated that the 1970s "absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water and our living environment. It is literally now or never." By executive order, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which became the single most effective federal tool for reducing pollution by corporations and municipalitiesand for doing the research and education needed to alert the American people about threats to their land, air, water, and health.
Congress responded with a furious burst of bipartisan legislative activism, producing a spate of environmental statutes, from the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 and many more in between. In its totality, the explosion of congressional activism that produced these landmark environmental statutes must be considered one of the great legislative achievements in the nation's history.
State and municipal governments, in part because of new regulatory responsibilities passed on to them by Washington, also responded to the rising environmental impulse, creating their own environmental protection agencies and taking initiatives to address problems such as solid waste, compromised drinking water, and the need to provide open space for their citizens.
The new environmentalism emerged out of the social ferment and activism of the 1960s. It was an era of movements, notably the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements. Many of the senior cadre of today's major environmental organizations came from the militant campuses of that period. They believed that social change and political activism were the keys to protecting and restoring the environment. Unlike the older conservation groups, their focus was not on land and wildlife preservation but on pollution and toxic substances in the environment and their effects on human health. Out of this social activism sprang new environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose chief tools were litigation and, later, lobbying for legislation designed to protect the environment. They took their battles to the courts to try to enforce the new environmental laws and to defend citizens threatened by environmental degradation. Other new groups, including Greenpeace, Environmental Action, and Friends of the Earth, used direct action and public information campaigns to alert Americans to what was being done to the natural world that sustained them.
A number of the national organizations pooled resources to form the League of Conservation Voters in 1970. The league monitored the environmental records of members of Congress and the executive branch and endorsed environmentally minded candidates on a bipartisan basis. Older conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society broadened their agendas to take on the new issues of pollution, sprawl, and landscape degradation. The ranks of the environmentalists were reinforced by activists in the scientific community through the Union of Concerned Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
This period is often described as the "second wave" of environmentalism. Some commentators have called it the "golden age" of environmentalism in the United States, not only because of its legislative and political gains but also because it was a time when environmental quality also became an issue of democracy. Citizens across the country became aware of what was happening to their physical surroundings. Equally important, they also acquired a faithnot always requitedthat in the American democracy, change was possible, that they could act as individuals and communities to obtain relief from the environmental dangers with which they were threatened. A watershed event of grass-roots activism captured national attention in 1978 when citizens of Love Canal, a neighborhood in New York, led by a courageous and crafty young housewife named Lois Gibbs, forced the federal government to pay for their evacuation from their houses, which had been built on the site of a toxic waste dump. The Love Canal victory inspirited communities around the country to address their local environmental concerns and drew many new recruits into the growing army of citizen activists.
The golden age of environmentalism, if such it was, came to an abrupt end in 1980 when Ronald Reagan entered the White House. Reagan was a simple man with a simple idea: government had become an unacceptably heavy burden to market capitalism and to the individual freedom of Americans. His goal was to get government off the backs of the people. In practice, this generally meant easing or removing regulatory requirements, particularly environmental regulatory requirements, on industry. He appointed environmental officials, notably Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Anne (Burford) Gorsuch, who devoted their energies to reducing the ability of their agencies to protect natural resources and public health.
At the same time, corporate America, which had been caught off guard by the militant environmentalism that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, began to mount an effective resistance. The business community, which had originally viewed anti-pollution efforts as a temporary if annoying fad, began to employ sophisticated skills, similar to those it had developed in its successful counterattack on the trade union movement, to fight environmental regulation and to counter the warnings and accusations leveled against it by the environmentalists.
In large part because the American people, alerted by the environmentalists through the news media, were paying attention to what was happening in Washington, President Reagan and his administration were unable to roll back the gains made over the course of the century. In fact, the membership rolls and treasuries of the environmental groups swelled to unheard-of levels as Americans demonstrated their concern by joining in record numbers. Gorsuch and Watt were forced to resign. And George Bush, Reagan's vice president, pledged to be the "environmental president" during his successful first run for the White House. A decade later, the environmental community was again able to rally enough public support to stalemate a ferocious assault on the environmental laws by right-wing radicals who controlled Congress.
In response to the counterattack against them, a number of environmental organizations, chiefly those operating at the national level, sought to develop new skills and tactics. They developed expertise in economic and political analysis, adopted more aggressive media and public outreach strategies, paid at least lip service to the disproportionate ecological ills heaped on the nation's poor and minorities, and looked for ways to achieve their goals without the assistance of the now less-than-sympathetic Congress and courts. Instead of attacking industry's every wrong environmental turn, some environmentalists sought negotiated settlements to pollution problems. The advocacy of market forcesas opposed to command-and-control regulationas a tool for protecting the environment was a central feature of the new environmentalism.
