Conservation and Environmentalism Part 3

(Apologies if this rambles a bit. It was written after a grading marathon and done mostly from memory.)

By the late 1950s to early 1960s we see a divide within the conservation movement broadly defined, with the old-school wise use conservationists diverging from the neoRomantic wilderness and preservation advocates. They agreed that “nature” needed to be protected rather than squandered, and that governmental resources should be used for this protection because the areas of concern often crossed state lines. But a new sense of urgency and a push to lock-away habitats and landscapes from development and “exploitation” had developed after WWII, drawing on the old Romantic sense of the intrinsic value of “nature” and the role of wilderness in spiritual and moral development. A book about pesticide overuse caught a lot of readers’ attention just as the Wilderness Act created new roadless and trailless parks. And then the Cuyahoga River caught fire and the Bureau of Reclamation tried to build a dam within Grand Canyon National Monument, and the “environmental movement” was born.

The mood of the public toward preservation vs. wise use seemed to be shifting. The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 pushed that shift even farther. Love it, hate it, or ignore it, the book was well written and painted a graphic depiction of what could happen if the overuse of pesticides in agriculture and urban life continued. It is still a very readable book. Many historians consider Rachel Carson’s book to be the spark that ignited the modern environmental movement. It coincided with a shift in the US economy, from industrial to managerial and consumer based, and with the start of the anti-war movement and civil rights pushes. People began talking about a new spirituality and a new search for meaning in life, including “getting back to nature.” Flaming rivers were not “natural.”

Polluted waterways had caught fire before, and this was not the first time the Cuyahoga River in Ohio ignited (that was 1888), but TV cameras caught it in 1969, and a lot of people wondered just why water was allowed to get so polluted that it could burn. Before this, the economic importance of heavy industry in Ohio and the other Great Lakes states was enough to slow down the application of environmental regulations, but not this time. People had seen enough, especially coming on the heels of the fight over Grand Canyon.

Various agencies had proposed power dams inside what became the Grand Canyon National Monument in the 1920s, and had looked a several possible sites, but had not built. However, after the construction of Boulder/Hoover and then Glen Canyon dams, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed a Grand Canyon (officially the Bridge Canyon) dam. The Sierra Club, a well-known conservation group, led the fight against the construction. It had agreed to stop protesting Glen Canyon (1966) in exchange for the scrapping of a proposed dam that would have flooded Dinosaur National Monument. Looking back, David Brower, a leading preservation activist and Sierra Club president, said that not fighting harder for Glen Canyon had been a major mistake, and one that should not be repeated.

The fight over Grand Canyon lasted from 1966-1968. The Sierra Club turned the Bureau’s own arguments against it in a spectacular full-page ad in the New York Times and other papers. The Bureau said that damming the river would allow more people to see the canyon because they could boat in instead of hiking. The ad began “Should we Flood the Sistine Chapel so we can see the Ceiling Better?” Between the heavy PR pressure, the soaring cost of such enormous public works projects, and questions about how quickly any dam in that area would fill with silt and become useless, Congress passed legislation that ended plans for dams within the national monument. The Sierra Club lost its tax-exempt status, but recovered quickly and remained a leading preservation group.

But the Sierra Club, Audubon, Ducks Unlimited, and the older conservation and preservation groups didn’t appeal to all the desires of a new generation. Wise use was still use. More than just the neoRomantic view of “nature” as healthy and worth preserving free from over-use and mis-use, the new generation saw the natural world as vital to life on earth, and industrial civilization as (at best) tainted and corrupting, at worst as evil and the source of death, misery, and the opposite of “untouched wilderness.” Native peoples became saints for “living in harmony with nature” and the commercial with the crying Indian seemed to sum up the horrors of modern excess.

New organizations appeared, in some cases more focused on specific problems, in other cases trying to supplant older groups like Audubon and the Sierra Club. In 1967 the Environmental Defense Fund came into being specifically to argue for regulation and restriction of chemical pollution. In 1970 their efforts, and the work of others, led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency with the Environmental Protection Act. 1970 was also the first Earth Day. Interestingly, NASA’s famous “big blue marble” photograph of the Earth also gets credit for making more of the general public interested in preservation, because of the feeling that Earth had no back-up.

Philosophical movements including “deep ecology” and ecofeminism came from this spirit. Deep ecology takes the neoRomantic appreciation of “nature” even farther, arguing that all living creatures and even landscapes have equal worth, and that humans should not act as masters of their environment, but recognize their place as one among equals, and that the equals need to be protected and supported, even if it requires major changes in humans’ ways of living. Ecofeminism posits a special connection between women and “nature” that has been concealed and diminished by western science and men’s ways of knowing. Women and indigenous peoples hold the key to living more in tune with “nature” and to preserving the world’s habitats and species. Proponents of these new views argued that plants and animals had legal rights that need to be respected.

