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Living and Writing in the Natural World

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. The resulting publicity got that test postponed, and five months later the Amchitka tests as a whole were abandoned.

In 1972 the group coalesced around the name Greenpeace and added direct action to stop the slaughter of marine mammals—whales, and harp seal pups—to their antinuclear activities. Nearly half a century later, the same determination to thrust themselves in the midst of struggles continues, as shown in Seattle in the massive May and June, 2015 gathering of Greenpeace “kayaktivists” blocking Shell Petroleum ships from embarking on drilling voyages to the Arctic. Their members dangled from Portland’s St. John’s Bridge in July, 2015 to further block the departure of Shell drilling rigs. These harassing actions were widely acknowledged as contributing factors in Shell’s stunning decision in October, 2015 to abandon their plans for Arctic drilling, after having invested $7.5 billion in the project.

Greenpeace today has active groups in 40 countries. In India, Greenpeace joined villagers protesting the proposed Mahan coal mine project in 2010, which would destroy a biodiversity-rich forest of 1182 hectares. Greenpeace member Priya Pillai was forcibly removed from a plane in May 2015 to prevent her from testifying before British Members of Parliament on the Mahan mine and the coal industry in India.

When massive explosions rocked a chemical storage facility in Tianjin, China in the late summer of 2015, it was Greenpeace who knew the range of materials stored there, and what dangers they might present to the early responders. As these examples indicate, the organization now features education, research, and action on toxic chemicals, biodiversity, and sustainable agriculture in addition to its initial areas of antinuclear campaigns and protection of marine life.

By its interests and actions, Greenpeace’s fully three-pillared, Earth Wisdom approach is clear. Its mission statement and website proclaim “We ‘bear witness’ to environmental destruction in a peaceful, non-violent manner. We use non-violent confrontation to raise the level and quality of public debate...We defend the natural world and promote peace by investigating, exposing and confronting environmental abuse, championing environmentally responsible solutions, and advocating for the rights and well-being of all people...Our investigations expose environmental crimes and the people, companies and governments that need to be held responsible...Working together, we stop the destruction of the environment using peaceful direct action and creative communication.” Greenpeace today is the strongest, most influential of the radical environmental organizations.

One of the early Greenpeace activists, Paul Watson, left the organization in 1977 to outfit a ship he christened Sea Shepherd, and the following year sailed to the ice floes of Eastern Canada to interfere with the annual killing of white-furred baby harp seals. Watson and his comrades spray-painted the pups with an indelible dye, thus rendering them useless as commercial fur, and saving their lives. Also in 1978 he tracked down a notorious illegal whaling ship (ironically named Sierra) in a Portuguese harbor and audaciously rammed it, which along with several further incidents put it out of commission. From these flamboyant beginnings the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has continued its direct action to stop illegal whaling and the destruction of marine creatures and habitat.

Sea Shepherd unabashedly proclaims its Gaiacentric stance. “Sea Shepherd operates outside the petty cultural chauvinism of the human species. Our clients are whales, dolphins, seals, turtles, sea-birds, and fish. We represent their interests,” proclaims its website. “We are pro-Ocean and work in the interests of all life on Earth.”

Shortly after the appearance of Sea Shepherd, an even more explicitly Gaiacentric radical environmental group appeared: Earth First!, formed in 1979 (or 1980, in some accounting) by David Foreman and others. Inspired in part by Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang, Earth First! engages in civil disobedience, nonviolent sabotage, and “monkeywrenching” to interfere with commercial exploitation of the natural world. Preventing access to old-growth forests, tree-sitting, and tree-spiking were some early Earth First! activities, with undoubted influence on forest preservation in the Pacific Northwest, particularly.

Today’s web-page declaration of its principles is worth quoting in full, as the clearest example of an environmental organization explicitly embracing the hidden Muir’s full Earth Wisdom viewpoint:

“No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth. The very future of life on Earth is in danger. Human activities—from hunting to habitat destruction—have already driven countless species to extinction, and the process is only accelerating. The destruction of the Earth and its sustainable indigenous cultures has led to tragedy in every corner of the globe.

“Meanwhile, scientists have confirmed what indigenous cultures have taught for thousands of years: all forms of life are vitally connected. Removing even a single strand from the web of life produces a widening ripple of catastrophe. On a more spiritual level, Earth First!ers understand that we can never be the healthy humans that we were meant to be in a world without wilderness, clean air and the howling of wolves under the moon.

