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My Environmentalism

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Since writing at LGM, I’ve focused pretty heavily on labor issues over my other field of expertise—environmental issues. There’s a good reason for that and there’s a less good reason. The good reason is that there’s a bigger niche to fill in covering the labor beat. The less good reason is that I felt the need to explain my vision of environmentalism. Unlike many environmental historians, I don’t come to the issue from a past of environmental activism. Rather, I grew up with a deeply conflicted view of environmentalism. I came from a household dependent upon timber products in Oregon during the spotted owl crisis of the 1980s. I saw environmentalists saying horrible things about loggers and loggers saying horrible things about environmentalists. I was sympathetic to the worker side of the debate at the time; after all, I was like 16 and what did I know except that I wanted my dad to have a job. That said, we also spent a reasonable amount of time in the forest when I was kid: hiking, fishing, camping. I learned to love the Cascade Mountains.

I felt this way about logging and spotted owls until I was 20. The first time I ever flew, it was Seattle-Los Angeles-Honolulu. The first leg of that trip was over the Cascades. Seeing the Cascades from a birds-eye view was exhilarating. But my attention was quickly captured by the clear-cuts. I had grown up around them of course and knew they were part of the timber industry. But seeing the whole forest just ravaged, well that changed my life. I didn’t become an environmental activist, but it did help inform my growing beliefs about the inequality of the world, which soon manifested itself in both my burgeoning scholarship and becoming involved in the labor movement during the late 90s.

As I became an environmental historian, I was torn between environmentalism, which I knew was right on the issue of the forests, and the workers, who I knew often loved nature and had been unfairly demonized by a bunch of damn hippies. I began seeking a way of reconciling these issues, which is still in work in progress today that will (eventually, someday, hopefully) manifest itself in my book on the history work and nature in the Pacific Northwest forests.

Exploring the history of environmentalism, I became fascinated by the transition from it as a popular movement in the 1960s and 70s to an elitist and divisive movement by the late 1980s. The early popular environmental movement of the 60s and 70s focused heavily on people’s health as well as on protecting land as wilderness. Environmentalism was popular when it was about protecting our babies from cancer and cleaning up the burning river. By protecting human bodies, we protected the bodies of other species as well. Banning DDT saved us from harm and brought bald eagles back from the verge of extinction. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all got on board the environmental bandwagon. It made political sense to support this growing movement.

What the heck happened? A couple of things I think. First, the Sagebrush Rebellion and Reagan Administration locked out environmentalists from paths of power in most states and the federal government. That sea change put environmentalists on the defensive, forcing them to turn to the courts to enforce existing legislation. Second, a new generation of activists were rising in the ranks of environmental organizations. Often formerly or currently of the counterculture, these were young people with law degrees and a strong anti-urban bias that were more interested in protecting the beautiful landscapes of the West or the developing world than with the health of people’s bodies. Environmentalism began to take on an anti-human emphasis. Large groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society found it easier to fundraise on charismatic animals like polar bears than lead exposure.

This anti-humanist environmentalism reached its apotheosis in the 1980s in groups like EarthFirst! and the campaigns to save the spotted owl. While by no means all environmentalists took an antagonistic stand toward everyday workers, EarthFirsters spiking trees gave the whole movement a bad name. Even mainstream environmentalists routinely dismissed the concerns of workers for their jobs. It was too bad, because logger unions and environmentalists had a long history of working together, including for wilderness areas as late as the 1960s.

I explain all of this in such detail because, while environmental organizations learned a lot of positive lessons from their mistakes during the spotted owl issue, too often these anti-human attitudes still come to the forefront in environmentalism and it makes me very angry. Even if environmentalists are right on the issues, if you don’t have a movement that centers the concerns of human beings front and center, that is a losing movement. You cannot survive politically if you can’t get average people to support your cause.

So I hold some strong opinions that sometimes lead to argument with other environmentalists—such as that I think Edward Abbey, while at his best a good writer, is the worst possible model for the environmental movement and that his ideas should be shunned. He reminds me more of the violent provocateurs used to infiltrate and discredit radical movements of the early and mid 20th century than someone who has provided a model of sustainable living.

And sometimes I get mad at environmentalists when they say demonize the poor for causing environmental problems. Last spring, I got into a fight with Howie Welke of Wilderness Watch, a group out of Missoula. Welke published an editorial calling immigration a major threat to the destruction of wilderness. For those few of you who were regular readers of my old blog, you may remember this:

Many on the political left view jobs and social issues as more important than the environment; they miss the numerous connections to overpopulation. And they oppose the tough immigration policies that could halt continued growth (in the U.S. today, population growth is mostly a function of immigration) in the United States. Meanwhile, the political right worships at big industry’s altar of growth at all cost. In addition, religious fundamentalists of nearly every ilk believe that it is their duty to overwhelm all others with their progeny. And the environmental movement, at least here in the U.S., remains oddly silent on overpopulation.

The solutions to overpopulation are no secret. Economic policies based upon stability, not perpetual growth, are essential. Better health care and education plus political and economic empowerment of women – especially in poorer countries – are equally important. Family planning services must be integral, safe, and available to all, everywhere. Also, men must assume greater responsibility for their obvious role in population growth. In the United States, immigration must be brought under control. We also need to create tax and other economic incentives for smaller families. But none of this will happen if overpopulation continues to elude the discussion.

Until overpopulation is recognized, the United States and many other nations will continue to fail to develop and implement population policies, and humans will continue to obliterate not just wilderness, but most remaining natural ecosystems on Earth. Oh well, it’s obvious that humans can endure in horribly over-crowded, polluted, denuded and impoverished squalor. That’s proven each day in many corners of the world. The flip side of that problem is that so many other forms of life cannot.

This is offensive for many reasons. While population is an issue, the reality is that the poor of the developing world use far less resources than the rich and the same goes for America’s poor. It also pushes blame for environmental problems away from the rich consumer onto the poor whose negative environmental footprint largely results from them having access to western medicine and their kids surviving.

I could go on about this, (and in fact, you can read our exchange here and here) but I don’t want to beat a dead horse. I do want to say that a successful environmentalism will center the experiences of people; in fact, this is necessary for it to regain its old vigor. It should focus on building a sustainable world where environmental costs are shared relatively equally between rich and poor. It should be a movement of working-class slum dwellers as well as of backpackers. Again, if you protect the environment of the human body, you are protecting other nature as well. If you create an environmentalism that helps the poor, you are creating a movement with a future. That may mean our focus should turn away from wilderness protection to backyard protection and I am fine with that.

This is my environmentalism and my hope for the future. It also will inform the many posts on environmental issues I have planned for this site in the future

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