Writing in 1894 of the glaciers that carved out the valleys, river-beds and lakes of California, John Muir declared that, when “Contemplating the works of these flowers of the sky, one may easily fancy them endowed with life: messengers sent down to work in the mountain mines on errands of divine love”. In 1910, Gifford Pinchot identified the growing prosperity of the United States as tied to its natural resources: “We are prosperous because our forefathers bequeathed to us a land of marvelous resources still unexhausted. Shall we conserve those resources, and in turn transmit them, still unexhausted, to our descendants? [...] The conservation of natural resources is the basis, and the only permanent basis, of national success”.
Pinchot and Muir would have found themselves on opposite sides of many debates about the ‘natural world’ in the first half of the twentieth century. Muir was a preservationist who viewed forests, mountains, meadows and streams as mystical spaces, curatives for souls troubled by the modern world, and he inveighed ferociously against the damming of Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. He fell out with Pinchot over Hetch Hetchy, for the latter was a proponent of conservation, and argued for the sustainable use of land in the service of the nation.
Around the middle of the twentieth century, in the person of Aldo Leopold, something of a synthesis of their views emerged. In writings published after his untimely death, Leopold identified one of the central problems of the age as understanding “how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land”. Leopold kept, as did Pinchot, man at the centre of what was increasingly known as the environment. But the centrepiece of man’s relationship to the environment had to be an ecological ethic.
“An ethic”, Leopold wrote, “ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social behaviour [...] Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in part, by co-operative mechanisms with an ethical content” (A Sand County Almanac 238).
If in their own lifetimes, Pinchot and Muir went their separate ways, and did not see their ideas fused into the environmentalism that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, they did agree, in their own lifetime, on the value of public land and on the role of government in keeping that land protected and public.
It is a departure from any recognition of the value of public, protected land (categorised as ‘wilderness’) which characterises what is probably one of the biggest assaults on our environment since Taft fired Pinchot as Chief Forester and allowed his Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, to turn huge swathes of Alaska over to mineral, timber and development industries that, needless to say, engaged in practises that were something less than sustainable.
The assault in our town times is spearheaded by a Republican Congress which is as dutifully devoted to private interest as were the “robber barons” of late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century America, or as Dick Cheney and other officials of the Bush administration who sought to turn the White House into the personal fiefdom of an irresponsible energy industry.
One example of this assault is H.R. 1581, the stated purpose of which is “to release wilderness study areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management that are not suitable for wilderness designation from continued management as de facto wilderness areas and to release inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System that are not recommended for wilderness designation from the land use restrictions of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Final Rule and the 2005 State Petitions for Inventoried Roadless Area Management Final Rule”.
H.R. 1581 writes enormous areas of the map out of public control. And while Republicans are using calls for “proactively managing forests” and requesting that “local stakeholders [participate] in the planning process”, the bill is little more than a bid by the private sector for control of public lands. It is, as where labour, energy and financial legislation is concerned, an only-thinly disguised bid. Disguised because it is ostensibly made by the Congressional lackeys of forest and mining industries. Thinly because the federal government provides for local (and national) input at the point of designation, and because the US Forest Service is perfectly capable of proactive management (and is, moreover, backed up by actual researched-based rather than corporate science of the sort that Dick Cheney practised on the backs of envelopes before re-writing energy legislation).
Now the House is bringing forward the Department of the Interior, Environment, and related Agencies Appropriation Bill, 2012. The Bill begins with a nearly $4 billion cut to the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and related agencies, and goes downhill from there. Congressional hubris is readily apparent in the attempts of the Republican caucus to micro-manage the EPA and rein in its regulatory authority.
It is the conditions, environmental, health and workplace-related, created by a powerful agricultural industry in California’s valleys, for example, which are responsible for that region having by a long ways the poorest quality-of-life indicators in the state. The EPA is responsible for the kind of regulation that would create a more just set of priorities in the context of agriculture, and it is for this regulatory authority that Republicans are gunning.
