Talking About “A Moment On Earth”

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amoeIt’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that some ideas are easier to get published than others. As an environmentalist, you may have at least heard of Losing Ground, a tough critique of the big U.S. environmental groups. But the average citizen must navigate the swells of environmental literature (and environmental politics) without even a vague insider’s sense of the rumors, jokes, and daily gossip of the green movement. If they know the new books at all, they know them by advertising and media “buzz,” and are likely to have noticed only A Moment On The Earth.

Losing Ground is published by an academic press, and in bookstores is generally tucked almost invisibly within daunting stacks brimming with “new nonfiction.” This is hardly the fate of Gregg Easterbrook’s book, which was expensively acquired, aggressively promoted, and received by talk-show hosts, op-ed editors, and other assorted opinion-makers with almost abject eagerness. Why the stark contrast? Has it anything to do with, say, politics? With the mood of the country? Easterbrook’s claim, certainly, is soothing, so much so that it stands apart. Here is its kernel, in his own words:

In the western nations and especially the United States, which is the first nation to attempt a systematic if flawed, but genuine and systematic attempt to protect the environment, trends are now in the main positive.

Dowie, like the grassroots environmental activists he champions, has reached different conclusions – so different that one reviewer was moved to ask if the two books even hail from the same planet. Easterbrook celebrates a “coming age of environmental optimism,” and insists in the midst of today’s frenzy of free-market anti-environmentalism, that long-term trends will vindicate him. Dowie, for his part tells the story of an official environmental movement at the brink that, led by a privileged and disoriented elite and outflanked by increasingly sophisticated corporations, risks becoming altogether irrelevant in the great game for the future.

It’s an odd divergence, but it has explanations, and they concern overall approach as well as political agendas. Losing Ground takes a tight focus – the American environmental movement, and particularly the failures which, Dowie argues, are products of its elitism and self-absorption. A Moment on the Earth, for its part, wanders from ill-spirited, pro-corporate polemics – here greens appear as “doomsters” and “transrationalists” – to vast ideological vistas in which Easterbrook presumes to speak, repeatedly and with startling hubris, for “nature” itself.

Losing Ground was published several months after A Moment on the Earth. It was easy enough to find “off the record” tales of green activists, pressured to optimism by Easterbrookean funders and development directors, who heaved a sigh of relief as Dowie came to their support. Today, with U.S. greens under heavy attack, even Easterbrook’s moment is fading. Not that he is gone, but certainly his claims are palpably, visibly, misformed. Indeed, he himself has regrets. Speaking in Berkeley in May, Easterbrook admitted that if he had “been smarter” and “seen what was coming” in the GOP-controlled Congress, he would have written the book differently. It’s an astounding admission, especially when made by an author still on his book tour.

Ironically, it was the Environmental Defense Fund that most clearly saw the need to debunk Easterbrook. EDF, with its strident and generally unreflective advocacy of pollution trading and the other mechanisms of market environmentalism, has done more than any other single organization to push the American environmental movement onto the treacherous slopes of cost-analyzed, corporate-biased realpolitik. Easterbrook was still touring when EDF published the first installment of “A Moment Of Truth” to correct Easterbrook’s “scientific errors.” (See page 28.)

Then, as a delicious followup, came something like comedy. Here is Easterbrook’s response (May 5th, National Public Radio) to CEO Fred Krupp’s announcement that EDF had a detailed critique of Moment in the works:

Don’t these guys have better things to do, with Gingrich and Dole up on Capitol Hill? . . .Now I think, sadly, from the point of view of financial self-interest it may be perfectly logical. I mean, obviously, EDF knows that Gingrich and Bob Dole are bad news for the environment, but they may make it easier to raise money for environmental groups. . . . Now if you turn around and look at me, for example, my optimistic ideas may be good for the environment, but they certainly might upset traditional forms of environmental group fundraising.

This is more than a clever, opportunistic defense. It is also peculiarly Dowiesque. Easterbrook’s claim here is that EDF’s virtue is that of the heroic, bulk-mail fundraiser, and this is just Losing Ground’s charge against elite environmentalism.

EDF was right to attack Easterbrook, for Moment is one of the most pernicious documents to claim itself as green in quite-some time. Yet EDF and Easterbrook actually have a great deal in common – most obviously technological optimism and a faith that, in the end, the market will save us all. Moreover, there is a shard of justice in Easterbrook’s charge against EDF.

Losing Ground has its own problems. Dowie’s history is uneven, for one thing, and troubled by an unfortunate, politically correct tone. And his whirlwind review of the philosophical problems raised by ecological crisis is more than just a bit thin. Losing Ground’s more significant problems hover about its core concerns – the tribulations of “legislation and litigation,” justice and elitism, money and politics, both near and long term. And here, crucially, the contrast between Dowie and Easterbrook couldn’t be stronger, for Losing Ground is constructive even in its weaknesses.

Take Dowie’s history of U.S. environmental law, which is alone reason enough to read the book. The story of large, environmental organizations as a “class-bound interest group” that pursues, largely though the litigation/legislation strategy, “a more cautious reform agenda than the movement as a whole” is a story screaming to be told, and Dowie does not disappoint. In a dramatic narrative that begins with a chapter called “Sue the Bastards!” and runs inexorably though “Fix Becomes Folly,” he offers a vivid, unsparing history of the often funder-dominated and always lawyerly process by which the American people were so unwisely encouraged to trust in the sincerity and efficacy of official regulatory politics.

