The Rebirth of Environmentalism

In his recent review of my book, The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009), Michael Donnelly looks at the book through such a narrow lens that he misses the bigger story of how the rise of the grassroots biodiversity protection groups over the past twenty years created new opportunities for bold activists to overcome some of the constraints that had long hindered the environmental movement and thereby helped them to have a big direct impact in protecting forests and endangered species.

Instead, the recurrent theme in his review is that Donnelly is upset that he is not mentioned in my book, and that I do not say more about the ancient forest campaign that he was involved in. Unfortunately, he treats this as a personal snub, rather than seeing the underlying good news– grassroots biodiversity protection activism is a much bigger story than just Michael Donnelly or the Pacific Northwest ancient forest campaign. Throughout the country over the past two decades, there have been many, many examples of bold and effective work done by grassroots activists.

The Rebirth of Environmentalism explores some notable examples to illustrate the larger phenomena. And I hope that this book will help inspire others to write the multitude of books needed to fully tell the stories of all the other remarkable grassroots biodiversity campaigns that do not appear in my book, such as Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project’s brave defense of the forests of eastern Oregon; the Cove-Mallard campaign in the northern Rockies; the battle against clearcutting in Maine; Los Padres ForestWatch’s recent fight to keep commercial logging out of southern California’s national forests; and the list goes on and on and on. But rather than simply list them off, useful lessons can best be learned by looking at these campaigns in-depth. In my book, I focus on three case studies that illustrate some of the different ways that grassroots groups have tried to overcome obstructions from moderate national environmental organizations such as the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, and EDF. (1)

Donnelly is also troubled that I do not focus more on volunteer activists like him (2) , and as a result, he misses seeing the exciting new opportunities created by the rise of the grassroots biodiversity protection groups over the past twenty years.  There have always been a few radical activists fortunate enough to have family wealth or other independent means that allowed them to be full-time volunteers (and that’s been helpful to the movement) (3) , but most radical activists who needed to earn a living faced a more difficult choice prior to the 1990s. Back when the national environmental organizations provided the main way to get paid to do environmental advocacy, these activists could either compromise their beliefs while working for a moderate organization, or they could confine their activism to their “spare time” after the workday in a non-environmental job. Both choices had clear limitations. But then in the late 1980s and 1990s, people involved in or inspired by Earth First! formed new grassroots groups that were willing to pursue aggressive litigation to protect biodiversity in cases that the national groups eschewed as too controversial. The new groups won important victories, brought in funding, and were able to employ other radical activists at subsistence salaries. As I wrote in The Rebirth of Environmentalism, “For the first time, a sizable number of radical activists were able to work full-time on biodiversity protection outside of the constraints of the moderate national organizations.” And as a result, in the 1990s and 2000s, these activists were at the forefront of bringing logging on national forests down its lowest levels since the 1930s, and creating an unprecedented increase in endangered species protection.

The funding for these activists has primarily come from grantmaking foundations. It should come as no surprise to Counterpunch readers to hear that foundation funding brings with it various constraints and moderating tendencies for the recipients, as is illustrated in the case studies in The Rebirth of Environmentalism. But those case studies also offer examples of how bold new groups were able to use foundation funding to carve out a space for themselves within a movement in which moderate organizations dominated membership-based fundraising. Outside funding can both enable and constrain activism. Rather than categorically dismissing all funded groups, it is more useful to look at how different groups have navigated between these two competing influences and to learn from the groups that have been most successful at limiting the constraints while still utilizing the substantial benefits.

The same can be said of organizational growth. The concluding section of my chapter about the Center for Biological Diversity explores the unconventional ways the Center was able to grow from being “a handful of hippies operating off of unemployment checks” to become a national-sized organization while avoiding some of the pitfalls that snared other groups. Funding and organizational growth should rightfully be treated with caution, given their long history of moderating advocacy, as illustrated by some of the groups described in my book. But in other situations, funding and organizational growth have contributed to the effectiveness of biodiversity protection advocacy. It is a precarious route, but we can better learn how to traverse it by examining the experiences of the groups that have explored those paths, rather than simply rejecting those groups out of hand.

The experiences of the grassroots biodiversity groups over the past twenty years have much to teach us about themes that affect not only the environmental movement, but also other movements. For example, the efforts by the John Muir Sierrans to reform the Sierra Club from within, as recounted in my book, offers interesting comparisons to rank-and-file rebellions within labor unions. Readers interested in labor activism will also be interested in my account of the alliance between Headwaters Forest activists and Steelworkers. Likewise, the Headwaters campaign illustrates the perilous dynamics that arise within formal campaign coalitions, and the consequences when those coalitions are faced with flawed political deals. And all of the case studies explore examples of groups that rejected the conventional political “insider” strategy of the dominant DC-focused organizations which had tied those organizations to the Democratic Party and constrained them from taking positions that might be seen as too controversial. When grassroots groups instead combined an “outsider” strategy with the vigorous use of litigation as a tactic, they discovered, as one activist noted, “that with relatively little resources you can bring litigation that actually changes the world.”

The grassroots biodiversity groups highlighted in The Rebirth of Environmentalism offer examples of activists who charted new paths for being simultaneously bold and influential at a time when they were being told they would have to choose one or the other. Their experiences offer not only valuable lessons, but also inspiration. As one grassroots activist (who did not appear in the book) wrote in her review of it: “Rebirth looks at the movement from a sociologist’s point of view, but what makes it hard to put down is the personal stories of the men and women who took part in the environmental battles of the 80’s and 90’s, and refused to have their hands tied by playing by traditional rules.”

DOUG BEVINGTON is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism.He can be reached at: dbevington@environmentnow.org


(1) Readers of Donnelly’s review may be surprised to learn that the Pacific Northwest ancient forest campaign was not one of my case studies, despite Donnelly’s erroneous claim that this campaign “was a major part of the book.” In fact, it only occupies a nine page section that serves as background for a chapter about the zero cut campaign on national forests. In his rush to find fault, Donnelly appears to have skipped over the beginning of that section where I clearly state, “The history of the campaign for old-growth protection in the Northwest can easily fill a book, so I will not attempt to present a comprehensive account here. Instead, in this section, I focus on those aspects of that campaign that shaped the subsequent zero cut activism.”

(2) Donnelly is simply incorrect when he claims that “non-paid activists are nowhere to be found” in my book. This error contributes to the impression that he skipped reading most of the chapter on the Headwaters Forest campaign. Donnelly also erroneously claims that I “fail[ed] to disclose that [I] was on the JMS [John Muir Sierran] payroll for the better part of a decade,” thus indicating that he skimmed over other parts of the book as well. No one was “on the JMS payroll”; it was an all-volunteer network, as was clearly discussed in the chapter on the zero cut campaign. I did work with the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, which is a separate formal organization that focuses on forest protection advocacy outside of the Sierra Club– a distinction that was also clearly made in that chapter. I worked there from 1999 through 2000, hardly “the better part of a decade.” Finally, I did not “fail to disclose” my work with John Muir Project; it is mentioned right at the beginning of the book. But apparently Donnelly skimmed over that part too, which begs the question– how much of my book did he actually read before writing his review?

(3) For example, see Dyana Furmansky’s intriguing new biography of Rosalie Edge.

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