By Phillip Shabecoff
New York: Hill and Wang, 1993
352 pp., $10.95
Reviewed by Tarek Milleron
U.S. ENVIRONMENTALISM, once the domain of a few fierce naturalists, now impacts nearly every citizen’s life. What began with a focus on simple conservation grew to include health and safety, pollution and ozone destruction. Environmental issues pervade modern society. Phillip Shabecoff, in his book A Fierce Green Fire, unearths the crucibles of U.S. environmentalism, dissects its modern role and ponders its near future.
Shabecoff opens with a description of the United States as it stood in virtual pristine splendor under Native American stewardship just prior to the European invasion. Fortune seekers accompanied the community-minded to the new world, both with tools to conquer: technology and disease. After briefly documenting 200 years of European expansion into a land of seemingly inexhaustible bounty, Shabecoff turns to the intellectual birth of U.S. environmentalism.
The early conservationists of the nineteenth century, Thoreau, Emerson and George Perkins Marsh among others, while visionary (especially the widely-travelled Marsh, who had a twentieth century grasp of the human impact on nature), did not have much effect on policy. Conservation victories, such as California’s preservation of Yosemite, were few. Most land use policies meant giveaways to industry; the corrupt General Land Office, for example, gave 160 million acres to the railroads and accelerated timber giveaways in the West toward the end of the century.
Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency was the first major respite from the country’s historic wanton squandering of natural resources. In 1908, Roosevelt called the White House Conference on Conservation, marking a radical departure from his predecessors’ failure to take conservation concerns seriously. Yet even the young conservation movement was divided. Shabecoff lists four facets: the romantic love of nature best personified by John Muir; Gifford Pinchot’s tenets of efficient and wise resource use; Roosevelt and Pinchot’s emphasis on the democratic underpinnings of the commonwealth; and the growing awareness of threats to human health by industrial processes. Not until Rachel Carson did a popular and integrative environmental ethic coalesce.
Shabecoff depicts the development of environmentalism as moving in fits and starts until the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Twentieth century environmental history, as Shabecoff presents it, has been punctuated by periods of environmental action that left indelible legislative, intellectual and spiritual legacies; yet nineteenth century tendencies to ignore the abuse of nature have persisted. Mixed with the conservation efforts of FDR, the teachings of Aldo Leopold and the explosion of environmental concern in the 1960s and 1970s, have been the Hardings, "giveaway McKays" (Eisenhower’s Interior Secretary), and the Reagan-Bush environmental meat grinder.
Ronald Reagan attempted nothing less than the decapitation of environmental protection in the United States. Shabecoff concisely discusses the actor’s eight-year environmental pillage, calling the Reagan approach "an odd amalgam of libertarianism and corporate socialism." James Watt and Anne Gorsuch were the most notorious Reagan appointees, but they were just the most visible. Reagan appointed a rancher to head the Bureau of Land Management, a building contractor to head the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and allowed industry lawyers to be environmental prosecutors. Perhaps the most depraved was Assistant Secretary of Agriculture John Crowell, formerly of Louisiana Pacific, who sold millions of board feet of ancient timber in the Tongass National Forest for a few dollars per tree.
Shabecoff’s review of Reagan is all the more devastating coming after four chapters describing first the post-Carson revolution and its landmark legislation on land, wildlife and global issues. While he quickly debunks George Bush’s self-projected environmental image, Shabecoff does not discuss Bush’s presidency as piercingly as he does Reagan’s. The autocratic butchershop of the Office of Management and Budget was certainly as devastating to environmental regulations under Bush as under Reagan, and Dan Quayle’s rabidly anti-environment Council on Competitiveness deserves more than one line. Bush did sign the Clean Air Act of 1990, but only after carving it up into a shell of its predecessor; this legislation also deserves more discussion than Shabecoff gives it.
Journeying through time, Shabecoff finally focuses his attention on present-day environmentalism. Here, the author’s work departs from mere history and turns a critical eye on the cutting edge. Shabecoff criticizes those environmentalists who have discovered that they could drive BMWs and still claim the environmental mantle, adopting a virtual platform of negotiating with industry. He looks more favorably on those who have harkened back to John Muir’s moral stamina or a more open, democratic approach. Shabecoff emphasizes the relevance of social justice to environmental issues and the local battles, such as those over incinerators, that inspire whole communities to action in struggles that draw no lines between environmentalism and concern for justice.
In light of Shabecoff’s generally hard-hitting account, several omissions are noteworthy. The author does not mention the most obvious failure of U.S. environmental regulation: massive polluting by the federal government. There is no discussion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which threatens to sharply diminish citizen control over the commonwealth. Most surprising is the dearth of insight Shabecoff offers into the role of the press. More than one environmental project has lost steam simply because Shabecoff or reporters from the Washington Post or Associated Press did not attend a news conference intended to convey important information to the public. The pivotal role played by key members of the press simply highlights the lack of citizen-to-citizen communication on national issues.
Locally-generated environmentalism has always been strong in the United States. Thoreau knew Walden. Shabecoff tells of California farmers who rose up against the hydraulic mining that flooded their communities in the nineteenth century. People fight local environmental battles for decades.
Shabecoff ends his book wondering if environmentalism will permeate our institutions, economic systems and social relationships. Can national environmentalism attain the integrity of local activism? Those who share his optimistic projection would do well to heed Shabecoff’s call to integrate social justice and environmental issues.