Dowie’s central claim is that “American land, air, and water. . .would be in far better condition had environmental leaders been bolder; more diverse in class, race, and gender; less compromising in battle; and less gentlemanly in their day-to-day dealings with adversaries.”

It is a claim we should take dead seriously. Anti-environmentalists now control the playing field, and much depends on how we choose to understand the path by which they stormed it. No good will be served by denying that official environmentalism is a big part of the problem. Denis Hayes, the director of the first Earth Day and a man who has taken both sides in this debate, recently observed, “There is some sense that [environmentalists] are sort of pointy-headed intellectuals who use complicated analyses and don’t care much about regular people.” With social insecurity high and rising, “regular people” find their concerns rotating tightly around money and the future, and we should not be surprised if they lack great sympathy with a distant “environmentalism” of bureaucrats and well-dressed expertise.

Not all enviros are happy with this analysts, pointing to the accomplishments of the Clean Air and Water acts, Superfund, NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and so on. Dowie does not disagree that the early victories were significant. It’s just that he sees them as limited and more likely to be rolled back than reinforced.

It has not been long since Al Gore won high office, but who today will claim this a greal event? Is it not, to be honest, the token of a “victory” that did more to inflame the right than to empower the greens, a victory that left huge numbers of Americans concluding that the environmental problem was taken care of? Obviously, this isn’t the whole story, but certainly it’s part of it, and it must be faced if the green movement is to have a future. Dowie, then, is essential reading, and this despite the fact that he hardly has the whole story sorted out.

Losing Ground is a report from the front, not a breakthrough of political synthesis. Dowie has talked to people throughout the U.S. movement, and done a fine job of collecting their thoughts, war stories, and theories in a reasonably balanced and tidy package. It may be too tidy, but the fact remains that the opinions here are the common currency of activist circles. But there are crucial contradictions among them. Here are some of them, noted by Paul Rauber in the Sept/Oct 1995 issue of Sierra magazine:

[Dowie] faults environmental groups for not hiring enough people of color – but when they do he faults them for stealing talent from grassroots groups. He complains that environmentalists are failing to reach out to distressed loggers – and then belabors any group that fails to advocate a total ban on logging in the national forests. He insists that they add to their core concerns environmental justice, international human rights, eco-feminism, and spiritual ecology – and then ridicules the “passive supporters of mainstream groups [who] have proven themselves mercurial, faddish, and easily attracted to other causes.”

This is quite fair. Dowie does all of this. But it is a flaw far less decisive than Rauber imagines. The real point, and the reason why Losing Ground is a constructive book, is that the contradictions here are not for Dowie to resolve, but for us all. Dowie is trying to tell hard truths, and to do so while speaking for a strategy in which green mainstreamers and grassroots environmental justice activists evolve new ways of working, ways that allow them to disagree, and yet to continue to work together to pursue their common goals. His sympathy is with the grassroots, but he is generous to opposing views.

The easy victories are over. From now on, environmental battles will be hard won, if they are won at all. There are many lessons to be drawn from looking back on the path that led us here, and I doubt many of them are better than Dowie’s insistence that “justice” is the key to the future.

We should not imagine, though, that in affirming even such a fine word as justice we have done something decisive. There is more at stake here than pretty rhetoric, as there is more to strategy than uncritical cooperation. The mainstream is here to stay, and so is the grassroots. The question is how we can work together so that each of us strengthens, rather than undermines, the other.

It won’t be easy. As Easterbrook has proven, one may imagine oneself a fine environmentalist, and yet eagerly carry water for the anti-environmental right. And Dowie has shown that the elitism and simple-minded realism of the mainstream movement goes beyond absurdity to be actively debilitating, and even nurtures backlash.

What is the lesson of that backlash? It is, I think, that people do not attend solely to isolated single issues like spotted owls or even clean water. “The voters,” as they are called, care as well about large political themes. And if the right has managed to seize the stage and define those themes as excessive regulation and government interference, that is at least strong evidence that environmental protection will not be won by an apolitical strategy that seeks to avoid facing the realities of life on an increasingly polarized planet.

The story of the new right, and of anti-environmental upsurge, and indeed of the militias, is the story of American populism swinging again to its right-wing pole, of freedom seen as a variant of private life and property, and as the antithesis of regulation. This is not inevitably its definition, but with big capital benefiting so richly from its repetition, an alternative will not come easy.

Yet there can be an alternative. Populism has a second, better, past, and we just may be able to build on it. But popu-lism is not enough. If freedom is to cease to be a synonym for property, it will not do for environmentalists to give lip service to the poor, but actually spend their days working for the salvation they imagine hidden in markets and cost analysis. If justice is to once again be widely accepted as a political ideal, it must as well be seen as an aspect of freedom, and as a product of life in healthy, active, communities. Building those communities is what environmental justice is all about, and if we are to escape this dead-end into which we have wandered, we had best think beyond new laws and regulations, and beyond a bright new set of bulk mailings.

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