These tactics were labeled the "third wave" of environmentalism. The most famous (or notorious, depending on one's perspective) example of this approach was the system of tradable air pollution permits proposed by the Environmental Defense Fund and accepted by President Bush and Congress for inclusion in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Proponents of the third wave called it a response to end-of-century political and economic realities, but it caused sharp divisions within the movement as critics complained that an excess of pragmatism was compromising essential goals. Although the market tools and accommodation tactics of the third wave may have blunted the counterrevolution, these critics say, they caused forward progress in protecting the environment to slow to a painful crawl.
As the 20th century drew to a close, it was clear that environmentalism had wrought profound changes in American lifeto its landscape, its institutions, and its people. Since that first Earth Day, well more than one hundred pieces of major federal legislation affecting the environment had become law. Every state and most major cities had some kind of environmental protection agency. Wary politicians and battle-scarred corporations grudgingly conceded that the environmental movement was here to stay and was a potent force to be reckoned with. And given the enormous growth of population and economic activity, of production, consumption, and the generation of waste and pollution in the post-World War II era, imagine what the physical condition of the country would be had it not been for the environmental revolution. That our air is somewhat clearer and more breathable, that our water is somewhat cleaner and more drinkable in many places, that we are not buried in garbage, that some abandoned toxic waste sites have been cleansed, that some of our wildlands have been preserved from development and some of our threatened wildlife has been protected constitute almost miraculous achievements in the face of the economic juggernaut.
Even more significant, perhaps, is that environmentalism has changed the way most Americans look at the world and the way we live our daily lives. Public opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans consider themselves to be environmentalists. Most of us now think of a healthy environment as a basic human right. As writer Mark Dowie noted, "American environmentalism grew to become many thingsworld view, life style, science; to a few religion; and, eventually, a complex political movement." Joshua Reichert, director of environmental programs for The Pew Charitable Trusts, probably the biggest single contributor to environmental advocacy causes among foundations, called environmentalism "the most significant social movement in America." Political scientist Michael Kraft found that "the environment had become a core part of mainstream American values.... It was as close to a consensual issue as one usually finds in U.S. politics."
In the 20th century, environmentalism provided an intellectual and ethical context that enabled Americans, and people in much of the rest of the world, to see the harm that human activity was inflicting on the natural worldand on their own bodies. It established a legal and institutional infrastructure to help them come to grips with these ills and enlisted an army of activists, governmental and nongovernmental, at the local, national, and international levels, to work on solutions. An esoteric enthusiasm for a small elite at the beginning of the century, environmentalism had been transformed into a planet-wide value by its end.
But as a new century unfolds, the environmental movement faces challenging, often frightening, new issues. Problems such as climate change, acid precipitation, disappearing species, vanishing forests, crashing populations of marine life, spreading deserts, loss of topsoil, inadequate drinking water supplies, and dwindling farmland and other open space are compromising the balance of biological systems on the planet, threatening our quality of life, and narrowing the options for the continuing evolution of life, including human life.
At the same time, environmentalists will have to adapt to a rapidly changing economic, political, and social context. The end of the cold war, reawakened religious and ethnic hatreds, globalization of the economy and unchecked growth and concentration of corporate power, continuing inequity in the distribution of the nation's and the planet's wealth, an expected doubling of the world population, the explosion of new information and communication technologies, and the shifting sands of domestic politics all suggest that the voluntary organizations and governmental agencies charged with safeguarding the environment will be required not only to adjust their agenda but also to rethink the very nature of their mission and the means by which they pursue it.
Given the gravity of the problems, if environmentalists and their cause do not prevail in the next few decades, our habitat, our quality of life, and our democratic institutions could erode to the point that they might take centuries to recover. If the world's climate begins to change rapidly and dramatically, if the landscape continues to acidify, if hazardous, gene-altering synthetic substances continue to enter our flesh, if our per capita supplies of food and freshwater continue to dwindle, if we continue to waste nature's bounty and extirpate our biological resources, if we continue to deploy destructive technologies without recognizing their ultimate effects, then our children and grandchildren will live on a hot, dry, hungry, unhealthy, unlovely, and dangerous planet. The harshness of existence in such a world would very likely lead to the disintegration of communal life and the curtailment of personal freedom and opportunity. Environmentalists in that world would be seeking not to protect and restore nature and safeguard human health but to find ways for our posterity to survive amid the wreckage.
It should not come to that. Environmentalism has the latent strength to put us on a course toward a safe and pleasant ecological future, a better, more rational way of living on earth.
First, however, environmentalists will have to learn how to use that strength more wisely and effectively. They will have to find ways to rekindle the transcendental flame lifted by John Muir but now only a spark in their workaday institutions, to recapture the excitement and exhilaration in their cause that Muir found atop his storm-lashed tree. They will have to again practice conservation of the environment as it was envisioned by Roosevelt and Pinchot: as a core value of progressive politics, as an issue of democracy, as a means of bringing science to bear on the creation of policy, and as a means of achieving economic and social equity for present and future generations.
There will have to be yet another wave of environmentalism, one that is broader, more sophisticated, visionary, and aggressive and massive enough to stand against the tide of human numbers and technology, of ignorance and greed and willfulness, that threatens to propel us into an age of physical, biological, and cultural decline.
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