"These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar." — John Muir 1912
I was confronted with the most anthropocentric question the other day. In complete earnestness, a seemingly concerned individual asked me to comment on the failure of environmentalism. I knew immediately I was being baited. But instead of jumping on my usual soapbox, I asked him instead to reflect on the context of his question as it relates to the corporate anti-environmentalism of the late 20th century, and the Bush jihad of the 21st.
He quickly changed the subject.
Intrigued by the question, I spent the day trying to answer it. The more time I spent pondering the supposed "failure of environmentalism" the more it seemed the perfect topic for a column.
The obvious answer is environmentalism hasn't failed…humanity has failed the environment. Hence the reason for groups such as Sea Shepard, Earth First! and Green Peace. Environmentalism is alive and well in North America. Millions of Americans do their small part, daily, to ensure future generations a fraction of the ecological quality of life enjoyed by their grandparents. This is hardly a failure. Be it tree sits in Northern California, lawsuits to protect the Southern California coast, or animal liberations across the county, the battle rages on. Unfortunately environmentalists are outgunned, out spent, and under siege.
For awhile it looked like the work of environmentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, ecologists such as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, and conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Judi Bari were being mainstreamed in American culture in response to the growing crisis of industrial pollution and shrinking biodiversity. The momentum of wise ecological stewardship was broadening ethical considerations to include ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.
With the election of Ronald Reagan, the momentum of environmentalism hit the wall of corporate greed. The Reagan revolution coincided with the sagebrush rebellion, both seeking to overturn a century of regulatory environmental progress. Beginning with Reagan's appointment of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, the federal government has been busy cutting funding for programs designed to protect endangered species, gutting environmental regulatory power and decreasing the amount of land in national parks and forests, all of which continues today.
It matters little which party was is power, the Clinton administration promoted clear cutting North America under the guise of the "salvage logging" dead and dying trees as a way to prevent forest fires. Sound familiar? If it does, it is because George W. Bush and his own Interior Secretary, James Watt protégé Gail Norton, have upped the ante with their misnamed Healthy Forest Initiative. Which targets healthy trees for eradication in the name of fire suppression.
No ladies and gentlemen, environmentalism has not failed. America has failed to protect the environment. Not satisfied with plundering the ecological heritage of North America, we the people are determined to leave no stone unturned, no forest left standing, our any species not domesticated to hinder our pursuit of the not so mighty dollar.
Programmed to shop without restraint, American consumers, up to their eyeballs in debt, continue to endorse the rape of nature one purchase at a time, without considering the cost of their insatiable appetites. Compliant by conscription, we only did dig deeper.
Why is this?
Instead of denouncing the message, it is just as easy to heed the messenger. Environmentalists are not going away, in fact, ever since the transcendental musing of Thoreau, ecological awareness has continued to grow, to the point of those advocating ecological restraint being labeled terrorists by those profiting most from the paradigm of ecological devastation.
The question my friend should have asked, and the one I hope I answered, is "Why hasn't environmentalism been successful." Whatever the words, I'm glad my friend was asking. This means other folk are beginning to wander the same things. Perhaps a quarter century of environmental mismanagement is more than people can tolerate. Perhaps they are beginning to see the result of 200 years of industrial progress, and don't like what they see.
Perhaps we are just longing for some clean air to breath, some open space to run, and a life not dictated by material possessions.
Environmentalism has not failed.