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The Cycle of Environmentalism

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If there’s one thing in this world I follow more closely than any other, it’s the politics surrounding forestry in the Pacific Northwest. So I found this Michael Donnelly essay in Counterpunch fascinating, both in content and for what it says about the historical trajectory of radical environmentalism.

Donnelly rips the University of Oregon’s annual E-Law conference and the so-called “Big Green” organizations behind it for their lack of commitment to forest preservation. Taking up the mantle of EarthFirst! and the other radical organizations that came to fame during the spotted owl crisis in the late 1980s, Donnelly accuses the larger environmental organizations of hypocrisy and of selling out to Big Timber (and not the town in Montana).

A couple of general thoughts about this lengthy essay.

First, it’s worth noting that, regardless of one’s hatred of timber corporations (which I share with great vehemence), it is not responsible to downplay the damage that a century of fire suppression has created in the forest. All you have to do is look at the catastrophic fires that has ravaged western forests almost each year since 2000 for evidence. Los Alamos, New Mexico, once a beautiful dry-forest paradise, is now surrounded by ash due to fires in 2000 and 2011. To argue, as Donnelly does, that thinning forests to limit fire is a bait-and-switch and that the real problem in the forests is that “few will admit the “unhealthy” forests of today are sick because humans have already seriously diminished them by past logging,” is a bit beside the point. Donnelly’s not wrong about the impact of logging, not at all. But he is wrong in downplaying how human management of the forest to maximize the economic value of the resource by suppressing fire is also causing huge changes. Thinning projects do have the potential of providing jobs and keeping a few small-town mills alive, as well as perhaps providing a bit of renewable biofuel energy. On the other hand, this can be a slippery slope, where the timber industry uses this renewed economic activity in the forests to break down all the protections provided forests over the past decades.

Second, it is fascinating to watch how formerly radical organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and individuals like Andy Kerr and Andy Stahl, the bête noires of the timber industry in the late 80s and early 90s, become seen as sell-outs by the next generation of environmental radicals. Certainly some of the politics have changed in the last 20 years. People change and maybe Kerr and Stahl do see more room for collaboration with the timber industry than two decades ago. But part of this is a response to the massive human cost of shutting down timber entirely, particularly to the region’s small towns. So when Andy Kerr says, “Today, I want the remaining sawmills in Elgin, Gilchrist, John Day, Klamath Falls, Lakeview, Pendleton and Pilot Rock to remain operating — because society needs their help to restore and protect those very same resources,” that makes a lot of sense to me. Elgin and John Day are small towns. There’s not much work outside of timber. To keep a few people working in the industry while trying to manage the forests back toward health makes much ecological and economic sense.

Twenty years ago, radical environmentalists were mostly unconcerned with the human cost of ending logging. Today, Kerr, Stahl, and many others see that indifference as a political mistake. In 1990, they used the same kind of language against the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society that Donnelly uses against the Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon Wild. Donnelly is an old veteran of radical environmentalism, but he represents a historical cycle in activism where the formerly hard-core are seen as selling out over time, to be replaced by a new cadre of the real activists. Donnelly equates Oregon Wild with the Sierra Club, suggesting that the former’s willingness to think about collaboration with the timber industry is equivalent to the latter’s extremely unfortunate embrace of fracking as a bridge fuel. I guess from one perspective any compromise with industry is a sell-out, but these two examples are of wildly different magnitudes.

But Donnelly is also right about some things. His passion for the forests is something we need, even if his arguments are misguided at times. He’s also 100% correct in noting the hypocrisy of the environmental movement for flying by jet to Eugene every year for this conference, creating a massive amount of climate-change producing carbon dioxide emitted high in the atmosphere where it’s damage is maximized. There’s no way to get around this. Of course, I am as guilty as anyone of not wanting to give up the “American way of life” as Donnelly calls it. Humans are social animals and like to see people who share their interests. While there’s nothing wrong with this, there is a real environmental cost that can lead to dark humor and outrage when the people doing so are changing the climate to talk about saving the climate.

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