It’s about 100 years too late, but the well-heeled Sierra Club is finally grappling with its founder’s racist past. John Muir, lauded by many as the grandfather of the modern conservation movement, saw the West as a bastion of untrammeled freedom. Not for Indigenous peoples or Black slaves, of course, but for white colonialists.
In 1868, Muir first visited Ahwahnee (Yosemite) and by then, as Muir knew full well, the area’s original inhabitants were being forced off their lands and onto reservations. Others were being shipped off to Christian internment camps for indoctrination, while many more were simply slaughtered to make way for European settlers. Muir openly despised the Miwoks from Ahwahnee, referring to them as “dirty,” “deadly,” and “lazy.” To Muir, they were savages – expendables in the quest for land dominance – a form of colonialism the Sierra Club would later capitalize upon. Muir’s views of Indigenous communities would soften in his older years, but by then much of the damage to their way of life had been done.
The founding of the Sierra Club, and the National Park System more broadly, were predicated on the removal and erasure of Indigenous tribes and their history. From changing Ahwahnee’s name to Yosemite Valley to promoting National Parks as playgrounds for white suburbanites as a way to escape mundane city life, the Sierra Club’s ethos was used as a tool for the organized domination of Indigenous ancestral lands, a continuation of American genocide through other means. It was this mentality, adopted and promoted by early conservationists, that is largely responsible for the notion that wilderness is for whites only – a notion that sadly persists today.
All of this is not to say Muir ought to be erased from history, for without Muir much more of the American West would be even more exploited by oil and gas developers, logging, cattle, roads, and sprawling development than it is today. Yet, it’s imperative for the environmental movement to take a sober assessment of its celebrated historical figures, no matter how complicated and messy it may be. Doing so won’t “cancel” Muir’s legacy, it will only ratify it. And if that means changing Yosemite’s name back to Ahwahnee, so be it.
The reckoning with the Sierra Club’s ugly past must include, not only the troubling aspects of Muir’s legacy but also the Sierra Club’s troubling anti-immigration positions and its early member support for forced sterilization. While they are at it, they must also tackle the vanquishing of various uprisings among its more left-wing members, including the removal of its most important, radical director, David Brower, who himself had a few nasty run-ins, particularly with the Navajo. Unlike Muir, however, Brower learned from his mistakes much faster than his predecessors.
It was Brower’s willingness to admit he was wrong and adapt that makes him an even more important figure to today’s environmental movement than John Muir’s classic preservationism. And while Muir may not have understood the importance of a fight like Standing Rock, there’s no doubt that David Brower, in his muddy boots and gleaming smile, would have been on the front lines with his fist raised high.
On May 3, 1969, after hours of bitter debate, the Sierra Club fired David Brower. The organization’s first paid staffer, Brower had transformed the Club from an exclusive, politically timid, white male hiking outfit of 2,000 members. But the old guard didn’t like the direction that Brower, its executive director, was taking the staid organization: toward political confrontation, grassroots organizing and attacks on industrial pollution, nuclear power and the Pentagon.
This kind of green aggressiveness in the face of entrenched power alienated funders, politicians and, eventually, the Internal Revenue Service, which, after Brower’s successful international campaign to halt the construction of two mega-dams in the Grand Canyon, moved to strip the group of its tax-deductible status. The IRS action proved to be the final straw and Brower was booted out.
Dave Brower was 56 when he was sacked by the Sierra Club. He could have retired to his home in the Berkeley Hills to write books, hike in the Sierras with his wife Anne (if anything, an even more uncompromising environmentalist), and travel the world doing what he loved most: running wild rivers.
But it turned out that Brower’s ouster from the Club was more of a beginning than an ending. In fact, many greens point to that fraught moment as the start of what became known as the New Conservation Movement. Brower wasted no time. He went on to have a hand in forming Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, Earth Island Institute, and the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment and many other groups big and small. Brower was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
When militant Earth First! Movment sprang up from the rubble of the Carter era, many mainstream environmental leaders were quick to denounce them and their tactics of tree-sits and road blockades. Not Brower. “I thank God for the arrival of Earth First!,” Brower said. “They make me look moderate.”
