Reading: Save the Earth, Change the World | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Save the Earth, Change the World 

Robert Gottlieb's book on U.S. environmentalism is sophisticated, readable, but ultimately undone by its unregenerate New Leftism.

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Robert Gottlieb knows he has the ultimate New Left credential. In a footnote near the end of his latest book he lets us in on it: he was there in June 1967 when his German compatriot Rudi Dutschke called for a "long march through the institutions."

What is this tidbit doing in Forcing the Spring, which bills itself as a history of the U.S. environmental movement? Good question. Gottlieb doesn't seem to realize that his credential may have been a platinum card in 1967, but today it's just a piece of solid waste. He is, astonishingly, unembarrassed by the phrase "long march"--an homage to the Chinese revolution, which degenerated into persecuting and killing its best.

Even back in 1967, what a long march was supposed to do to the institutions those of us in the movement passed through was never altogether clear. We were into action, not strategy. Some of us still are. Gottlieb has written a readable, sophisticated book, but because of his New Left consciousness has passed untouched through the past quarter century, Forcing the Spring is incomplete history and one-note politics.

Good news first: the new leftists had a talent for ferreting out pompous assholes, and Gottlieb hasn't lost it. He pegs the mainstream environmental groups--the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Izaak Walton League, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Society as too white, too male, too professional, too middle-class, too compromising, and too interested in being players inside the beltway. In one memorable encounter described in his book, he crowds National Wildlife Federation head Jay Hair into sounding like a Fortune 500 executive on a bad day. If 23 percent of NWF staffers are minorities, asks Gottlieb, how many of them are professionals and how many are in maintenance? Hair refuses to say: "Everybody's a professional, from the guy on the loading dock to the lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court."

Mainstream environmentalists have been slighting workers, women, and people of color for a long time. Gottlieb's history has the goods on them. Early in this century conservationists and preservationists rarely made common cause with people like Dr. Alice Hamilton of Hull House and Harvard, the pioneer of environmental and occupational medicine. After the premature death in 1939 of Robert Marshall, founder of the Wilderness Society, the organization sidelined his concern for urban working people. Even groups formed since the first Earth Day in 1970 have often ignored the effects of asbestos on workers, uranium mining on Native Americans, and toxic dumping on localities from rural North Carolina to Altgeld Gardens. Members of the big environmental organizations have consistently put urban issues at the bottom of their list of priorities. In response, grass-roots groups involved with these issues, often led by women and minorities, sometimes recoil from the "environmentalist" label.

Gottlieb wants all these generically environmental movements to become one--it's the book's point, and a characteristic New Left dream--but he knows how far away that goal is. "[Alice] Hamilton is clearly as much an environmentalist as John Muir, the much celebrated defender of Yosemite and passionate advocate of wilderness " he writes. "I mentioned my interest in Hamilton to a staff member of one of the leading mainstream environmental groups who was curious about my project. 'But who's Alice Hamilton?' he asked in a puzzled manner. When I recounted the story to another friend involved in public health issues, I explained that the response by my environmentalist friend was equivalent to ignorance about John Muir. 'Who's John Muir?' my public health friend replied."

Gottlieb thinks environmentalists should get to know one another and recognize themselves as an integral part of an overall movement for social justice. He believes they should, in the words of Dana Alston's address to the first national People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, use the environment as a "platform to address . . . questions of militarism and defense policy; religious freedom; cultural survival; energy-sustainable development; the future of our cities; transportation; housing; land and sovereignty rights; self-determination; employment--and we can go on and on."

Let's not. In short, Gottlieb wants environmentalism to "transcend . . . its narrow definitions [and] change the very fabric of social life."

Oddly enough, with such large ambitions and 413 print-heavy pages, Forcing the Spring leaves out big chunks of the movement it purports to describe. Not one word about the struggle to save mass transit (an urban environmental issue if there ever was one). Nothing about the bicoastal grass-roots and state-level movements to curb suburban sprawl through growth management. Gottlieb has room to mention Job Harriman and the Los Angeles Socialist Party of 1912, but no space for the Nature Conservancy or the burgeoning midwest-based environmental-restoration movement it has nurtured.

Also strangely missing from Forcing the Spring is the key religious intuition of modern environmentalism: that the earth is finite and therefore growth must stop somewhere. (I say religious because it can't be proved and is open to debate.) Not quite missing but strangely abbreviated are discussions of Greenpeace and of Paul Ehrlich. (A martian who read this book would get the distinct, misleading impression that socialist biologist Barry Commoner is far more influential than the author of The Population Bomb.) Gottlieb writes that the end of the cold war may make it easier to question military-industrial business as usual, but he doesn't even hint at the environmental devastation behind what used to be the iron curtain. Most New Left-ishly, he never tells the reader what a "change in the very fabric of social life" might mean.

