Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 3

I left off my Part 2 post with the claim that environmental groups adopted a shallower ecology as they became more mainstream. I will continue to discuss this below, and focus on a more radical fringe environmental group.

With wider supporter bases, the largest and most influential organizations—The Group of Ten—tended toward demureness while working with the US government, which in many cases meant acceding to the demands of corporations; none of the Ten showed up to protest the controversial dumping of toxic PCBs in Afton, North Carolina.  When The Group of Ten began to cooperate with (or behave more pragmatically towards) extractive industries, generally the more lucrative variety, many activists found themselves looking for more adversarial policies, and abandoned their positions for more “active” ones.  Many of these people may have considered themselves liberal members of the environmental groups before, but given the dynamics of mainstream discourse, the splinter groups became much more radical.  Here are some examples of frustrated people leaving mainstream groups: David Brower was fired from the Sierra Club and ended up forming Friends of the Earth and two other grassroots organizations; David Foreman quit his job at the Wilderness Society and co-founded Earth First!; Rick Sutherland declared the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund independent of the Sierra Club to litigate more freely in the name of the environment.

David Foreman and the Earth First! group are the most pertinent cases to the current discussion for several reasons.  The Wilderness Society, which was founded in part by Aldo Leopold and had a strong hand in passing the monumental Wilderness Act of 1964, had grown more complacent by the late 1970s.  When the US Forest Service released 65 out of 80 million undeveloped acres for logging, recreation, and mining in 1979, the Wilderness Society, along with others of the Ten, were satisfied with the tiny portion of protected area remaining, 7.5 million acres of which were rock and ice.  Foreman left his position and started Earth First! with another former Wilderness Society member and a former Friends of the Earth member, emulating the protagonists of Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, who carry out eco-sabotage, or ecotage.  Embracing a deep ecology platform, Foreman claimed “the best thing would be to let nature seek its own balance”; unfortunately in this case he was referring to starvation in Ethiopia, and this was far from the only instance of insensitivity to human plight.  Calls of misanthropy have become common criticism against deep ecologists, and not without reason: in efforts to prevent logging, members of Earth First! used to nail huge metal spikes into trees, damaging not only equipment but also severely injuring mill workers.

Although Naess probably distanced himself from Earth First! for several reasons—he was intensely Gandhian in his activism, and felt that calling oneself a “deep ecologist” was immodest [1]—the group’s key tenets remained, at least partly, in tune with Naess’ original thinking.  In particular, Naess’ belief that “except to satisfy vital needs, humans do not have the right to reduce this diversity and richness [of all living beings],” and that “it would be better for humans if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures” directly resonate with Earth First!’s goals, if not their methods.  There is no doubt that Earth First! brought the deep ecology platform publicity, both positive and negative.  The mainstream environmental movement, far less radical than deep ecology, also may have mixed reasons to thank and lament the more militant and biocentric ideology.  As many have noted (often even those in public positions at large environmental groups), the fringe splinters have tended to make the mainstream look more “reasonable.”  But in many cases, reasonable is simply a euphemism for “shallow”; standing in the path of a construction truck [2] has more immediate and tangible results than sitting in skyscraper offices mulling things over.  According to Dowie, many prominent, traditional (mainstream) environmentalists have often agreed with Earth First!’s rhetoric but found their tactics too embarrassing to support openly; in one personal communication, Dowie learned that an important Environmental Defense Fund board member made larger donations to Earth First! than to the EDF, but had to hide such support in the interest of keeping his EDF job.

What does the discrepancy between public, popular shallow ecology and private, principled deep ecology mean? Can anything be done about them? How should we interpret American writing and a Norwegian’s theory?
In Part 4, I will answer none of these questions, pose some new ones, and conclude my thoughts on the topic.

[1] And close inspection reveals that nowhere in his original paper does he mention ‘deep ecologists’ explicitly

[2] Foreman attempted this in Siskiyou National Forest, sustaining serious injury

As always, if you are interested in following up on any of the above quotations, I can provide the corresponding citation.

3 thoughts on “Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 3

  1. Pingback: Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 4 « Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: The Evolution Of Cooperation « Raxa Collective

  3. Pingback: Ideas About Why To Hug A Tree « Raxa Collective

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