[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Robert Eshelman, Host:
Douglas Bevington’s The Rebirth of Environmentalism comes at a very important moment. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest in U.S. history. Then another in Michigan. Heat waves and record temperatures across the South and along the East Coast. Massive fires in Russia, that ripped into wheat supplies and sent prices soaring. Floods in Pakistan that have displaced at least 20 million people, one-fifth of that country’s population.
These, of course, are all singular events. But this severe weather is consistent with the warnings of climate scientists. And the spills serve as further evidence of the destruction brought about by the fossil fuel industry.
Bevington surveys a different time – the late 1980s and 1990s. But his case studies and analysis offer ample evidence of how the environmental movement might grapple with the treats of climate change today and the political follies on show on the international level during U.N. climate negotiations and within the D.C. beltway around U.S. energy and climate policy. A lot has change since the period of time he covers in the pages of The Rebirth of Environmentalism. But not enough has changed. Many of the challenges that dogged the environmental movement then continue to be apropos to today’s political challenges.
Bevington describes in great detail an important shift that occurred in the environmental movement in the ‘80s and ‘90s– the rise of grassroots organizations focused on the issue of biodiversity and their utilization of an array of environmental laws that brought to a halt a host of environmentally destructive practices.
At the time ten large environmental organizations – “the nations” – served as the deciders of the movements’ agenda. They lobbied Congress and state legislators and relegated millions of their organization’s members to a simple role as dues payers, who did little more than fill out an occasional post-card for or against a particular piece of legislation. Often these organizations valued political compromise over science-based political outcomes.
Increasingly critical of the national’s ineffectiveness and their frequent tendency for political sell-outs, a grassroots movement grew that emphasized direct confrontation with the companies that were destroying the environment. On the forefront of this movement was Earth First!, whose members often put themselves at great physical risk to prevent the destruction of old-growth forests on the West Coast. They chained themselves to logging equipment. They blocked logging roads. They conducted “tree-sits” that prevented the felling of thousand-year-old trees. Sometimes they even sabotaged – “monkeywrenching” – logging equipment. The group’s motto – No compromise in defense of mother earth. – summed up well where members drew the line in terms of their political goals. As Bevington points out: “Earth First! was the antithesis of the nationals. It lacked any formal organization and did not seek nonprofit status. It also had no official members. Instead, being an Earth First!er was defined through direct participation. An Earth First!er was someone who identified with Earth First!’s values and took part in its activities.”
Central to Earth First!’s values was the concept of biocentrism, which, as Bevington describes, is “the belief that all species of life have inherent worth and an intrinsic right to exist.” This cut dramatically against the view of nature held by, say, logging companies, which sought to put a price matrix over all aspects of the natural world. Where Earth First!ers saw a bounty of life, which should remain uncommodified by the market and its corporate legions, the companies saw profit.
While, the group’s ecological philosophy signaled an important evolution in the environmental movement’s conception of nature (that the environment was not only a bucolic setting to enjoy for leisure but a vast and interconnected system to which humans are inextricably linked), its tactics had significant drawbacks. They often slowed the process of forest destruction and brought heaps of media attention to the cause, but failed to bring a halt to forest destruction and often alienated allies.
In some circumstances the direct action tactics of the emerging grassroots pushed the nationals to take a less compromising stance. Other times the nationals proved to be a major obstacle to greater environmental protections, selling grassroots efforts short in an effort to reach a political deal.
Between these two poles – one emphasizing compromise rather than principle, the other taking a non-compromising stance yet unable to fully bring to a halt the system of ecological destruction through direct action – emerged a “third way.” Organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity fought tooth and nail, often on a shoestring budget, in courts across the nation, utilizing an array of environmental laws passed on the federal level during the 1970s. These groups incorporated much of the philosophy of the Earth First! movement – indeed many of CBD’s staff emerged from the ranks of Earth First! – but turned to a legal strategy.
And it worked and has continued to work. CBD alone has worked successfully to have hundreds of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, including the polar bear, and in so doing have blocked the leveling of forests and the poisoning of streams and rivers. They have blocked numerous coal plants from being constructed through the Clean Air Act and have played a leading role in environmental policy on the national scene.
Bevington shows how this new breed of determined and strategically mindful environmental organizations came to achieve great change – and become a new type of national environmental organization. We could do a lot worse by being mindful of the lessons of that time and the analytical perspective Bevington brings to it. Its no exaggeration to say that the lives of hundreds of millions of people and countless species of plants and animals hang in the balance.