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Living and Writing in the Natural World

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

Not a victory, but a start--barely

Part 7. Hope Blossoms: Paris, December 2015

The 2014 U.N. climate conference had asked the world’s nations to submit by October, 2015 their pledges (INDCs, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to form the platform of the much-anticipated December, 2015 climate summit in Paris. These pledges would be a test of how seriously the world’s leaders were listening to the data and predictions of virtually every scientific body in the world, and the pleas of climate change activists.

In the scientific and environmental establishment, at least, the 2015 summit was considered the last opportunity to craft an international consensus that would avert global catastrophe. Optimism was not widespread, given the utter failure to reach such agreement in every other preceding summit. Klein’s hoped-for mass movement had not mushroomed in the year since her book’s publication, nor were there any signs of Pope Francis’ hoped-for “ecological conversion” occurring throughout the world.  Read More 

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

The author of environmental encyclical Laudato Si'

Part 6. Dawn of Hope 2015: Pope Francis’ Encyclical

Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Francis as his apostolic name set the tone for his papacy, reminding all of the 13th century friar who wrote canticles to “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” and talked to songbirds and wolves. The name also presaged the contents of his summer 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. Certainly the document, an official church teaching, had been the subject of debate for months before its issuance. Environmentalists worldwide eagerly awaited it; conservative Catholics, particularly in America, denounced it in advance, sternly advising Francis to “stick to religion, and we’ll stick to politics,” in the words of Republican (and Catholic) then-Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner.

When the encyclical finally arrived in June 2015, it proved to be everything that had been hoped and feared—and more. Francis’ analysis was thorough and in depth; the proposed solutions ranged from the theoretical to the practical, sparing no institution or entrenched power. The document was radical, and spawned a torrent of shocked criticism Read More 

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

The target of the Sierra Club's invigorated "Beyond Coal" fight

Part 5. Clarity 2012-2014: Sierra Club, 350.org, Naomi Klein

The confusion and dismay characterizing the environmental movement in the first decade of the new century gradually yielded in the several years following 2012 to clarity on the depth of the crisis and a general approach to its possible resolution. Partly this was just due to the devastating climate-change scenarios being projected; the coming world they foresaw was so terrifying, so clearly unacceptable, that a positive response was wrung out of the dismay. Partly the emerging clarity was due to the increasing attention that the newly assertive scientific world demanded from governmental leaders and policy-makers. The attention of the world was, finally, being caught by those chronicling climate change and its consequences.

Another source of attention was a series of long-running confrontations pitting peasants and indigenous peoples against extractive operations, which peaked in 2013. Because these skirmishes usually result in road blockades (by either the protesters or the authorities), the phenomenon has been labeled “Blockadia...not a specific location on a map but rather  Read More 

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

Earth, newly imperilled

Part 4. Confusion and Dismay 2000-2012: “Is Earth F**ked?”

In June of 1988 the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, testified before a congressional hearing that the earth’s climate was threatened by a buildup of heat-trapping “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere. The phenomenon was not newly-discovered; for several decades climatologists at Hawaii’s Moana Loa Observatory had tracked steadily rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and many scientists had warned of its effect on atmospheric temperatures. By 1988 sufficient data was available to make a credible case (to scientists, at least) that “greenhouse gases” were changing climate with serious, deleterious consequences to humanity.

Thus was engaged the most serious threat to the continuation of the human presence on earth that our species has encountered in its 200,000-year tenure on the planet. The response would not be encouraging. Read More 

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

Greenpeace "kayaktivists" in Seattle block Shell oil rig's departure to Arctic

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

The same 1970s that produced the explosion of environmental legislation from the U.S. Congress also produced the first realization, among some, that not nearly enough was going to be accomplished using the approaches of the mainline environmental organizations. Greenpeace, Sea Shepherds, and Earth First! earned the designation of Environmental Radicalism through their groups’ espousal of the Gaiacentric, hidden Muir, and their brash bodies-on-the-line activism—sometimes legal, sometimes not. They were the first to channel the hidden Muir, though it would not lead to a larger awakening.