Fighting in the courtroom and in the legislature, and working to sway public opinion, was not enough for some activists, and groups like the well-known Earth First! and smaller associations of like-minded activists turned to sabotage as a way to protest construction of new buildings, roads, and trails, logging and other activities that “damaged” nature. The practice became known as “monkey-wrenching” after Edward Abbey described it in his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. In his memoir about working as a park ranger in Arches National Park, Abbey talked about his unhappiness with plans to build a paved road well into the park to allow more people to see the features. Why, he wondered, should more people be encouraged to trample and gawk at a fragile and valuable landscape? Why not limit access to those who could really appreciate “nature” and who would put out the effort to learn how to camp without a trace, to hike without causing damage, and to truly understand the place instead of driving in, taking photos, leaving litter, and rushing back out? Perhaps “nature” was best served by locking people out completely, at least those people who were not pure preservationists. Abbey was not the only one to think this way, as your author can attest. In the mid-1990s I tried to go hiking near Mesa Verde, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains and was warned by forest rangers that activists had taken down all the trail signs and markers to discourage people from hiking and “spoiling” the National Forest.

Within the deep ecology mindset a feeling developed among some people that western civilization, or capitalism, or the industrial revolution was not just a problem but a positive evil. A narrative appeared in the 1970s-80 and grew stronger in the 1980s-90s that before industry/capitalism/western civilization, humans had lived in harmony and at peace with Nature. Men had respected and honored women for their connection to the land and their embodiment of Nature. Then came the fall from ecological grace, and humanity had claimed rights that it should not have, leading to disaster and potentially the destruction of all life on the planet. Ecology-as-religion, with the unstated or overt worship of the planet and all non-human, non-domesticated life became a strand of the environmental movement. It was never the largest branch, but it has attracted a number of strong devotees.

By 2000, the conservation and preservation movement had divided into dozens of different branches. The old wise use conservationists became the bad guys in the environmental literature, exploiting pristine landscapes for their own greedy benefit. Except . . . the new field of environmental history had begun to show that no human culture lived in perfect harmony with the environment, that a lot of damage had come about from ignorance and not knowing what was not known, and that the landscape was a whole lot more complicated than the simple fall from grace narrative portrayed. Some of the preservationists of the 1970s began arguing against the more extreme positions of later generations. But others went even further, arguing for the eradication of most, or all, humans for the good of the planet, or for going back to pure hunter/forager lifestyles, or for abandoning western civilization, or for pure world-government control and redistribution of all resources for the benefit of the planet and the non-human life on the planet.

The story is complicated and these three posts have greatly over-simplified the story. I’ve omitted the influence of the Soviets as both horrible warnings and as indirect supporters of the environmental movement and Earth Day. Deep ecology and ecofeminism shade into a number of different ideas, some horrible, some that align with old-style conservation. And the arguments about balancing the needs of many resource users continue. Just water conservation and river preservation books alone will fill shelves and shelves (or 1/3 of my storage unit, and I’ve not bought many titles since 2012 or so!).

I’ll post the reading list next week.


7 thoughts on “Conservation and Environmentalism Part 3

  1. The Soviets weren’t just indirect supporters. They actively funded, encouraged, and led the various Green movements and parties. Naturally, these groups opposed all progress in the West, while ignoring the environmental devastation behind the iron curtain.

    I still remember living in the city-state of West Berlin. Three Rivers, five lakes, not a single fish. Snow that came down grey and then turned black. Tap water you could light with a match. And news broadcasts of Green party demonstrators railing against the existence of relatively clean electrical powerplants in the West, and spiking trees marked individually for harvest. (And this in forests where each and every tree is tagged and cared for.)

    • The links between the European Greens and the USSR are . . . interesting. If you looked closely at the “stoplight Coalition” in Germany in the 1990s, you’d find a lot of people who appeared on the wanted-for-questioning lists in the 1960s-70s. Joschka Fischer just being one of the most famous. And yes, the proto-Greens blaming the US for acid rain destroying the Black Forest because of the soft coal burnt in the DDR (East Germany) and Poland was . . . a fascinating exercise in obfuscation.

      • I suspect that fully describing the links between the USSR and its satellites, on the one hand, and various movements in the western world (environmental, nuclear disarmament, antiwar, etc.), would take a book. Possibly several.

        • Several, and far more skill with languages than I have, plus being able to find the material in the Sovi— ahem, Russian archives. Assuming that material has not suffered an “unfortunate accident.”

      • I suspect the 25,000 pages of notes Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin smuggled out upon his defection to the UK might offer a starting point. Alas, they’re also in Russian, and access to them is controlled, IIRC. Assuming they’re legitimate, of course.

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