They propose to “prevent the implementation of the Wild Lands initiative” (6). They condemn the EPA for its “unrestrained effort to regulate greenhouse gases, and [its] pursuit of an overly aggressive regulatory agenda” for “the tremendous burdens it places on small businesses and large industries” citing “the impacts felt in small towns and rural communities across America, to lost jobs and lost economic production” (6). It is as though history is being re-written. The economic downturn which has curiously only affected the middle- and working-classes, is suddenly the fault of environmentalists and regulatory agencies instead of real-estate speculators, financial moguls and the corrupt henchmen in Congress (Republicans, as well as those Democrats who co-habit with the corporate welfarist ilk on the far-right of our political spectrum).
Also coming in for cuts are the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (7). “The Committee”, so deeply concerned about the excessive care for the health and welfare of citizens as well as of their lands, is practising Dick Cheney science, in which sums done on the back of American Loggers Council, California Cattlemen’s Association and Independent Oil Producers’ Agency (which lobbied for Proposition 23—the soundly-rejected attempt to re-write California’s environmental policies) letterhead substitutes for serious study. The Endangered Species Act is also coming under attack. Because (the logic, you are forewarned, is less than impeccable) the Act has saved an insufficient number of species, it is suggested that it be stripped of its teeth, thereby (somehow) improving the prospects of the endangered species of our nation.
The same people who advocate for welfare handouts to financial and energy interests turn states-rights on us when it comes to the protection of species and natural spaces. The same people who carp about excessive spending by the EPA in the service of the health and welfare of their constituents turn mute when it comes to the military industrial complex or the national security state or the tax code which is bankrupting our nation for the benefit of the corporate pinheads who plunged our economy into recession.
Ecological services are being slashed by a quarter, land acquisition services by 75% (and set at 90% below what was requested), EPA funding is being cut at a moment when we should be focussing intently on a sustainable energy policy (for which a strong regulatory environment is transparently the only likely solution), and the USFS is losing money.
Then comes the “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011” which mind-bogglingly, works “to prohibit the Administrator of the EPA or a state from requiring a permit under the CWA for a discharge from a point source into navigable waters of a pesticide authorised for sale, distribution or use under FIFRA [the charmingly titled Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act], or the residue of such a pesticide, resulting from the application of such pesticide”.
And in the small print, legislation “prohibiting funding for certain Endangered Species Act programs” (118), permitting expenditure on behalf of “mining and materials processing industries” as a blatant prelude to their incursion onto public land, “permitting funds for mineral leasing and environmental study” on federal lands (121), actively questioning expenditure on the study of climate change, “providing a one year stay for actions related to greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources”, “prohibiting the use of funds to develop, carry out, implement, or enforce proposed regulations published on June 18, 2010” (133), “prohibiting the use of funds to develop, propose, finalise, implement, administer or enforce any regulation that identifies fossil fuel combustion waste as hazardous waste”, “prohibiting the use of funds to develop, adopt, implement, administer, or enforce a change or supplement to a rule or guidance documents pertaining to the definition of waters under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act”, “prohibiting the use of funds to further develop, finalise, implement or enforce the proposed regulatory requirements published on April 20, 2011, or to develop or enforce any other new regulations or requirements designed to implement section 316(b) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act”, “clarifying current permitting activities for the outer continental shelf and setting parameters for the approval of exploration permits by the EPA”, and on and on.
This amounts to an incredible assault on the agencies that manage public lands, the opening of those public lands to the very interests and industries that have time and again proven their irresponsibility and lack of long-term thinking, a rollback of the regulatory agencies which have as their remit the protection of our air, water, fields, workplaces and parks, and an attempt to re-write the study of climate change and conservation efforts.
“The oldest task in human history”, Aldo Leopold wrote, is “to live on a piece of land without spoiling it”. In the twentieth century there arose a movement—diverse it its composition, occasionally fractured in its aims, but far forward in its thinking and righteous in its promotion of justice—which sought to take that task seriously. It made a commendable start in the promotion of ideas, the creation of institutions and the implementation of solutions that would lessen our harmful impacts on the land with which we live. It recognised both the intrinsic cultural value that forests, fields, peaks and rivers have for many of us, as well as the importance of only using these resources inasmuch as we can do so sustainably, given that our survival depends on theirs.
Environmentalism has not been perfect in its agenda, in its choice of tone or in its campaigns. But as a broad movement which has the welfare of people and the health of the land at its heart, it is our best hope and one that should not, with the good that it has done and must continue to do, be shunted lightly aside.