“When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all.”
— Edward O. Wilson
In early October 1983, I found myself pacing the terminal at the old Weir Cook Airport in Indianapolis, awaiting the arrival of David Brower, the great environmentalist. Brower emerged from the plane, his face aglow with impish triumph. We hustled down the terminal to the airport bar where he imparted the momentous news that his nemesis James Watt, the messianic Secretary of Interior, had just been evicted from his post in the Reagan administration.
Watt had doomed himself by denouncing the members of the federal coal-leasing commission as “a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.” The commissioners had shown the audacity to resist Watt’s demented shale-oil scheme, which sought to transform the Great Plains into a moonlike landscape of craters and toxic slush ponds. So, like Earl Butz before him, Watt’s political obituary was written with a racist slur. It’s probably fitting that he fell from such a self-inflicted trifle. After all, Watt was an instinctive and unrepentant bigot, just like his boss Reagan. Ask any Apache.
Of course, the Christian fundamentalist and apostle of strip-mining from Wyoming nearly lost his job over another bone-headed misdemeanor: his attempt to bar the Beach Boys from performing at a 4th of July concert on the National Mall. Reagan had to intervene personally on behalf of that All-American band, whose music could have provided the soundtrack for the sunny brand of trickle-down utopianism the president was trying to force-feed the country in those days. The Gipper, who, if nothing else, always demonstrated a keen PR sense, may well have lost confidence in Watt at that precise moment.
But the Interior Secretary, who once declared that the end of the Earth was so close at hand that there was no reason to fret about conserving ecosystems for the long haul, had been on the ropes from the beginning of his tenure, due, in large part, to the Dump Watt campaign initiated by Brower and his group, Friends of the Earth, only weeks after Watt’s nomination was confirmed by the US senate. Within a few months, Friends of the Earth had gathered more than two million signatures on a petition calling for Watt’s removal. In those days, the right to petition the government still seemed to stand for something.
Brower loathed Watt, but viewed him as a comical figure, a corrupt moralist sprung from the pages of a Thackeray novel. He reserved his real animosity for the appalling Reagan, the supreme Confidence Artist of American politics.
Unlike many progressives, Brower never wrote off Reagan as an incompetent and incoherent stooge. He knew better. Brower, the arch-druid, and Reagan, the union-busting snitch, had sparred with each other across the decades—first in California over parks and wild rivers, pesticide spraying, nuclear power, and the governor’s brutal attacks on the peaceable citizens of Brower’s hometown of Berkeley; and later around the globe over wilderness, endangered species, the illegal war on Nicaragua, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
During the pitched battles to save some of the world’s largest trees, Brower and his cohorts goaded Reagan into making his infamous declaration: “Once you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” That Zen koan-like pronouncement pretty much summed up Reagan’s philosophy of environmental tokenism. Later, Reagan propounded the thesis that trees generated more air pollution than coal-fired power plants. For the Gipper, the only excuse for Nature was to serve as a backdrop for photo-ops, just like in his intros for Death Valley Days, the popular western TV series that served as a catwalk for the rollout of Reagan as a politician.
Brower viewed Reagan as a mean-spirited and calculating figure, entirely cognizant of and culpable for his crimes. He refused to allow the old man access to the twin escape hatches of plausible deniability and senile dementia.
Born a year apart, the two men were part of the same generation and both spent most of their lives in California. Yet, the tenor of their lives couldn’t have been more different. In World War II, Brower served as an instructor for the famous 10th Mountain Division and returned home a pacifist. He didn’t talk much about his war experience, preferring to brag about the number of Sierran peaks he’d bagged (seventy first ascents) or the wild rivers he’d floated.
Reagan spent World War II in Hollywood making racist propaganda films to inflame the fever for a war that tens of thousands of others would die fighting in. Years later he boasted (that is: lied) about liberating the Nazi death camps, even as he was forced to defend his demented decision to bestow presidential honors on the dead at the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, final resting place for the blood-drenched butchers of the Waffen SS. Reagan possessed a special talent for the suspension of disbelief when it came to the facts of his own life. Perhaps, if the earth in Simi Valley refuses to receive his corpse, the custodians of Bitburg could erect a cenotaph for Reagan on those chilly grounds.
After a couple of hours spent draining Tanqueray-powered martinis at that airport bar in Indianapolis, some of the initial glow gradually dissipated from Brower’s face. “You know, Jeffrey, we may soon come to miss old Watt,” Brower predicted.
He was right, of course. James Watt proved to be the greatest fundraising gimmick the big environmental groups ever stumbled across, far outperforming panda calendars and postcards of baby Harp seals about to fall victim to the fur-trader’s skull-crushing club. During Watt’s tenure, the top ten environmental groups more than doubled their combined budgets, and for a brief time, became the most powerful public interest lobby on the Hill.
Watt’s approach to the plunder of the planet seethed with an evangelical fervor. He brought with him to Washington a gang of libertarian missionaries, mostly veterans of the Coors-funded Mountain States Legal Foundation, who referred to themselves as “The Colorado Crazies.” Their mission: privatize the public estate. Many of them were transparent crooks who ended up facing indictment and doing time in federal prison for self-dealing and public corruption. They gave away billions in public timber, coal, and oil to favored corporations, leaving behind toxic scars where there used to be wild forests, trout streams, and deserts. These thieves were part of the same claque of race-baiting zealots who demonized welfare mothers as swindlers of the public treasury.
Watt, who was himself charged with twenty-five felony counts of lying and obstruction of justice, never hid his rapine agenda behind soft, made-for-primetime rhetoric. He never preached about win-win solutions, ecological forestry, or sustainable development. From the beginning, James Watt’s message was clear: grab it all, grab it now. God wills it so. The message was so high-pitched and unadulterated that it provoked a fierce global resistance that frustrated Watt at nearly every turn. In the end, he achieved almost nothing for the forces of darkness.
Soon, Watt’s divinely-inspired vigilantism against nature would be replaced by a more calculating approach, a kinder and gentler path to exploitation, that reached a terrible crescendo under Clinton and Gore, a team which, according to Brower’s expert calculation, did more damage to the American environment in their first four years in office than Reagan and Bush the Father accomplished in twelve years.
Still there’s reason to miss Watt and Reagan. Their brazen contempt for the world inspired ordinary people to rise up against their government’s leaders on behalf of the spotted owl and Yellowstone grizzly—rise up, and on occasion, actually rout them. Even Watt’s minions, like Steven Griles and Gale Norton, who directed the berserker environmental policies of the Bush the Younger administration, didn’t ride nearly as tall in the saddle as Reagan and Watt did in the early 1980s, when it seemed that real demons stalked the earth.
Fade to black.
This essay is excerpted from Born Under a Bad Sky.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.