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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

"All the other torches were lighted from his."

Part 2. Early Victories 1960s, 1970s: Cleaning Up America

Considering the disastrous conclusion of Muir’s battle to save the Hetch Hetchy valley from San Francisco water interests, what can we say of his legacy? John Muir left dozens of national parks, national monuments, and forest preserves created by his efforts and those he inspired. He left his name on scores of mountains, glaciers, high passes, groves, and schools.

But a further legacy stands above all the others, a legacy that has changed world history. The scope, intensity, and tactics of the 1902-1913 battle to save Hetch Hetchy created the modern environmental movement, and John Muir, more than any other single person, marshaled that battle. As publisher Robert Underwood Johnson put it in his eulogy to Muir: “To this (movement) many persons and organizations contributed, but Muir’s writings and enthusiasm were the chief forces that inspired the movement. All the other torches were lighted from his.”

Even before the battle over Hetch Hetchy was joined, Muir was clear about the forces that threatened the vast areas of exceptional natural beauty with which America was blessed. “These temple destroyers, devotees of a ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” He despaired in 1909 to John Burroughs over “our dollar-seeking, dollar-sick nation,” and the widespread materialism of the day. Always the natural world has “been subject to attack by despoiling gainseekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial.”

He cast the struggle between dollar-seeking, ravaging commercial interests and the natural world in stark terms. A decade before Hetch Hetchy, he declared “The battle we have fought, and are still fighting for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it.”

At the end, as Hetch Hetchy’s trees were being felled and its waters polluted, Muir saw it as but one setback in a much larger struggle. “It is hard to bear; it goes straight to my very heart. But in spite of Satan & Co. some sort of compensation must surely come out of even this dark Damn-dam-damnation,” he wrote to Stanford professor Vernon Kellogg. To Robert Underwood Johnson he consoled himself with the comment that “The conscience of the whole country has been aroused from sleep, and from outrageous evil compensating good in some form must surely come.”

The brutal struggle between those who destroy the natural world to profit from it, and those who protect God’s beautiful creation, would not end with Hetch Hetchy, Muir realized. “I suppose this will go on as part of the universal battle between right and wrong,” he foresaw. Indeed, we can trace the outlines of this “eternal conflict” in the following century.

In the two decades following its 1892 founding, Muir’s Sierra Club had been joined by only one other national organization in its efforts to protect the natural world. The National Audubon Society was founded in Boston in 1905, and was in many ways the East Coast equivalent of the Sierra Club, focusing initially on one issue (the protection of birdlife), yet branching out to other closely-related issues. The protracted struggle to save Hetch Hetchy in the first decade of the 20th century, however, jump-started the concern for the environment into the national consciousness, from the grassroots level of common citizens and groups such as Women’s Clubs, to the halls of Congress.

Soon after 1914 other organizations appeared, focusing on various aspects of the struggle. In 1919 the National Parks Conservation Association was formed, to assist the growing national parks system Muir had done so much to create, and which openly acknowledged him as its “Father.” In 1922 the Izaak Walton League appeared, focusing on fishing. The Wilderness society followed in 1935, and the National Wildlife Federation a year later. The Defenders of Wildlife was formed in 1946, The Nature Conservancy in 1951 and the World Wildlife Federation (U.S.) a decade later. Thus by the middle of the 20th century a healthy diversity of organizations had joined the Sierra Club in efforts to preserve the natural world from the ravages of commercial exploitation, and to curb the worst excesses of human activity upon the environment.

An early decision regarding strategy by Muir and the Sierra Club in the struggles to establish Yosemite as a national park and save Hetch Hetchy proved critical in shaping the history and outlook of the burgeoning environmental movement, which has followed the early lead for a century. Campaigns have emphasized preserving the beauty and vitality of the natural world because of its benefits to humans in recreation, health, and serenity. But Muir’s early rejection of the anthropocentric worldview, and his ringing claim that humans were kin with all creatures, not superior to them and certainly not destined to exert dominion over them—what we may call his Gaiacentric worldview--has been studiously avoided, from the Hetch Hetchy battle until the present.

