Interview with Jeffrey St. Clair
by M. Junaid Alam
April 15, 2004
First Published in Left Hook

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Recently, co-editor of Left Hook M. Junaid Alam had a chance to interview Jeffrey St. Clair, co-editor of Counterpunch, about his devastating critique of corporate-government ruination of the environment presented in his recent book, Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature.

Alam: Jeff, thanks for agreeing to this interview. In your book, you consistently document and expose how environmental groups of the 1970s that once succeeded in passing crucial laws through Congress have largely sold out and capitulated to predatory interests. Why have big supposedly pro-environmental groups like the Sierra Club ceded so much ground to market-oriented and voluntary regulations approaches? Is this simply a case of being too close to the corridors of power in DC?

St. Clair: The Sierra Club is actually the most progressive of the big 10 enviro groups. That tells the entire story, because through much of the late 80s and 90s they were lead by a Republican. At the institutional level, the environmental establishment has always been cautious, conservative, timid and tied to rich funders. It's gotten demonstrably worse since the 1980s and the wholesale decampment of most big green groups to DC. Environmentalism became political in the most malign sense of the word, meaning calculating, compromising, looking for a hand out or a seat at some sub-cabinet level table. Most environmental groups are no longer funded by their members, but by big foundations, often deriving their endowments from oil wealth. These outfits are by nature neo-liberal. They reward groups that promote market oriented approaches. This began with a fervor in the late Reagan early Bush 41 years, promoted zealously by Teresa Heinz Kerry's former husband, Sen. John Heinz. Then Clinton legitimized it for a new generation and promptly set about dismantling decades worth of regulations.

Alam: One of the most interesting concepts you bring out in your analysis is that the Democrats have been able to get away with attacks on the environment and wildlife unimaginable under Republican administrations through progressive rhetoric and meaningless gestures. Then, when Republicans are in power, they can easily destroy the weakly enforced federal regulations. Do you see this as a sort of coordinated two-party tag team against the environment?

St. Clair: Saul Landau says that the Republicans are the party of the polluters and the Democrats are the party of the polluters and the environmentalists. That about sums it up. I don't think the Democrats are more anti-environmental than the Republicans (with a few notable exceptions like Rep. Norm Dicks and Senators Feinstein and Baucus), but the environmental groups fought the Republicans, largely to standstill, while they prostrated themselves to Clinton and Gore. They offered no resistance to the same policies on forests, endangered species and trade. In fact, they were often complicit. John Adams, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, bragging about "breaking the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA. By and large, the environmental establishment has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DNC. It's an extremely dangerous situation. David Brower said that Clinton and Gore did more damage to the environment in their first four years than Reagan and Bush did in 12. He was right. And the bloodtrail leads right to the doors of NRDC, EDF, Audubon and the Sierra Club. They were silent partners in the eco crimes of the Clinton era.

Alam: Most people tend to think of the Forest Service people as the guys who protect the forests from logging and clear-cutting. But as you explain in your book, their role is virtually that of selling off the forests, partaking in absurdities such as "thinning" the number of trees in already healthy areas and bringing in private lumber businesses with the worst records to carry out the destruction. Was this historically always the role of this department?

St. Clair: The Forest Service has always been in the business of selling off the public forests. Although it was started by progressives in the Teddy Roosevelt administration, it was never about preservation, but so-called "wise-use" and "scientific management." That said, the real heavy logging didn't begin until the post-WW2 housing boom. By then, many of the private lands in the West had been logged over and the corporations set their eyes on the public estate and the Forest Service opened the gates. For the next 40 years there was a frenzy of logging that shames the deforestation of the Amazon. Brazil still has about 80 percent of its primary forest intact. We have less than 5 percent. There's so little left in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, once the greatest temperate rainforest in the world, that more than 3000 species of plants and animals face extinction. Yet, the logging continues, largely thanks to Clinton and Gore. Now the Forest Service has cloaked its assaults in the rhetoric of environmentalism. Salvage logging, thinning, the "healthy forest initiative." But it's really the same old clearcutting. The last orgy of logging in America's most diverse forest.

Alam: You note the irony of the fact that "Billions of dollars were invested in flood control in the past thirty years so that hundreds of millions more could be spent logging off national forest land", contributing to floods and landslides across the Pacific Northwest in 1996. Has this situation worsened in recent years with further clear-cutting?

St. Clair: People are getting killed every winter in the Pacific Northwest as clearcut mountainsides collapse into houses and even towns. It could have been much worse. But we've been in a drought for the past 5 or 6 years. If the normal rainfall patterns resume, the situation is going to deteriorate. In the little town where I live, the last normal winter put about 6 feet of mud-clotted water down Main Street. Guess that's why some people up here have become sudden converts to global warming.

Alam: You highlight a particularly sickening example of corporate ransoming in Yellowstone National Park, where, as you explain, the Noranda company with its abysmal environmental record was literally paid hundreds of millions of dollars and given a free license to plunder other federal lands by the Clinton administration just so it wouldn't mine a mountain in the park that they never would have been able to mine anyway. What's the method behind the madness here?