It was, perhaps, this unflagging sense of optimism against all odds that defined Brower most. He was delighted at how the movement he helped to found and shape continued to grow in unpredictable and uncontrollable directions.
The evolution of environmentalism over the past fifty years has been spurred by any number of competing internal tensions: between national and grassroots, apolitical and partisan, international and domestic, lobbying strategies and direct action tactics. But more than anything else, the character of the American environmental movement has been forged by the unexpected threats it has had to confront: Three Mile Island, Love Canal, James Watt, the Exxon Valdez, strip mining, rainforest destruction, acid rain, the ozone hole, the decline of the spotted owl, oil drilling in the Arctic, global warming, globalization and the World Trade Organization.
Yet the environmental movement, by and large, has always been the most existential of social movements, willing to shift tactics on the fly, use what works and discard what doesn’t. “In our business, you’ve got to be fast on your feet,” said Brower, who died in November 2000. “When industry wins, they win forever. The most we can usually hope for is a stay of execution. It means we’ve got to stay eternally vigilant, be very creative and be willing to take risks.”
* * *
The modern grassroots environmental movement probably got its start in the citizen uprisings against nuclear power, beginning in the 1970s with the Clamshell Alliance, a decentralized coalition put together to fight the Seabrook reactor in New Hampshire and its rowdier counterpart on the West Coast, the Abalone Alliance, which targeted the Diablo Canyon plant in California. Indeed, in her book Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, Barbara Epstein argues that, aside from the civil rights movement, these groups were the “first effort in American history to base a mass movement on nonviolent direct action.”
The contentious debate over nuclear power also exposed one of the first great schisms inside the green movement, a rift that exists to this day. Many environmental groups, fixated on the looming energy shortage and obsessing on global warming, seized on the dream of nuclear power as a safe, clean alternative to coal-fired power plants. Indeed, Brower lost his job at the Sierra Club partly because of his lonely and unflinching opposition to the Diablo Canyon reactor, which was built on a major faultline.
But public attitudes toward the use of “atoms for peace” changed decisively on March 28, 1979, when the Number Two reactor at Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown, emitting radioactive gasses into the air near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and leaking contaminated water into the Susquehanna River. Most Americans first learned of the meltdown from the unimpeachable voice of Walter Cronkite, who opened the CBS Evening News by saying: “It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare. As far as we know at this hour, no worse than that. But a government official said that a breakdown in an atomic power plant in Pennsylvania today is probably the worst nuclear accident to date.” After four days of trying to keep details of the true extent of the accident under wraps, officials finally suggested that nearby schools should be closed and pregnant should evacuate the area. Public confidence in this supposedly safe and cheap form of power collapsed overnight.
But after the press left, people living near the TMI plant were left to deal with the aftermath. Within a few years, the inevitable respiratory illnesses, kidney ailments and cancers began to sprout up in the vicinity of the nuclear complex. Yet the media, wrapped up in the apocalyptic fervor of a meltdown scenario, seemed bored by these slow-motion tragedies and tended to side with the utilities and the nuclear industry in dismissing the link between the disease clusters and the release of radiation as the rantings of paranoids. (In fact, numerous scientific reports have revealed that merely living near a nuclear plant—where cancer clusters tend to occur and where there are higher rates of infant mortality, blood disorders and kidney problems—can be dangerous for your health.)
If the nuclear industry was hoping for a quick comeback in the United States once public anxiety over Three Mile Island calmed, those dreams were shattered on April 26, 1986, when the Chernobyl reactor, in Ukraine, blew its containment vessel during a test, bringing about the most serious industrial accident in history. The radiation released by the explosion was greater than from both the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs, contaminating farm and dairy lands, rivers and lakes and forcing the belated evacuation of more than 135,000 people from the city of Pripyat. Thirty-one people were killed in the initial blast and hundreds more fell ill to acute radiation sickness. Within five years of the blast there was a tenfold increase in thyroid cancers in the region.
After the accident, the Soviets delayed releasing any information to the public, grudgingly acting only after Sweden had revealed the disaster to the world. “The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant … has painfully affected the Soviet people and shocked the international community,” Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said in a televised address.” For the first time, we confront the real force of nuclear energy, out of our control.” (Gorbachev would later claim that Chernobyl was a key event in giving momentum to glasnost and, along with the Afghan war, the fall of the Soviet Union itself.)
