Douglas Bevington’s 2009 book explores how grassroots environmental organizations reinvigorated the environmental movement through their focus on biodiversity and its aggressive litigation strategy over political alliances and mass mailing funding drives. Painting the big national environmental organizations as sluggish at best by the 1980s, he shows how grassroots activists came out of Earth First! forest campaigns to save the spotted owl and forced the government to enforce its laws and save species. Bevington (a forest activist with a PhD in sociology) has a major axe to grind against the national environmental organizations with this book, but it’s also hard to say he’s wrong about how change in our relationship with nature is created.
In Bevington’s view, grassroots activists are far more effective in creating environmental change than mainstream organizations. The national organizations such as the Sierra Club at best do nothing, at worse provide significant impediments for environmental change because of their support of the Democratic Party, fear of losing a seat at the table, and the conservatism of their funders. Litigation has proven the most effective strategy in creating environmental change, particularly revolving around ideas of biodiversity. Particularly in the Headwaters Forest Campaign to protect a large grove of privately owned redwoods from development in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the big national organizations preferred compromise to saving the forests. Their desire to have a seat at the table, he argues, often means crafting anti-environmental legislation. Bevington quotes Doug Scott, national conservation of the Sierra Club, defending his working with Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield to write legislation bad for the forests because “I want to be in the room talking in his ear. He may not vote the way I want but at least I’m talking to him.” Perhaps this strategy makes electoral sense, but does it protect ecosystems? Bevington and grassroots environmentalists argued no and worked against the Sierra Club for their ultimate goal.
This story is not unlike that of labor, in that the AFL-CIO has committed to Democratic Party support that has allowed that party to ignore working-class concerns in crafting legislation. Grassroots activists unconcerned with the desires of traditional leadership and using the courts to enforce laws have proven far more effective making one wonder about the ability of labor activists and independent unions to do the same.
The radical roots of many grassroots activists is central to Bevington’s analysis. Many Center for Biological Diversity and logging activists came out of Earth First! and were disinclined to compromise. With the renewal of radicalism in America, what does this mean for environmentalism? Occupy Wall Street has not centered environmental concerns very highly. OWS may well be great news for labor and working-class issues over the next decades as young activists trained in the streets in 2011 spend their careers fighting for economic justice.
From an environmental perspective, where are the next generation of radical activists coming from? I’ve been honored to teach many young people over the past several years who intend to commit their lives to environmental activism. What I get from them is a real sense of pragmatism and emphasis on the local and community over the national and international. I absolutely do not mean this as a criticism, strictly an observation. Young environmentalists are conscious in ways their movement ancestors were not of the relationship between environmental and economic justice and this has focused greater attention on urban communities and environmental justice. Bevington suggests how the use of the Endangered Species Act by grassroots environmental groups can be applied to the challenges of global warming, using the listing of the polar bear as an example. But I am remain unconvinced by this, because where I see the grassroots activism forming is primarily around food and building locally sustainable communities. Perhaps the challenges of climate change are so overwhelming that the embrace of the local gives people something to cling to. I know that my students have been far more interested in environmental histories that suggest the possibilities of sustainability in the past and present than traditional declensionist narratives showing how we have messed everything up. They already know that and want to move on to figuring out what they can do to change the world. This certainly doesn’t mean that Bevington is wrong about the ability of grassroots activists to take the lead on fighting climate change, nor does it mean that this won’t happen. But my own experience and observation suggests a lot more interest in gardens than polar bears among young activists.
Bevington clearly intends his history of grassroots environmentalism and the ESA over the past 25 years to be a guide for future activists, but I think it may be more effective as history. He shows how small groups of committed people can overcome significant organizational and legislative obstacles to create deep and meaningful change in the world, something that, like civil rights, gay rights, abortion rights and other social movements, provide inspirational and functional lessons for modern activists.