In 1971 a loose band of environmentalists in Vancouver, Canada decided to adopt confrontational direct action to stop nuclear testing. Bob Hunter and his comrades hired a fishing boat to motor them directly into Aleutian waters near Amchitka, where a nuclear test was scheduled to detonate.  Read More 

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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.”  Read More 

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

The Father of the Environmental Movement

Part 1. The Battle for Hetch Hetchy, 1902-1913

John Muir came relatively late in life to what became, later, “the environmental cause.” Full of love though he was for the natural world, it was not until 1889, when he was 51 years old, that he was finally persuaded by one determined friend to seriously take up cudgels, and battle to protect and preserve his beloved realm. Prior to this, his abundant energy had simply been directed to other areas. During the 1870s he was exploring California’s Sierra Nevada and other wild areas; the 1880s saw him raising his family and working very hard at the Martinez orchard and ranch to secure their financial security.

To be sure, Muir’s journals reflect early and lasting disdain for “Lord Man” and the general assumption the natural world exists for his sake, particularly Lord Man's constant readiness to sacrifice Nature for monetary profit. Muir had groused for decades about the devastation wrought by sheep (“hooved locusts”) grazing in meadows of the High Sierra. He had penned a letter  Read More 

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A Jubilee of Yosemite Waterfalls

"The might torrent of snowy, cometized water..."

“Today the (Yosemite) falls were in terrible power. I gazed upon the mighty torrent of snowy, cometized water, whether in or out of the body I can hardly tell—such overwhelming displays of power and beauty almost bring the life out of our feeble tabernacle. I shouted until I was exhausted and sore with excitement…
(The mountain waters of Yosemite Creek at the brow of the falls) “finally moved over the brink with songs that go farther into the substance of our being than ever was touched by man-made harmonies—songs that bear pure heaven in every note. The fleecy, spiritualized waters take the form of mashed and woven comets, going with a grace that casts poor mortals into an agony of joy.”

--John Muir, 16 January 1870

If, like Muir a century ago, you’re an admirer of waterfalls and the surge of wonder they provoke, then a springtime pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley is a must. California’s past four years of drought destroyed the annual spectacle, but this winter we managed average rainfall. Though not a banner year like Muir’s 1870, the spring snow melt was producing quite a show. And my buddy Al and I were there,  Read More 

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Lewis and Clark in the Cretaceous

Redwoods and alders on Big River

Last weekend my buddy Al and I found ourselves in a Lewis-and-Clark drill, our obstacles posed by a forest that had existed a hundred million years before humans appeared on the scene to challenge it with their puny kayaks.

We had joined old friends of Al’s from his Mendocino days, Don and wife Petra, and were paddling the Big River, putting in 10 miles upstream of its joining Mendocino Bay at the coast. Nestled in a Coastal redwood forest, the north fork of the river here was relatively shallow and narrow, and the swift spring-swollen waters shoved us into Red alder thickets at each of the many bends in the stream, the trees eagerly reaching out to the sunshine mid-stream.  Read More 

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A "People's Tour" of Marin and Napa counties

China Camp village on San Pablo Bay

The entrance to San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate is narrow, fog-shrouded, and laced with ship-ripping rocks. No wonder all the original European explorers of the Pacific Coast missed it, from Cabrillo in 1542 to Vizcaino in 1602 and others a further century on. Once you’re in, though, what a series of immense, sheltered bays! San Francisco Bay proper to the south; San Pablo Bay to the north; and to the east, beyond the even-narrower Carquinez Strait, blossoms Suisin Bay. This third bay is the life-blood of the whole system, as it conveys massive (originally) flows of fresh water from California’s two mightiest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, into the three bays via the Delta.

As Al and I drove south through the Sacramento Valley, two kayaks strapped atop the car, our goal was a campground at the edge of the salt marshes of San Pablo Bay—specifically China Camp State Park,  Read More 

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