In the United States, the 1980 and 1990s saw numerous nuclear plants shuttered due to a combination of relentless citizen-organizing and their own financial extravagances: Marble Hill in Indiana, Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee, Shoreham in New York, Connecticut Yankee and Trojan in Oregon. In 1989, the Rancho Seco reactor in Herald, California became the first nuke plant shut down by popular vote.
There hasn’t been a nuclear plant opened in the United States since the Three Mile Island meltdown — though the Obama administration pushed hard to build at least three new reactors in Georgia and Trump followed suit. This doesn’t mean that the nuclear industry went into a state of hibernation. Instead of focusing on the United States, Westinghouse, General Electric, ABB and Bechtel set their sights on the developing world: India, Indonesia and Brazil. Their forays were often gladly backed by the US government with financing through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
An even more pressing problem in the United States is the challenge of how to deal with the accumulating mounds of spent fuel from the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors. The nuclear industry, backed by politicians with nuclear plants in their states, wants desperately to truck the radioactive waste to the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas and entomb it inside vaults in Yucca Mountain, a site on the traditional lands of the Western Shoshone.
The Shoshone have tirelessly fought the plan for more than two decades, joined by anti-nuke groups such as the Snake River Alliance and the Nuclear Information Research Service. They nicknamed the entire scheme the “Mobile Chernobyl” plan. It calls for more than 30 years of continuous shipping by train and semi-truck of 60,000 casks filled with radioactive reactor fuel. A single rail cask would harbor nearly 200 times as much cesium as was released by the Hiroshima bomb. One study predicts that more than 300 “accidents” can be expected involving the shipment of this high-level nuclear waste.
And Yucca Mountain itself is far from safe. For one thing, geologists say the site leaks, posing the real risk of nuclear waste hemorrhaging into groundwater. For another, it’s on unstable terrain. This area of Nevada has been rocked by more than 650 earthquakes in the last twenty years. Of course, the nuclear industry doesn’t want to be left holding the bag when something inevitably goes wrong, so they pushed through Congress a bill transferring the liability for spent reactor fuel to the U.S. government.
But where there’s risk, there’s also opportunity. In 1997, a strange amalgam of former Pentagon officials, CIA officers, venture capitalists and a couple of neoliberal environmentalists hatched a scheme to ship commercial radioactive waste to Russia, for disposal at a site in the Ural Mountains. The plan was fiercely opposed by many American and Russian environmental groups. Indeed, Russian greens mounted the largest campaign in the nation’s history, staging spectacular protests and gathering 2 million signatures to put the matter on the ballot in a public referendum. But the Kremlin rejected the signatures and the powerful Russian nuclear agency Minatom, which stands to make as much as $20 billion on the deal, persuaded the Russian parliament to give the go-ahead.
It’s the same old story: privatize the profits, socialize the costs.
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Back in the spring of 1978, residents of the working-class community of Love Canal, New York discovered that a chemical dump site had been leaking toxins into their neighborhood, saturating their schools, playgrounds and homes with a poisonous stew of more than 200 chemicals. The prime culprit was Hooker Chemical Company, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. One study showed that 56 percent of the children born in Love Canal between 1974 and 1978 had suffered some form of birth defect. Another study revealed that the rate of urinary-tract infections had increased by 300 percent over the same period. A disturbing spike in the rate of miscarriages was also reported.
The government was slow to react to protect the resident. This was, after all, a working-class neighborhood with little perceived political clout. Then a group of mothers and housewives, led by Lois Gibbs and calling themselves the Love Canal Homeowners Association, sprang into action, filing petitions to close contaminated schools, pressuring New York Governor Hugh Carey to order an evacuation of the area and even commanding the attention of President Jimmy Carter, who signed a bill funding the permanent relocation of 660 families. The Love Canal campaign became a model for a new kind of citizen action: a blue-collar environmentalism that was uncompromising, tactically innovative and community-based. “The words ‘Love Canal’ are now burned in our country’s history and in the memory of the public as being synonymous with chemical exposures and their adverse human health effects,” Gibbs reflected. “The events at Love Canal brought about a new understanding among the American people of the correlation between low-level chemical exposures and birth defects, miscarriages and incidences of cancer. The citizens of Love Canal provided an example of how a blue-collar community with few resources can win against great odds, using the power of the people in our democratic system.”