Several factors, conscious and unconscious, underlay this decision to base the environmental movement upon a human-centered view rather than Muir’s earth-centered view. One was simply the publishing history of Muir. Although he published five books during his lifetime, material containing passages revealing Muir’s Gaiacentrism are found only in his journals, the private, uninhibited outbursts penned in the midst of his many adventures in the wilderness. These journals were largely unpublished during Muir’s lifetime. Thus the general public, and probably most of his Sierra Club colleagues, were ignorant of his Gaiacentrism, and of the existence of a “hidden Muir” holding these views.

More importantly, however, Muir at the time of the Hetch Hetchy campaign--and environmental organizations since--shied away from publicizing the Gaiacentric aspect of his thought because its radical new worldview of the place of humans in the world is extraordinarily challenging. Environmental fundraising and campaigning is a delicate pursuit: you must alarm and inspire, but not alienate or unduly shock your potential supporters.

Bluntly put, it would likely be bad for business to trumpet Muir’s view that “I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears.” The hidden, robustly Gaiacentric Muir challenges the entire Western anthropocentric worldview, from the pre-Socratic Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things” to the present. That challenge surely would be too much for 19th century America to readily digest--and possibly 21st century as well. Best to keep the “hidden Muir” safely out of sight.

Or so Muir, the Sierra Club, and virtually every environmental organization since (with a few exceptions to be explored in the next installment) have judged, as they emphasized the benefits to humans of wilderness preservation, and the costs to humans of pollution. This approach might be termed “high, informed” anthropocentrism, as opposed to the “low, commercial” anthropocentrism exemplified by logging and sheep-grazing. Thus the Gaiacentric heart of Muir’s worldview was ignored, and environmental organizations have been content to retain the anthropocentric view, exerting their efforts to move it from a low, commercial to a high, informed state, much as Muir and the Sierra Club did in the Hetch Hetchy campaign. This was viewed not as a betrayal of Muir’s worldview, but merely a strategic approach to secure what good could be realistically hoped for.

As a result, environmental activity for the century since Muir’s death has broadly consisted of campaigns founded upon only certain aspects of Muir’s thinking: the earth is a valid, important, life-giving focus for humans which must be preserved, and females are important, with valuable roles to play in society--and in the fight to preserve the natural world. Though this was not Muir’s full worldview, it was plenty to spark remarkable achievements.

The federal-level National Parks System was officially created by Woodrow Wilson in 1916, with Muir disciple Stephen Mather at its head. The steady addition of new national parks, monuments, seashores, rivers, and preserves has resulted today in over 400 sites encompassing 84 million acres in 50 states and territories. America’s example has spread abroad; currently there are some 1200 national parks and preserves worldwide in more than a hundred countries (though the resources to protect and maintain parks and preserves throughout the world varies substantially).
The Sierra Club and other groups have led resistance to the inevitable threats to these places of special natural beauty: dams proposed for Yellowstone (1920), the Kings Canyon region (1923), Glacier Park (1948), the Grand Canyon (1950), and Dinosaurs National Monument (1956) were all—unlike Hetch Hetchy—foiled by vigorous opposition from the array of environmental organizations.

A half century of educating the American public and its leaders about the human benefits of environmental protection and preservation doubtless contributed to the nationwide reaction to Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring and the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The mounting environmental concerns culminated in the 1960s and 1970s with new organizations (The Environmental Defense Fund in 1967, Friends of the Earth in 1969, and Natural Resources Defense Council in1970), and the first Earth Day in 1970.

But most spectacular was the ground-breaking array of Federal legislation: 1964’s Wilderness Preservation system, 1968’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, 1970’s Clean Air Act, 1970’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1972’s Clean Water Act (amended in 1977), and 1973’s Endangered Species Act.

These fruits of the 1960s and 1970s were epic victories which continue to affect the air, water, and public lands of America today, producing healthier cities and permitting millions of Americans to visit and enjoy the country’s hundreds of preserved natural sites. It is a record and an achievement to be proud of. Building on these victories, America’s mainline environmental organizations continued to flourish. Their lobbying efforts in state capitols and Washington D.C. grew apace in scope and sophistication in the last decades of the 20th century.