“It is not enough to ask politicians and corporations to destroy less wilderness. We need to preserve it all, to recreate lost habitats and reintroduce extirpated predators. We need to stop and reverse the poisoning of our air, water and soil, as well as the modification of life’s genetic code. It is not enough to oppose the construction of new dams and developments. It is time to free our shackled rivers and restore the land.

“Earth First! formed in 1979, in response to an increasingly corporate, compromising and ineffective environmental community. It is not an organization, but a movement. There are no ‘members’ of EF!, only Earth First!ers. We believe in using all of the tools in the toolbox, from grassroots and legal organizing to civil disobedience and monkeywrenching. When the law won’t fix the problem, we put our bodies on the line to stop the destruction. Earth First!’s direct-action approach draws attention to the crises facing the natural world, and it saves lines.

“Guided by a philosophy of deep ecology, Earth First! does not accept a human-centered worldview of ‘nature for people’s sake.’ Instead, we believe that life exists for its own sake, that industrial civilization and its philosophy are anti-Earth, anti-woman and anti-liberty. Our structure is non-hierarchical, and we reject highly paid ‘professional staff’ and formal leadership.

“To put it simply, the Earth must come first.”

Certainly there is plenty to inspire and alarm in this ringing Earth First! manifesto. This is the 2015 version; there was more to alarm in earlier versions. David Foreman himself left the group in 1980 after working within it for a decade, concerned about the tendencies at that time toward Marxism and anarchism. Foreman cofounded The Rewilding Institute in 2003 to focus on combating extinctions. In 2011 he authored Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife, arguing that human overpopulation is the most important contributor to loss of biodiversity, a theme further developed in the 2015 edition retitled Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World.

Others found Earth First! not radical enough. In 1992 the Earth Liberation Front appeared, modeled on the earlier Animal Liberation Front, and quickly established itself as the most anarchic and radical environmental group, happily accepting the description of ecoterrorism as it burned down ski resorts and SUVdealerships in 1998 and 1999. The violence embraced by Earth Liberation Front proved to be self-defeating, as its activists began informigng on each other to decrease jail terms, and charges, counter-charges, and recriminations flew about.

What would Muir think of radical environmentalism? Certainly he would be repelled by the arson and violence of the Earth Liberation Front, and disavow its approach completely. But the fiery young Muir of A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf and My First Summer in the Sierras would likely be fully receptive to the energetic Gaiacentrism and full Earth Wisdom of Greenpeace, the Sea Shepherds, and the Earth First!ers.

As we have seen, however, the mature Muir of the 1890s was perfectly content to work with the power structure when possible, and to hide the private Gaiacentrism of his journals in order to optimize chances for success in his environmental battles.

I suspect the older Muir, particularly when it became apparent that the battle for Hetch Hetchy was lost, would again become receptive to the approach of the radical environmentalists. We have seen that Muir saw environmental battles against commercial interests as good against evil. “Fortunately wrong cannot last, soon or late it must fall back home to Hades, while some compensating good must surely follow,” he wrote to the paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn in January of 1914. The allusion to hell was repeated in the previously-quoted letter to Stanford professor Vernon Kellogg regarding the defeat of the battle for Hetch Hetchy: “It is hard to bear; it goes to my very heart. But in spite of Satan and Co. some sort of compensation must surely come out of even this dark damn-dam-damnation.”

Greenpeace, Sea Shepherds, and Earth First! are still active today, attracting legions of devoted participants in their direction action, though not the hundreds of thousands of “members” of mainline environmental groups. And they continue to make their mark, particularly Greenpeace. Yet for all their expertise, their daring, their courageous willingness to insert themselves before bulldozers and oil tankers, somehow the radical environmental movements did not gain widespread support from the world’s rulers or the general public in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps this was due to their very disdain for respectability, as well as their espousal of a Gaiacentrism not yet widely shared. The willingness of many radical environmentalists to break the law in nonviolent actions certainly alienates many, rightly or wrongly.

In short, radical environmentalism’s actions and philosophy were simply ahead of the times in the 1970s and 1980s (as Muir had judged would be the case in the early 1900s). Yet we shall see, in chapter 30, that the issue of climate change has dramatically changed the perception of many worldwide; today the radical environmentalists’ actions are being adopted by others, particularly those in what journalist Naomi Klein describes as the “Blockadia” movement of indigenous and peasant peoples protecting their homelands from destructive mines and oil operations.