Since Love Canal, Gibbs has been a leader of one of the most exciting and powerful strains of conservationism: the environmental justice movement. It springs from a single, glaring truth: people who are poor, disenfranchised and dark-skinned are the most likely to be victimized by chemical plants, hazardous waste dumps and myriad other industrial effluvia.
Hazardous waste facilities continue to be constructed with a chilling regularity in poor areas, largely inhabited by minorities. This is not a dry statistical phenomenon, but a deliberate business and political strategy. A leaked memo from the California Waste Management Board spelled out the gameplan in stunningly cynical language: “All socioeconomic groups tend to resent the nearby siting of major [hazardous waste] facilities, but middle and upper socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition. These neighborhoods should not fall within the one-mile and five-mile radius of proposed sites.”
An investigation by the National Law Journal unearthed another ugly dimension of environmental discrimination. From 1985 through 1992, the fines handed out by the Environmental Protection Agency for violations of federal environmental laws were 500 to 1,000 percent higher if the crimes were committed in white communities as opposed to black and Hispanic areas.
These incidents aren’t abstractions. They occur in real American communities: Navajo forcibly evicted from their homelands on Big Mountain to make way for the expansion of Peabody Coal’s strip mines, the largest on Earth; Mexican-American families in the southwestern Texas town of Sierra Blanca, who are forced to live next to a 70,000-acre ranch where New York City dumps its sewage sludge; the black community of Convent, Louisiana, in the heart of Cancer Alley, which is surrounded by three oil refineries, 17 chemical plants and eight hazardous waste facilities; the Appalachian hamlet of East Liverpool, Ohio, home to the world’s largest hazardous waste incinerator; Gary, Indiana, dumping ground for US Steel.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion, as long-time environmental justice campaigner Richard Moore says, that “people of color don’t have the complexion for protection.”
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By the summer of 1992, the attention of the world was riveted on Rio de Janeiro, for the international confab known as the Earth Summit. The Rio affair was billed as the first major huddling of world leaders to grapple with some of the most intractable environmental crises: global warming, ozone depletion, species extinction, rainforest destruction, depleted fisheries and desertification. Representatives from more than 170 nations attended, but the US government almost didn’t show up. Eventually, President George H. W. Bush was embarrassed into sending a delegation, although Team America quickly left without signing the session’s most important protocols, including the International Convention on Biodiversity.
Much of the attention in Rio and in the press was focused on the fate of rainforests, the so-called lungs of the world. The Amazon was being plundered at an almost inconceivable rate: upward of 149 acres every minute, 214,000 acres each day. Much of the forest was simply going up in smoke, in a kind of modern slash-and-burn regime designed to rid the land of its forests and its Indigenous tribes and clear the way for huge cattle ranches, mining operations and oil pipelines. The loss of primary forest cover has presaged a staggering loss of species. The extinction rate in tropical rainforests worldwide was compared by biologists at the Summit to that which jolted the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous Age. Biologist Edward O. Wilson estimated that 137 species were being extirpated every day—that’s 50,000 each year. Indigenous cultures too have been torn asunder, victims of forced dislocation, acculturation, government-sanctioned murder, enforced starvation and introduced diseases. The population of the Amazon basin prior to Western contact has been estimated to have been as high as 9 million. By 2000, less than 200,000 Indigenous people remained. And the death rate seemed to be increasing. Take the Yanomani of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. In the late seventies, more than 20,000 Yanomani lived in Brazil. By 1997, fewer than 9,000 still existed.
All of this spawned the proliferation of hundreds of new green groups battling for the rainforests—or at least fundraising on the promise to protect the Amazon. Three stand out: Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Project Underground and the International Rivers Network. These three groups share some key features: they are international, aggressive, confront corporations directly, engage in direct action and work side-by-side with Indigenous groups.
RAN set the model. Their actions ranged from global boycotts of Mitshubishi (a prime destroyer of rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia) to aiding the cause of the Penan of Borneo, the Kayapo of the Amazon and the Pygmies of the Ituri forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. RAN has worked with many of these tribes and rainforest ecologists to develop sustainable economic uses of intact rainforests.