And their membership rolls grew also. Half a decade into the new 21st century, five organizations boasted more than half a million members: The World Wildlife Fund (U.S.) at an incredible 1,200,000 supporters; The Nature Conservancy at 972,000; the Sierra Club at 736,000; the National Wildlife Federation at 650,000; and the National Audubon Society at 550,000. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Parks Conservation Association each counted more than a quarter million members. Clearly, the environmental cause in America was booming.

If any one man could illustrate this period of phenomenal growth, it would be Californian David Brower, who first established himself as an exceptional mountaineer. Brower and the legendary Norman Clyde spent much of the 1930s in epic climbing trips, establishing first ascents of scores of peaks in the Sierra Nevada and North America. When World War II began, Brower trained mountain brigades for several years, then himself led Allied troops in the mountains of Italy in the war’s later stages.

After the war, Brower became associated with the Sierra Club in official capacities, editing its journal and directing its annual High Trips in the late 1940s. He was elected to the post of Executive Director in 1952, and held the position until 1969, during which time the influence and stature of the club skyrocketed. By the late 1960s the Sierra Club was active nationwide and an acknowledged leader in the environmental movement, helping create the groundwork for the incredible surge of environmental awareness and legislation during the 1970s.

Brower constantly pushed the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors to expand its environmental efforts well beyond wilderness preservation, which along with financial strains created tension between him and the Board. In 1969 the Board relieved Brower of his position. Brower soon founded Friends of the Earth, an organization that embraced a wide definition of environmental concerns, fighting against human overpopulation, the Alaska pipeline, the Supersonic Transport, Agent Orange in Vietnam, nuclear power, and Reagan appointee James Watts in the Department of the Interior.

Soon Friends of the Earth became international, with chapters throughout the world coordinating an extraordinary spectrum of efforts. After a decade as its Director, Brower retired in 1979, his active engagement in far-flung causes having again created tensions between him and an organization’s Board of Directors.
In 1982 Brower founded Earth Island Institute, which was designed as an incubator to encourage innovative environmental projects. Among its many successful spin-offs was Rainforest Action Network, which was soon a preeminent protector of tropical rainforest by various means, including the actual purchase of thousands of acres.

Throughout his long and influential career in the American environmental movement, Brower was particularly adamant in his opposition to nuclear power and to human overpopulation. “Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us,” he maintained.

The success of America’s environmental movement spread throughout the planet in the latter decades of the 20th century, with many such organizations being founded, particularly in Europe. Virtually every country in the world today has home-grown environmental organizations or chapters of worldwide organizations.

To what extent has the concern for the environment that John Muir galvanized actually diffused to the level of common citizens worldwide? Consider the Goldman Environmental Prize, $175,000 awarded yearly since 1990 to each of six individuals from the Earth’s six inhabited land masses (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, South & Central America, and Oceanic Islands). As its website proclaims, “The Prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk. The Goldman Prize views ‘grassroots’ leaders as those involved in local efforts, where positive change is created through community or citizen participation in the issues that affect them…Goldman Prize recipients focuses on protecting endangered ecosystems and species, combating destructive development projects, promoting sustainability, influencing environmental policies and striving for environmental justice. Prize recipients are often women and men from isolated villages or inner cities who chose to take great personal risks to safeguard the environment.” More than 79 countries have seen their citizens, females and males, thus rewarded and encouraged, with the honored individuals ranging from peasants and tribal members to engineers and journalists.

By any number of measures the environmental movement seemed to be thriving in America and throughout the world in the early 21st century. The century-old decision to ignore the Gaiacentric, hidden Muir seemed an acceptable one. But beneath the facade of success, roiling controversies rocked the environmental movement. It had begun on the left in the 1970s, on the right in the 1980s, reached the crisis stage with the issue of global warming beginning in the 1990s, and culminated in the proclaimed “Death of Environmentalism” in 2004.

The hidden Muir began to stir, and would be appealed to by the second decade of the 21st century, by no less than a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church--after half a century of turmoil in the environmental movement.

Next week: Part 3. Fragmentation 1970-2000: Radicals and Men in Suits



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