Beginning with America’s first explorers and settlers, Shabecoff records the early response to “the new world.” Initially, America was called “the garden,” and historians became accustomed to noting that mankind would now have “a second chance.” We could live in Eden where we could experience an abundance that was almost inconceivable. The waters teemed with fish, the flight of birds darkened the sky and the forests appeared to be boundless. As a consequence, our early settlers ravaged and slaughtered with abandon. Most pioneers believed that the birds, wild life and timber would never diminish.
A Fierce Green Fire focuses on the last 50 years of growing alarm and divides the current crisis in five categories (conservation, pollution, alternative ecology, the death of the rain forests and climate change). Beginning with the first efforts to “conserve” a portion of the rapidly vanishing forests, Shabecoff identifies the beginning of organizations that struggled against overwhelming odds to stop the building of dams in national parks. Especially noteworthy is David Brower and the Sierra Club, who fought to save the Grand Canyon. The Sierra Club’s battle was only partially successful, but Brower managed to establish a hard core of resistance that survives to this day. Eventually, an antagonistic government forced Brower to resign; however, he found a place in other environmental groups and continued the fight.
From the beginning, the greatest resistance to conservation has proved to be the government which is controlled by the major exploiters of America’s natural resources: business and industry. With the exception of a few leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, there was considerable confusion about what “nature” was. Two of the most influential spokesmen for conserving the natural world had opposing reasons. Theodore Pinchot, the first chief of the U. S. Forest Service, perceived nature’s purpose to be to serve mankind, thus he advocated conserving nature so that we might better enjoy its resources. However, the naturalist and mystic John Muir felt that the natural world had its own reason for existing apart from mankind. Pinchot’s philosophy prevailed, of course. Muir died, a defeated man, but many of his ideas have become a vital part of modern environmental movements.
The growing threat of pollution finally exploded into national attention with the Love Canal episode (1978). However, in the face of mounting evidence, government agencies continued to deny the request of an outraged community to be relocated. Over half of the children born on Love Canal had birth defects, many died as a direct result of air and water pollution. Government agencies actually claimed that the excessive number of deaths and defective births was due to “random groups of people who choose to live in the target area who had defective genes. Other flash points, such as the murder of Chico Mendes in Brazil, indicated that the environment was becoming an international issue. Mendes fought to stop the spread of cattle ranching since it replaced the rainforest (and the rubber trees which provided the natives with a means of survival). Despite heroic efforts, this devastation continues and predictions indicate that most of Brazil’s rain forests will be reduced to sterile desert within the next 30 years.
Despite the blatant resistance of government agencies, the environmental movement scored one major victory. The first Earth Day (1970) immediately demonstrated that there was a rising tide of concern — and in some instances, outrage — about the worst environmental abuses: Three Mile Island, the Exxon-Valdez disaster, the dangers of lead paint, the burying of radioactive waste (frequently on Native American land), the shocking exposures of whale and dolphin “harvests,” acid rain, the steady increase of endangered species, strip mining and the ozone layer.
All of this bore evidence that America was in the midst of an orgy of devastation. In retrospect, it now appears that the Reagan and Bush administrations are largely responsible for the most arrogant and self-serving decisions. Certainly, the appointment of James Watt as Secretary of Interior immediately indicated that Watt was perceived as a “leader of a counter revolution.” Watt managed to reverse the environmental movement. A near-comical figure, Watt attributed many of his decisions as doing “what God wants.” He readily transferred millions of acres of forest to the control of private business. An anti-Watt movement, supported by Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club, gathered millions of signatures demanding his removal. In time, his outrages began to make even the Reagan Administration nervous, and this eventually led to his dismissal.
However, through two decades of turmoil, Earth Day continued to grow. It is especially heartening to note that the growing awareness of the public led to a kind of grassroots activism which quickly demonstrated that many of the most destructive environmental abuses were buried under activities that now appear to be covert and premeditated. (A daunting example of a “secret” plan to bury toxic waste was revealed in Robeson County, N.C. Upon learning of this plan, the Lumbee Indians immediately launched a movement to oppose a toxic waste plant.
It also appears that the Robeson County incident is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, a study conducted by the United Church of Christ for Racial Justice revealed that “African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans disproportionately lived in communities with a dangerous concentration of hazardous waste sites. Ninety percent of African Americans live in areas with uncontrolled waste sites.” What does this mean? It means that this is no accident. It is calculated and intentional. It is environmental racism.
If you have not encountered either this book or the film, A Fierce Green Fire, let me urge you to do so. As one of the Greenpeace activists noted regarding the plight of the polar bear, “When you watch that distraught bear, standing perplexed and frightened on his diminishing iceberg, you should be aware that you are on the ice floe with him. You may well share his fate.”
A Fierce Green Fire by Philip Shabecoff. Island Press, 2003. 343 pages.