In the popular imagination, the loss of tropical forests has mostly been linked to the rapacity of timber companies. But throughout much of the tropics the rainforests harbor other treasures the multinational corporations are eager to exploit: namely oil and gold. Project Underground was started as a way of helping local communities in the tropics and elsewhere fight off the depredations of the transnationals. Much of Project Underground’s early work focused on the Grasberg gold mine in Indonesia. One of the largest mines in world, with deposits of gold, silver and tin valued at more than $70 billion, Grasberg started as a joint venture between the New Orleans-based mining giant Freeport McMoRan and the regime of former Indonesian dictator Suharto.
The riches of that mine didn’t find their way to the Amungme tribe, who live next to the mining site and consider the it’s blasted out of sacred. Instead, the Amungme have been forcibly evicted from their homes and killed by Indonesian troops acting as security forces for the mining company. Over the past thirty years, more than 2,000 people have been murdered by security forces and Indonesian troops near the mine.
As horrifying as these acts are, the long-term environmental consequences from the mining operation may take an even greater toll. The mine generates 200,000 tons of contaminated mine waste every day, with much of this being dumped into the Aikwa River system, poisoning the Amungme’s drinking water and toxifying or killing the fish that are the staple of their diet. In 1996, the Amungme filed a $6 billion class action suit in US federal court against the company. “Freeport has killed us,” said Tom Beanal, an Amungme tribal leader. “They’ve taken our land and our grandparents’ land. They ruined the mountains. We can’t drink our water anymore.”
The Berkeley, California-based International Rivers Network was one of the first groups to confront the malign environmental role played by international finance institutions. IRN’s focus is on dams, which have proliferated across the developing world in the name of economic aid, too often destroying riverine ecosystems and Indigenous communities for the sake of US corporations. IRN made its mark tackling the biggest dam of them all, China’s Three Gorges. This monstrosity rises 575 feet above the Yangtzee, the world’s third longest river, and created a reservoir more than 350 miles long, compelling the forced resettlement of nearly 1.9 million Chinese.
Construction on the $26 billion began in 1994, backed by financing from a myriad of Western institutions, including Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, First Boston, Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, the largest financier of dams worldwide.
But IRN put together an international coalition of groups that targeted these funders and international construction firms. This was an entirely new kind of environmental campaign, which targeted and exposed the complex political economy of mega-construction projects. In 1996, IRN won a key opinion from the National Security Council, which determined that the US government should withdraw financial support for the project. A few months later, the Export-Import Bank announced it would not guarantee loans to US companies seeking contracts at the dam. Then, in the biggest victory of all, the World bank announced that it would not underwrite Three Gorges.
In the end, of course, the dam went up, the floodgates closed and the waters rose, flooding forests, marshes, shrines and villages. But a price had been exacted and the international funding agencies had been put on notice.
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On a 1992 trip to NASA headquarters to examine the latest in geo-satellite technology, President George H. W. Bush was presented with two large satellite images. One depicted a million acres of forest in the Brazilian Amazon. The other showed the same amount of acreage on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. Bush shrugged his shoulders and wandered off. But the following day the photos landed on the front page of the New York Times. The contrasts in the images was striking. The Brazilians, so often the target of American condemnation, had logged off and burned about 10 percent of the Amazon’s primary forest. By contrast, the United States had logged off more than 95 percent of the Olympic rainforest. The ensuing battle over the fate of the remaining five percent of ancient forest in the United States would become one of the fiercest in the history of American environmentalism. The ecological symbol for this struggle became a diminutive and secretive bird that inhabited the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest: the northern spotted owl.
Traditionally, green groups such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society had tended to avoid battles over forest protection for easier targets: alpine wilderness or so-called “rocks and ice” terrain. As a consequence, through the 1960s and 1970s millions of acres of publicly-owned old-growth forest in Oregon, Washington, California and southeast Alaska were leveled with little organized opposition. All that began to change in the early 1980s, when a new, more militant generation of activists began blockading logging roads and hanging from giant trees slated for clearcutting.