St. Clair: It's simple: win/win solution, the happy-go-lucky mantra of Clintontime. Instead of invoking environmental laws or regulations to keep corporations from doing bad things, they paid them off. It was a neat way to reward campaign contributors, get a nice photo-op and brag to one-and-all that you'd been able to "break environmental gridlock." Of course, as environmentalists we LOVE gridlock. Gridlock is the only thing standing in the way of the bulldozers and chainsaws that are itching to pulverize the West. More menacingly, it was part of the neo-liberal project of deregulation. The difference between Clinton and Bush is that Clinton knew you had to throw the enviros a bone (even if it was a bone they'd already won) to get away with it. Bush, cretin that he is, rejects all such niceties. It's the main reason he's gotten into to such intractable trouble.

Alam: Citing several examples where the government ludicrously gives up valuable land for clear cut or even toxic lands, you describe the Forest Service's land swapping practice as "a wholesale privatization scheme" with "particularly lopsided" trades, whereby "most of the land exchanges favored private parties at the expense of the government and the environment". Why is the government ripping itself off?

St. Clair: Because the government has never been in the business of protecting public land. It's beholden to political contributors. Liberals live under an illusion that government in this country is a force for justice, civil rights and enviro protection. They persist in this notion despite all contrary evidence, which stacks up about as tall as Mount Rainier. There have been a few periods where sustained citizen action has restrained the government, but that's about all. Without endless pressure, the government slides back into its accustomed role of being a servant of the corps which fund the careers of politicians. Now that the developers and timber companies and mining firms have thoroughly fucked up there own lands, they need access to public lands. They've come up w/ an ingenious plan for selling this to the public and a gullible press. Land swaps. They pawn off logged over or toxic land to the government in exchange for pristine public lands that are then turned into resorts, golf courses or gold mines worth billions of dollars. Nice scheme and often too complex of a transaction for the dumbed-down press to follow, even if they had the desire too. Back in early part of the 1900s, these kinds of swindles sent federal officials to jail. Now, they retire from office and land million dollar salaries as lobbyists for the very same companies.

Alam: You explain that Bush's deceptively-dubbed Healthy Forests Initiative, which proposes forest thinning, will actually further decimate forests because "The last thing a burned over forests needs is an assault by chainsaws.", and note that the forests have only suffered "catastrophic blazes" in the first place because the Forest Service has been suppressing almost all naturally occurring (and healthy) forest fires to bail out industries who view the trees "as a commercial resource." So isn't in the interests of the timber industry to oppose the Bush plan in the longer term? Or are they just infected with myopic greed?

St. Clair: The timber industry defines myopic greed. Cut it all, cut it now. Move somewhere else or get into another kind of business, like real estate, which is what Plum Creek Timber has done. That's the mantra of big timber and it always has been. The dot.com boom/bust cycle is nothing compared to the boom/bust cycles of the timber industry. Economic suicide is their gameplan. They don't even try to hide it any more. Not even from their workers, who they despise.

Alam: Articulating the position against the pretentious risk-assessment and cost-benefit analyses undertaken by food corporations who seek to keep foods soaked in chemicals on the shelves, you cite statistics showing that "between 30,000 and 60,000 people die each year from exposure to cancer-causing chemicals" and that "more than 40 percent of the pesticides dumped by planes drift off the target area, ending up in streams, schoolyards, and neighborhoods." This is obviously serious stuff. Is there any kind of organized campaign against continued use of chemicals linked to cancers and such?

St. Clair: All of these issues are being fought and fought hard. Of course, chemical spraying takes place in some of the least populated areas of the country. The people exposed are migrant workers, the least powerful and most abusively treated group of people in America. But there are hundreds of groups fighting off the likes of Monsanto and Dupont. To name a few: there's the Pesticide Action Network in DC, Californians for Alternatives to Toxic Spraying in Arcata, Food and Water in Vermont, and the Organic Consumers Association outside of Duluth, Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior. I also highly recommend The Agribusiness Examiner, a free online publication (though people should chip in a few bucks) published by Al Krebs out of Seattle.

Alam: One thing that is immediately clear from the very beginning of your book is your passionate and heartfelt appreciation of nature, wildlife and our connection to it. How did this come about? Do you think there is a way out of our current pattern of despoiling our surroundings and commodifying everything?

St. Clair: Get outside. Enjoy the planet. You'll have fun. You'll fall in love with a river or a forest or a mountain or desert. And once you fall in love, you'll feel no choice but to fight for its preservation. And you won't be alone, either. Or that's how it worked for me, anyway.

Alam: Jeff, Thanks again for your time and responses.

M. Junaid Alam, 21, is co-editor & webmaster of Left Hook, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at alam@lefthook.org.

Related Links:

* Left Hook's review of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me.

Dissident Voice Reviews

* The Politics of Ecology by Tracy McLellan
* Burn the Maps and Get Lost in the Territory by Josh Frank
* The Battle for Life Itself by Standard Schaefer

Other Articles by M. Junaid Alam


* Regime Change, Resistance-Style: Iraq's Intifada Begins
* Israel, Suicide Nation
* Are We Waging An Anti-Civilizational War?
* An Interview with Noam Chomsky on Bush and the Left's Strategy for the Elections
* “If You Organize, You Can Win”: Philly School Workers Fight for Fair Contract
* Iraq’s Right to Resist: Outside the Spectacle
* Image and Reality in the Middle East: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
* The Racism Barrier: Answering William Safire
* The Wolf Who Cried “Wolf” Charging Anti-Semitism—and Extending the Iron Wall

* Why Do They Hate Us? And How to Move Forward




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