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After decades of speaking on Nature’s behalf, the environmental movement continues to gain power and influence in the U.S. With media, government and even big business preaching the green gospel all of a sudden, modern day enviros might finally have an opportunity to start reversing the course of Earth-death, rather than just "slowing down the rate at which things have been getting worse."
In these days of climate change awareness, industry and government just can’t get away with completely ignoring environmentalists anymore. Though cynics may disagree, America seems to actually be listening to what treehuggers have to say for a change. Other than a few dinosaur neo-cons, even politicians aren’t calling environmentalists a threat to the economy anymore.
Does that mean "ecotopia" is just around the corner? Well, despite bi-monthly Gang Green (Sierra Club, NRDC, Wilderness Society, etc.) mailers claiming victory is just a $35-membership away, the battle is far from over and our enemies have a few new tricks up their sleeves.
Big Industry has given up its 20th century tactics of demonizing enviros for a whole new strategy. Why should industry play the villain when it can green up its image by hand-picking the conservation groups asking the least and give them fat foundation grants, a seat at the bargaining table, and all the (corporate-owned) media money can buy. Once in a while, Industry throws them a bone—like postponing drilling the Arctic Refuge or setting aside a minuscule "rocks and ice" wilderness area on unloggable land. All that’s asked in return is a promise from the enviro-lites not to challenge the root cause of nearly every environmental problem: corporate rule—leaving genuine solutions like real campaign finance reform, ending corporate tax subsidies, stopping private land clearcutting, or canceling the federal timber sale program off the table.
For a perfect specimen of corporate-funded environmentalism look no further than Pew Charitable Trusts, a $5-billion foundation/organization founded by the children of Joseph N. Pew, CEO of Sun Oil Company (Sunoco), which has made tens of millions of dollars worth of grants to middle-of-the-road environmental groups. An environmental foundation backed by Big Oil money? Does that mean the Pew family one day just turned over a new green leaf? Or are entities such as Pew nothing more than Big Oil’s strategy to create their own weak "enemies" by propping up the moderates?
Shades of Green
Even a beginning gardener can tell a healthy plant from a sick one by the color of its leaves: dark green meaning health and strength, yellow betraying a deficiency and weakness. But it’s much trickier to figure out the shade of an environmentalist. While the color of a person’s skin tells you nothing about their character, in the environmental movement your shade of green, deep green or yellow-green, means almost everything.
The whole spectrum of the green rainbow, from the Audubon Society to Earth First!, accepts that the planet is sick, but there’s a surprising difference of opinion as to just how sick. For example: the remaining native forests, the lungs of the Earth. It’s reasonable to say that logging hurts the forest like smoking cigarettes hurts human lungs. Yellows would be satisfied with cutting back from, say, five"packs" a day to half a "pack." Deep Greens know that with less than 5% of the nation’s lungs left pumping in CO2 and pumping out O2, that even a few "cigarettes" a day—anything short of cold turkey, really— could mean total collapse.
Then there are the Yellows who are actually afraid of making the necessary structural changes—overthrow of corporate dominion and the relocalization of economies—or at least don’t want to be held responsible if any of these scary new things were to come about. It’d be funny if it weren’t so pathetic: environmentalists lay awake nights agonizing over the loss of old-growth logging jobs… as if Henry Ford worried about his public relations when he put the horse-drawn buggy industry out of business.
What it comes down to is just a different way of looking at what it means to be an environmentalist.
Brower School of Thought
David Brower (1912-2000) was one of the most respected environmental leaders of the 20th century, dubbed "the archdruid" of the environmental movement by some, the reincarnation of John Muir by others. As Sierra Club executive director from 1952-1969, Brower helped increase its membership by 1,000%, which, ironically, didn’t stop the board of directors from eventually forcing him out for his increasing radicalism.
Brower didn’t think himself radical enough, blaming himself for letting the Bureau of Reclamation dam the fabled Glen Canyon so the Sierra Club could stop two other dams from being built. After committing what he believed to be a sin, Brower took a long hard look at what it meant to be an environmentalist. From Brower’s book "Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run:"
"Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function."
This Brower school of thought — take a stand and fight till you win — caught on, spawning such entities as the John Muir Sierrans, the End Commercial Logging campaign, the National Forest Protection Alliance, Save America’s Forests, Native Forest Council’s ZeroCut campaign and dozens more.
When you look at the economics of public lands logging, Brower’s "no compromise" position seems the only option. With the federal timber sale program, the American people probably lose $1,000 worth of forest benefits (clean air, pure water, fertile topsoil, carbon storage, climate control, fish and wildlife) for every $1 the timber industry makes selling the trees. But since the Forest Service and BLM don’t do any form of natural resource inventory accounting—calculating the true costs of private industry logging the public’s forests—the American people are kept in the dark, and we keep liquidating our last wild lands.
While mainstream Greens celebrate Brower’s legacy in so many words, they routinely ignore his most important lessons by making concession after concession to industry. While the "carrot and stick" approach (reward industry as much as you punish them) may have its merits, greens tend to overestimate the appeal of their measly carrot. When pesticides were banned from public lands because of a 1983 Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides lawsuit, it was the stick—not the carrot—that won the day. Now that the environmental movement has finally won public support and political clout through the use of its stick, it’s in a hurry to replace the stick with two carrots!
