Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature by Jeffrey St. Clair (Common Courage Press 2004)
For all the environmental havoc uncovered in these 56 essays it is miraculous we stll have a planet and any clean air and water at all. St. Clair co-edits Counterpunch, along with Alexander Cockburn. To get a sense of the dimensions of what we’ve lost, he says, you have to “get the feel of your fingers skimming over 800 grow rings on the stump of a Douglas fir,” which is all that’s left of ninety-five percent of the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. This book is a dire warning, the work of a singular investigative journalist and master story-teller.
In confronting environmental devastation, St. Clair counsels optimism and humor as the only indefatigable defenses against nihilism. He also suggests allowing solutions to overwhelming problems, like global warming and ozone depletion, to follow of their own accord from environmental battles that can be fought and won, rather than confronting them head-on.
He gives a detailed and cogent history of the environmental movement, its genesis in the likes of Rachel Carson. We witness it come of age with the creation of the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and an impressive flurry of other acts and agencies in the early 1970s under the environmentally liberal, if politically expedient, Richard Nixon. It soon became a feared and respected force with which to be reckoned.
Alas, the corporate and capitalist counterattack commenced in earnest under Reagan. It abated only slightly under Bush I and Dan Quayle’s White House Council on Competitiveness, a powerful office that weighed environmental regulations against costs to (short-term) business profits, often favoring the latter. Clinton, much like Reagan and Bush in this matter, got a pass from what St. Clair sneeringly refers to as the “big greens,” just by virtue of his being a Democrat and thusly, an environmentalist. Today, of course, under King George, the environmental movement is all but dead, and so are we all if we don’t change our ways.
St. Clair’s examination of the sorry evolution of environmental organizations is trenchant. The Gang of Ten including, among others, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, and the League of Conservation Voters, once esteemed defenders of our air, water, and ecological diversity have become largely compromised and ineffective. A recently perennial idea of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), for example, is a “market oriented” approach to the environment that includes selling and trading “pollution credits.” Tacit resignation and surreptitious deal making are the hallmarks of the big greens, says St. Clair. For example, they often collude in deals protecting certain wilderness areas and resources while at the same time overlooking the depredations of others equally as pristine and valuable; often subsequently turning the tables and advocating a trade of the mined, drilled, or clear-cut land for other valuable wilderness. Their modus operandi is such, for example, that they roar at the threatened drilling of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, because it is a fundraising cash cow, says St. Clair, but are silent about the equally threatened and ecologically sensitive nearby 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
The leaders of these groups are real charmers. The salary of G. Jon Roush is $125,000 annually. He is president of the Wilderness Society whose Washington headquarters cost $6 million a year to lease. Roush logged his 80-acre, $2.5 million ranch in Montana “at precisely the moment,” says St. Clair, “when environmentalists across the country had their backs to the wall, against a ferocious assault in Congress on federal laws protecting America’s forests.” Fred Krupp at EDF commands $125,000 a year. Jay Hair “keeps his limo running at all times, the air-conditioner grinding ozone at full-tilt against the moment he emerges from his office on an eco-mission or deal-making sortie” makes a quarter-million at the National Wildlife Federation; while Peter Berle at the Audubon Society pulls in $200,000 a year. St. Clair lauds Greenpeace, about which he contemptuously quotes Berle as saying: “Audubon doesn’t have a reputation as a confrontational organization.”
Those are the white hats.
In the spell of less than a generation, the recent advent of the factory trawler has brought fisheries around the globe perilously close to complete exhaustion. In only hours in the Bering Sea, a single ship of American Seafoods corporation, a Seattle-based subsidiary of a Norwegian conglomerate, can make a haul of 400 tons of fish, crabs, and squid. Forty percent of the haul is by-catch waste, ground to bits and spewed back into the sea, some 550 million pounds a year. American’s (sic) biggest competitor in the north Pacific is Arctic-Alaska, owned along with three other Alaska seafood operations by Don Tyson, of chicken factory farm infamy. In one more case of corporate welfare writ large, the federal government has provided Arctic-Alaska subsidies and other largesse, courtesy of the Clinton administration, worth upwards of $250 million. In return Arctic-Alaska increasingly off-loads and processes their catch, along with American jobs, not in the United States but in China. Democracy in action.
You may want to purchase some Louisiana-Pacific stock. It was the “proud sponsor” of the 25th Earth Day. For the last 17 years or so, says St. Clair, L & P “has paid the Forest Service about $1.50 per thousand board feet for the right to log cedar off the Tongass Forest in Alaska. It then sells the cedar logs to Japanese timber merchants for as much as $1,500 per thousand board feet, all without running a single cedar log through an Alaskan mill.” Alaska just by coincidence is exempt from a nationwide ban on the export of raw logs from federal lands. Separately, L & P’s patented Inner Seal siding emits deadly fumes when exposed to humidity? No problem. Just ship it off to Vietnam, Bolivia and other Third World countries. Businesses are not charitable operations, you know.
Observes St. Clair: “Hostile intentions toward the people of another country. Deployment of chemical weapons and biological agents. Pursuit of a scorched-earth policy. Sounds like Saddam’s Iraq? Think again. This neatly sums up the Bush administrations ongoing depredations in Colombia, all under the shady banner of the war on drugs.” Nice to know our media keeps us so well-informed.
Rand Beers is a Bush holdover from Clinton and recently resigned Assistant Secretary of State for narcotics. He is now top foreign policy advisor to John Kerry. Evading the fact that spraying fumigants in Colombia violates the Biological Weapons Convention and other treaties, St. Clair notes: “Beers often says that the toxic weapons are needed to fight international criminal syndicates. This heady bit of sophistry is hardly an exemption from BWC prohibitions, which, it must be pointed out, the Bush administration doesn’t believe in anyway, even though they are trigger-happy to invoke its provisions against enemy states, such as Iraq.” Beneath the radar of the corporate media afraid to tackle any issue related to the sacrosanct drug war, says St. Clair, Plan Colombia perpetrates vast human suffering and a toxic wasteland. Hard to understand why “they” hate us so much.
The three essays that comprise the seventh and final part of the book are romps to Butte, the Mojave Desert, and the West, and the last two particularly are dramatic and compelling. I was on the edge of my seat when St. Clair came face to face with a rattlesnake in the Mojave desert.
It’s next to impossible to square the pristine image the US has of itself and its ideals, with its environmental, corporate, and foreign policy. They are all a piece of a rapacious, imperial capitalism. St. Clair documents a bewildering cavalcade of short-sighted environmental ransacking, and corporate criminality, conscienceless, with one lust: the Almighty Dollar. Maintaining the humor and optimism he recommends is painstaking given the magnitude of the devastation that threatens all life, including humanity as a species. These 400 pages of non-stop outrage told by a calm, intelligent observer in an enthralling way are, paradoxically, an aid. I highly recommend this book. It’s a simple pleasure, a journey with a warm heart and an electric mind, and the introduction to a trusted companion.
Tracy McLellan is an activist living in the Chicagoland area. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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