Every book has to leave something out. Why did Gottlieb choose to pass over this stuff? Because if he'd put it in, his mission to equate environmentalism with social justice would have moved from "difficult" to "impossible" to "incomprehensible." For instance: The people who want to limit suburban growth are not welcoming affordable apartment houses to their suburbs. The people who believe human overpopulation is the problem imagine that Africa (57 people per square mile) is overpopulated but not Holland (1,100-plus people per square mile). The people who think we're up against "limits to growth" can't very well offer encouraging words of solidarity to unemployed timber workers. To make his case plausible Gottlieb has to downplay the conservative (or worse) nature of certain environmental causes.

Weighing evidence for and against never was one of the New Left's strong points. In the late 1960s supporting civil rights and student rights and opposing the Vietnam war looked to us like clear-cut moral issues. We agonized over what to do about them, not about their pros and cons. Gottlieb tries to do the same with the multifaceted array of technical issues that comprise "environmentalism." But that shouldn't be good enough for those who care about the environment, which sometimes is in danger and sometimes isn't. It matters whether global warming and overpopulation are legitimate concerns or premature hype. It matters whether the locals protesting against a new landfill are right or just soreheads. Assuming that every environmental scare is correct may be a good way to build a social movement, but it's a lousy way to allocate the scarce resources available for cleanup or prevention.

Finally, and terminally, the New Left never figured out how to win without calling it "selling out." We were all tactics and no strategy. Gottlieb tells how grass-roots protest by the "McToxics Campaign" made it possible for the Environmental Defense Fund to sign a deal with McDonald's in 1990 doing away with polystyrene burger holders. The grass-roots people felt EDF hogged the credit. Maybe so--but Gottlieb doesn't suggest how the deal should have been worked out.

Gottlieb blames mainstream environmental groups for getting too involved in the writing and enforcement of environmental laws. He wants them to spend more time rousing the rabble and less time negotiating with congressional staffers and coal-company CEOs. But Congress has passed laws by the ton on air, water, and land pollution. Should environmentalists leave their implementation up to the enemy?. Or should environmentalists have opposed the laws until they had the political strength to ban all chemicals invented since 1946?

Saying "Keep on organizing" is OK tactics, but it's no kind of strategy for the grass-roots groups Gottlieb praises. He quotes Los Angeles antitoxics organizer Penny Newman: "The compromise between a healthy baby and a dead baby is a sick baby." Well said--but what else should she say when her successful organizing gets her invited into the corridors of power?

Gottlieb disdains the fact that mainstream environmentalists, seeking to protect the Sacramento River delta, now sit at the table negotiating California water policy with city and farm interests. The three parties, he writes, are trying to establish a political process for the purchase and sale of water among contending interest groups. In the process, environmental negotiators, defined as a quasi-economic interest group, begin to lose their public interest status as a social force fighting on behalf of groups not represented at the table."

Huh? Only an unregenerate new leftist could regard it as a defeat that advocates of the environment now have some power. They may deserve criticism for compromising too much, or for being out of touch with their constituents, or for not involving a broad enough constituency--but not for getting as far as they have!

What should environmentalists be aiming for? Sometimes Gottlieb drops hints about socialism, without using the word. "The end of the Cold War," he writes, "exposed a [U.S.] production system toxic at its core and an environmental politics that continually limited the possibilities for change." Now, he says, we have an opportunity to convert that production. "The conversion of production to what? Controlled by whom? These have become the central questions."

This coy rhetoric is classic New Left-ism; in this context it borders on dishonesty. Gottlieb waxes long, eloquent, and specific on the many real environmental failings of U.S.style free enterprise. And he has a knee-jerk negative reaction to any use of markets to protect the environment (such as the tradable air-pollution permits championed by the Environmental Defense Fund and implemented in the 1990 Clean Air Act). Fair enough. But this is the dishonest part--he never mentions that the end of the cold war also exposed communism as a production system even more toxic to workers and the environment than ours.

If any modern society has come as close as U.S.-style capitalism to combining prosperity and respect for the earth, Gottlieb doesn't mention it. Of course we need to do better, or try to invent something better. But all Gottlieb does in Forcing the Spring is bad-mouth the "toxic" U.S. production system and imply by silence that were missing an obvious, and obviously better, alternative. Environmentalists are entitled to a better navigation chart if they are to sail into the dubious waters he would have them enter.

It's a worthy enterprise to attack elitism and complacency within the environmental movement. But if we don't know where we're going, we won't be able to tell when a detour is appropriate. In 1969 the New Left arguably came within sight of achieving what it had set out to do. Congress had passed civil rights and fair-housing laws; a majority of Americans were beginning to reject the Vietnam war. Instead of learning the art of the possible and capitalizing on these gains, the movement committed suicide in a frenzy of Stalinist rhetoric and window breaking. Did we want to end the war, or did we want "a change in the very fabric of social life"?

Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement by Robert Gottlieb, Island Press, $27.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.

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