Inspired by the writings of Edward Abbey and fed up with the timid and top-down nature of many big environmental groups, the Earth First!ers and their allies placed their bodies between big trees and chainsaws. The 1980s saw repeated confrontations between the Earth First!ers, the Forest Service and the timber giants: in the Siskiyou and Klamath Mountains, at Millennium Grove (where the oldest trees in Oregon were illegally logged on Easter Sunday), at Opal Creek and along the Brietenbush River. The battlegrounds evoke the same resonance for environmentalists that Shiloh, Vicksburg and Antietam do for the Civil War buff.
In the end, the fate of the spotted owl ended up in the hands of a Reagan-appointed federal judge named William Dwyer, who confounded his Republican allies by dealing the Bush administration a string of stinging setbacks, culminating in an injunction against any new timber sales in spotted owl habitat. In his landmark ruling, Judge Dwyer denounced the Forest Service for “a remarkable series of violations of environmental laws.”
The spotted owl injunctions, which effectively halted all new logging operations in old-growth forests, became a contested issue in the 1992 presidential election, with Bush pledgeing to over-turn the logging ban if re-elected. Bush lost, but Bill Clinton and Al Gore came to the timber industry’s rescue anyway. The betrayal was pure Clinton: convene a staged “town hall” meeting, put out a prefabricated plan and induce your liberal friends to swallow their principles and sign off on it. This shadow play was what happened at the April 1993 Forest Summit, a ridiculous display of consensus-mongering that saw some of the nation’s leading environmentalists play footsy with executives from Weyerhaeuser.
Shortly after the Portland summit, the political arm-twisting began. “The Clinton people told us that during the campaign they’d made commitments to the timber lobby that logging would be restarted before the end of 1993,” recalls Larry Tuttle, then executive director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a plaintiff in the original spotted owl suit. “They said we had to agree to lift Judge Dwyer’s injunction or they’d get Congress to come up with something worse.”
Tuttle and many other grassroots greens objected, but the big national groups capitulated to the scare tactics of the Clinton crowd. By the fall of 1993, the ancient forests were once again being menaced by chainsaws. After five years of logging under the Clinton plan, the spotted owl’s population plunged more rapidly than the environmental impact statement for the plan predicted it would decline under a worst-case scenario over a period of 40 years. But the owl was always just a symbol, an indicator for an entire ecosystem on the verge of collapse. Among the other species caught in a tailspin toward extinction: marbled murrelets, coho salmon, cutthroat trout, Pacific fisher, pine marten, red tree voles, bull trout, dozens of salamanders, mollusks and hundreds of wildflowers, vascular plants and fungi. In all more than 1,800 species of plants and animals in the Pacific Northwest are at risk from old-growth logging.
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Eight years of Bill Clinton and Al Gore yielded few rewards and many more bitter disappointments. During the early days of the administration, Clinton and Gore played a shrewd game. They tapped more than 30 environmentalists for key positions inside the new government, from Carol Browner as head of the EPA to Bruce Babbitt as Interior Secretary. That gave the mainstream greens the kind of political access they hadn’t enjoyed in more than a decade. But as it turned out, a little face-time with high-ranking bureaucrats was about all the enviro establishment got of Clinton and Gore. The 1993-4 congressional session, when Democrats controlled all branches of the government for the first time in 12 years, ended up as one of the least productive environmental legislatures since the Truman era. And the Republican takeover of congress in 1995 put greens back on the defensive, having to battle both a hostile congress and an indifferent executive office.
The failures of the Clinton years are perhaps best illustrated by the issue that Gore had made his calling card: global warming. By the mid-1990s had gone from a theory to a harshly experience fact of life. A wave of searingly hot summers and droughts scorched the Midwest, accompanied by fierce storms and prolonged El Niño conditions in the Pacific. The 1990s would be the hottest decade on record. The stage was set for the Kyoto convention in 1997. The meeting was conceived as a follow-up to the Rio summit and was supposed to put the brakes on this perilous warming trend. But the event itself would prove emblematic of the shifting alliances and competing interests in global environmental policy.