The end result of "stickless" advocacy? How about 2006’s Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Forest Ethics and Rainforest Action Network compromise of B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest, the last intact temperate rainforest in the world and one of its greatest carbon stores? While these groups’ fundraising letters and grant applications say they "saved" the Great Bear, what they’ve actually done is rubber-stamped the destruction of 25 million acres of native forest, 2/3 of the entire Great Bear.
Then there’s Sierra Club’s recent endorsement of Clorox cleaning products, in a supposed attempt to get the corporate giant to go green. By putting their logo on Clorox products, Sierra Club effectively dropped its stick, slapped on a coat of greenwash, and gave Clorox free rein to keep making some of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind.
Both cases show that greens can’t outmaneuver highly paid industry personnel trained to attack environmental groups’ Achilles Heel: the need for a "victory" to sell their funders and members.
Anyone seriously interested in fighting for the Earth would do well to heed the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglas: "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
The juiciest bone of contention among forest defenders is the issue of forest "thinning." Despite the benign sounding name, thinning still does much of the same damage as clearcutting, including: landscape-wide tree removal, soil compaction from heavy machinery, and erosion and siltation of waterways from road construction and use, not to mention the impacts on wildlife.
Green groups pushing for thinning in both native forests and tree plantations on public lands, thinvironmentalists, believe they can somehow convince industry to shift operations into this barely profitable, labor-intensive (though plenty destructive) model, in the name of "restoration." Even if the science on forest restoration through chainsaw surgery was unanimous—it’s not—to expect a rape-and-run logging industry to transition into a benevolent presence in our public forests is pure fantasy.
Still, thinvironmentalists insist they’ve tamed the Timber Beast, ignoring past experience that shows that when you let the Timber Beast into the forest—for any reason at all—it’s going to mark its territory in a big way.
What’s the function of an environmentalist but an attorney for the Earth, an ecosystem advocate? A forest can’t speak for itself, so the job of greens is to argue for their client’s best interest. The forest wouldn’t ask for a kinder, gentler form of logging; it would say "Get the hell out now!" Like a successful attorney, environmentalists aren’t supposed to be objective, but to have a clear bias: in this case, a bias for life. Deep greens understand that anything less than a complete chainsaw acquittal means a death sentence for our public forests. Yellow enviros will jump at any chance to "settle," especially since it’s the only way to guarantee their paycheck.
Predictably, yellows will say any big changes are long-shots and to be really "effective" you can’t aim so high. Which is why Yellows would rather work to increase streamside buffers by a few feet than even mention returning to the public domain tens of millions of land grant acres sold from railroad companies to private logging companies, like Weyerhaeuser, Boise Cascade and Plum Creek.
Let’s not forget that it’s also the role of enviros to kindle the imagination and inspire citizen involvement and action. A winning movement needs a cry to rally around, like: "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!" or "Not Another Black Stick!" Good luck trying to jolt the American people out of their apathy with the slogan: "Save the old growth—well, at least trees over 200 years old—and sometimes you can thin them and, of course they’ll build a few roads, but don’t worry, they’re just temporary…!"
While thinvironmentalist lawsuits continue to delay, reform or even cancel some logging sales, their message is getting harder and harder to tell apart from the Forest Service, as both would:
• thin native forests for "fuels" and "fire risk;"
• open tree plantations—future forests—to permanent logging;
• put off the removal of nearly 400,000 miles of sediment-dumping, waterfouling logging roads; and
• ignore the true costs of drinking water pollution, disappearing salmon runs, carbon emissions and landslides when allowing private corporations to cut public trees.
Is this just a battle between the "realists" and the "idealists" and a waste of our time? Or is this the only chance greens have for redemption? If greens had united a decade ago on the common goal of ending the federal timber sale program, do you think there’d be such a thing as public land logging in the 21st century? I guess we’ll never know what our union can gain as long as the green scabs keep crossing the picket line.
Yellows/thinvironmentalists/mainstream greens seem to be less interested in letting nature reclaim the forests than in making technical fixes to the way the current corporate land management system is run. And as it happens, there’s already a role for these folks: it’s called agency staff. The purpose of government agencies such as the Forest Service and BLM is to mediate between a profit-driven logging industry and the needs of nature and those who depend on nature for survival. If Sierra Club CEO Carl Pope doesn’t want to end public land logging, maybe he should run for a more suitable post: chief of the Forest Service! While Pope makes a lousy forest defender, he’d probably be the best thing to happen to the Forest Service since Gifford Pinchott!
In fact, all mainstream environmentalists should be encouraged to make use of their skills at maintaining favorable PR, schmoozing with politicians, and accommodating the timber industry by infiltrating the ranks of the Forest Service, the EPA, state boards of forestry, etc. That way they can do what they’re best at and what they clearly enjoy doing — finding common ground, aka: compromising — and the environmental movement can be left to those with the vision, determination and guts to replace our culture of death with one of life.