The 1980s, far from seeing a spread of radical environmentalism, were marked instead by general movement in the opposite direction, mirroring American society in general. This was the decade of Ronald Reagan, after all, and the glorification of capitalism, free markets, and corporations. Some in the mainline environmental groups began to tire of the ceaseless legal and legislative struggles to spot and challenge threats to the environment, the constant harassing of offending corporate and industrial entities. Surely it must be possible, they reasoned, to bring the corporations on board, to persuade them to tailor their activities to aid rather than threaten the environment. Thus was born the pro-business wing of the environmental movement.

Soon environmentalists were comfortably walking the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. cultivating “market opportunities” for environmentalism. It must be admitted that there had been an early history of environmentalists looking wistfully to powerful men of commerce and politics for help in achieving goals. John Muir himself cultivated friendships with railroad tycoon Edward Harriman, two presidents of the United States, and many D.C. veterans. While occasionally these contacts were helpful--particularly Harriman--most of them were not. As Muir biographer Donald Worster observes, all of Muir’s rich and influential friends “either stayed indifferent or went over to the other side” in the Hetch Hetchy battle. In the end, Muir and the environmental movement drew their lesson: the economic and political elite, generally, were not friends of the environment.

Until the 1980s. Perhaps the most notable and self-congratulatory of the pro-business Big Green groups was (and is) the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Back in its earliest days, the EDF was a collection of zealous lawyers operating under the rule “Sue the bastards”; they were instrumental in many of the striking achievements of the 1970s. But in 1986 Fred Krupp assumed the leadership of the EDF (which he still holds) and guided it in a different direction altogether, to much fanfare. “The new environmentalism does not accept ‘either-or’ as inevitable” he grandly announced in a national advertisement. The EDF would form partnerships with corporations—“coalitions of former enemies”—and show them the financial benefits of going green. “Sue the bastards” now became “Create markets for the bastards.” Soon the EDF was busily engaged with Walmart, McDonald’s, FedEx, and AT&T creating profitable “solutions” to environmental degradation.

One can easily imagine what the hidden Muir would have thought of this peculiar strategy of engaging with those who lift their eyes “to the Almighty Dollar.” So much for the eternal struggle between good and evil!

The collaborations between a few mainline environmental groups and Big Business consisted largely of corporations adopting practices marginally less destructive to the environment than in the past, which were then balleyhooed as “saving” the earth. An example is the saga of natural gas, which emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s as the “good” fossil fuel compared to coal. Natural gas would be a “bridge fuel” permitting less reliance on dirty energy sources as a transition was imagined being made to sustainable sources such as wind and solar. Never mind that the transition always receded into the misty future.

Even the Sierra Club joined the trend, its then-director, Carl Pope, lobbying Congress with natural gas extractor Chesapeake Energy’s CEO Aubrey McClendon. It was later revealed that Chesapeake Energy had funneled millions in donations to the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, Pope had also partnered with Clorox to lend the club’s logo to a line of “green” cleaning products. All this as individual Sierra Club chapters (and other groups, often ad-hoc) were engaged in pitched battles at the local level to prevent the increasingly-favored method of extracting natural gas—hydraulic fracturing—from transforming their beloved countryside into an ugly patchwork of leaking wells, spilled fuel, contaminated water supplies, and the constant screech of mammoth machinery and trucks.

Greenpeace and the other radical environmental groups, of course, resisted the lure of cozying up to corporations, and the pleasant wearing of suits and silk ties. Some among the mainline environmental organizations also held true, including David Bower’s Friends of the Earth, and Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco.

But the EDF and some other groups remained wedded to the pro-business strategy, busily engaged in the commodification of pollution in much-publicized market opportunities dreamed up over long lunches with legislators and “regulators.” As journalist Naomi Klein describes it, “Rather than advancing policies that treat greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants demanding clear, enforceable regulations that would restrict emission and create the conditions for a full transition to renewables, these groups have pushed convoluted market-based schemes that have treated greenhouses gases as late-capitalist abstractions to be traded, bundled, speculated upon, and moved around the globe like currency or subprime debt.”

Thus by the late 1980s Muir’s environmental movement had expanded worldwide, and also fragmented to the right and left, with the pro-business wing seemingly the more robust. But the picture was about to change dramatically, as scientists began to speak of an alarming new threat to the earth. The issue of climate change was about to transform the environmental movement, even as the phenomenon itself began its slow but implacable transformation of the planet.

Next week: Part 4. Confusion and Dismay 2000-2012: "Is Earth F**ked?"

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