Kyoto was doomed from the start. Before the meetings even opened, the US Senate had voted 97-0 to reject any agreement that emerged from the session. And the US negotiators, under Gore’s orders, started furiously backpedaling from previous commitments almost the as soon as they stepped off the plane. In the end, the Kyoto accord was a feeble one, requiring the signatories from 37 industrialized nations to only reduce their carbon emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 benchmark levels by 2012. And there was plenty of loopholes to excuse not meeting even these modest reductions.
But as the clock closed on the Clinton administration, Congress still had not moved to ratify the Kyoto treaty, and at a meeting in The Hague, the US outraged the European community by attempting to scuttle the accords by pushing for even more “flexibility” in evaluating emission reductions. The US representatives, now thoroughly marinated in the language of neo-liberal, or market-based, environmentalism, pushed for the use of credits for carbon “sinks”—forests and other lands that absorb carbon dioxide pollution—and for emissions trading to help nations meet their goals. This was a particularly galling position considering the fact that although the United States contains only 5 percent of the world’s population, it is responsible for more than 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
After eight years of Clintonism, American environmentalists found themselves in a paradoxical fix: popular support for their causes had never been higher, but their political influence was steadily eroding. The 2000 presidential election saw the movement sharply divided, in conflict with itself. Pragmatists sided with Al Gore, despite his ineffectual record; idealists and radicals threw themselves behind the Green Party run of Ralph Nader. In the end, both camps would be disappointed.
George W. Bush, however, turned out to be the unwitting savior of the environmental movement—even as he and his oil-drenched cabinet plotted the plunder of what was left of the natural world. That’s because of a simple truism: environmentalists are better on the defensive, when they’re on the outside, with their backs against the wall. Like James Watt, Bush and Cheney became a mobilizing force. The green fundraising machines cranked into action and millions poured into the coffers of the green establishment.
On the frontlines of the war on the environment, Bush brought clarity. There was no mistaking his intentions, as so many did under Clinton.
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Over the course of the last 30 years, US environmentalism has become a big business. Nine of the biggest green groups enjoy budgets of more than $30 million a year, while four have budgets in excess of $50 million. This newfound wealth inevitably has made Gang Green more cautious and politically timid. Thus the divisions between inside-the-Beltway groups, national organizations and more militant and grassroots have become ever more fractious. Even Earth First! Has been out-radicalized by the emergence of the Earth Liberation Front, which has torched ski resorts, luxury homes built in the wilderness and biotech operations.
Meanwhile, a new internationalist environmentalism is taking root. On matters such as global warming, ozone depletion, and pesticides, the European Union has enacted more protective policies than the US government. Greens have come to political power in Germany, amassing seats in parliament and forming part of the cabinet in 2002. In France, José Bové and his band of militant farmers gained international headlines for challenging corporations such as McDonald’s and Monsanto. Similar movements are taking hold in India, Russia, South Africa and across Latin America. When Subcomandante Marcos led his Zapatista army of Mayan rebels into Mexico City in 2001, the 150,000 people who packed Zocalo Plaza heard Marcos deliver a fiery speech that linked Indigenous rights, economic justice and environmental protection.
All of these disparate strains of environmentalism converge on the streets of Seattle on November 30, 1999 protesting the World Trade Organization. Organic farmers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Earth First!ers and human rights campaigners, trade unionists and animal rights advocates—all united in a common desire to shut down this coven of global finance ministers. The WTO was viewed by the street marchers as the mouthpiece of a global economic system that tramples Indigenous people, exploits workers, circumvents national laws and ravages nature. Ironically, the consolidation of the corporate world had served the function of consolidating the opposition to it. The movement assembled on the streets of Seattle was a snapshot of the new face of environmentalism: internationalist in perspective, anti-corporate in tone and unified by a desire for social and ecological justice.
Dave Brower was in Seattle that week. Though weakened by cancer, there was the old fire in his eyes. His 88-year-old heart was with the street protesters. The arc of Brower’s life parallels the course of the environmental movement itself: from elitist hiking clubs to political players to militant confrontations with corporate power. Through decades of bitter battles, Brower never relinquished his optimism. The archdruid always spoke of the possibility of radical change and of the ability of popular movements to take on and defeat entrenched power.
On that misty day in Seattle, Brower pointed to the clouds of tears and said, “Our future is out there on the streets. It’s alive and well and fighting harder than ever.”