Skipping Over The Guts – A Double Environmental Book Review

emThe question of what constitutes the environmental movement and its approach to the organization of society ought to be an area for fertile research and investigation. After all, the last two decades have seen the development of an elaborate environmental policy system and the emergence and recognition of large, national environmental groups as well as thousands of grass-roots groups. Yet the analysis of environmental movements and their ideas has remained relatively impoverished, often subject to narrow interpretation and argument.

Two recently published books, A Fierce Green Fire by former New York Times reporter Phillip Shabecoff and Green Delusions by Duke University professor Martin Lewis underline, each in their own ways, this problem of limited scholarship.

Lewis’ Green Delusions is a hard-edged, open-ended, angry polemic against what he calls “radical environmentalism.” Such radicals, according to Green Delusions, include assorted academic Marxists, ecofeminists, deep ecologists, social ecologists and eco-marauders.

Lewis’ mission is to thoroughly discredit eco-radicalism. At the same time, he also strives to demonstrate the superiority of a “Promethean” environmentalism capable of embracing capitalism and recognizing its unique abilities to develop a “technologically sophisticated, ecologically sustainable, global economy.” while Lewis acknowledges at times that certain aspects of this capitalism might well be in need of reform, he makes a point of lashing out at the radical alternative, seeking to bury what he sees as a dangerous and growing enemy by discrediting its ideas.

On the one hand, Lewis suggests that his grab bag of eco-radicals is really just a “marginal movement that presents little threat to the status quo,” yet Lewis warns that eco-radicalism also represents a major threat within his own academic turf, especially in such disciplines as sociology, anthropology, history, literature and geography. For Lewis, this marginal movement encompasses all the “radicalized intellectuals of the Vietnam generation” who converted to “eco-extremism” and subsequently became ensconced in university departments. There, Lewis frets, they have sought to undermine their opposition – defenders of free trade, promoters of western culture, or advocates of the market. That is, people like Lewis himself.

In this context, Green Delusions becomes less a discussion of social movements than a critique of certain eco-radical ideas, whether in relation to the role of multinational corporations (“the excoriation of multinational corporations is misguided and potentially dangerous”); exploitation of the Third World (while this exploitation might be “decidedly ambiguous,” it still provides jobs and economic benefits); the environmental hazards of technology (the anti-industrial eco-radicals are Luddites who want to return us to a more hazardous, pre-industrial era); or small is beautiful (“hierararchy is, in the final analysis, an inescapable principle of organization itself”).

Intentionally polemical and unabashedly employing ad hominem arguments for his task at hand, Lewis explains that he, too, once indulged in eco-radicalism. Thus, he writes in the manner of those anti-communist intellectuals of the 1950s who became so bitter from their experiences.. In this respect, Green Delusions also serves as an academic counterpart to the arguments broached by those like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, who warn that green movements are really red in disguise and are seeking nothing less than the dismantling of the market and the reconfiguration of advanced industrial capitalism. As an intellectual analysis, Lewis’ book is little more than a smorgasbord of anti-radical bashing; as a discussion of social movements, it fails to contribute to any understanding of environmentalism, even from Lewis’ own ideological terrain.

afgfLewis’ diatribe contrasts sharply with Shabecoffs ecumenical and celebratory conception of environmentalism. Shabecoff, who covered the environmental beat for The New York Times for 14 years, has written a book that is suggestive of his own reporting, much of which relied on mainstream environmental sources. A Fierce Green Fire is a book about and for the mainstream environmental movement. In part, the book is a traditional history, with all the familiar figures: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold.

Shabecoff reiterates the common assumption about environmentalists roots: that the movement and its thinkers emerged in response to the need to protect and/or manage a natural environment subject to the exploitation of western civilization. This is a presentation of Nature set apart from Society. Shabecoffs discussion of the urban environment or the industrial environment – and the movements challenging their hazards – is incidental or nonexistent.

Even his discussion of such a complex and poorly understood figure as Bob Marshall reads like a press release from the Wilderness Society (which Marshall helped found and finance). The book completely omits any discussion of Marshall’s social and environmental radicalism such as his difficult – and not always successful – effort to link the liberation of the natural environment with the transformation of both resource policy and the conditions of urban and industrial life.

Shabecoffs discourse on the contemporary environmental movement, while more interesting and expansive than his historical treatment, still fails to interpret and analyze some of the core changes of the past two decades. There is no substantive analysis of the institutionalization and professionalization of the mainstream environmental organizations. For example, A Fierce Green Fire makes no mention of the origins and evolution of the Group of Ten, an association of the ten largest mainstream environmental groups that symbolized and gave prominence to these tendencies.

And while Shabecoff, unlike some other surveyors of contemporary environmentalism, gives recognition to the importance of a grassroots environmentalism embedded in ad hoc protest groups or community associations, he fails to root these groups and their issues within the larger dynamics of class, ethnicity and gender, which are crucial to understanding the movement.

He also suggests that environmentalism is hard to classify because it is a “kind of platypus among social movements.” Its ranks are open enough to include “radical Earth First! tree huggers and patrician big game hunters, militant community activists and cool intellectuals cloistering in think tanks, hard-nosed lobbyists and dreamy bird watchers.”

This analysis leads to a kind of ecumenical vision: Shabecoff projects an all-inclusive environmentalism capable of achieving real power, primarily through electoral means. This unity – defined essentially in mainstream environmental language and terms – can best be achieved, Shabecoff argues, by closing the gap between the big mainstream environmental organizations and the grassroots groups “whose members comprise an army of millions ready to be mobilized in the war for political power.”

What both these books have failed to explore – Shabecoff with his traditionalist recitation and celebration of mainstream environmentalism and Lewis with his argumentative exercise against eco-radicalism – is the complexity and diversity of environmental movements and ideas related to the changing complexion of American urban and industrial society.

Environmentalism, whether of the mainstream or radical variety, is fundamentally a movement responding to urban and industrial change and its impact on the natural environment as well as on people’s daily lives. The powerful new claims of these movements, such as the need for new forms of industrial decision making or the linkage of environmental and social justice, are central to understanding contemporary environmentalism. Its roots still need to be more fully explored and its complex, diverse and sometimes conflicting ideas, actions and organizations, require something more than just reiterative celebration or spurious attack.

One thought on “Skipping Over The Guts – A Double Environmental Book Review

  1. Great reviews of what I consider to be some of the best environmental titles out there. Really great stories by frankly classic writers of the genre. Social justice WILL be done. I only hope that it isn’t too late by the time it occurs.

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