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MY COUNTRY, 'TIS OF THEE
Bil Gilbert
December 20, 1976
The future of mankind depends largely upon how well we protect the environment—the air, land, water and all that lives in or upon them. In the United States we have often misused these precious resources. Concerned citizens—once few in number, but now multitudes—have made environmentalism the No. 1 American social enterprise. This special article relates the story of their considerable undertaking
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December 20, 1976

My Country, 'tis Of Thee

The future of mankind depends largely upon how well we protect the environment—the air, land, water and all that lives in or upon them. In the United States we have often misused these precious resources. Concerned citizens—once few in number, but now multitudes—have made environmentalism the No. 1 American social enterprise. This special article relates the story of their considerable undertaking

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The naturalists are more prominent in the old-line conservation organizations, e.g., the Audubon and Wilderness societies, the Sierra and Appalachian Mountain clubs, the National Wildlife Federation. Frequently members have come to these groups because of natural history or recreational interests—wildlife watching, photography, botanizing, hiking, camping. A good many of the naturalists are esthetic conservationists of the 19th century sort, believing that nature is not only beautiful but restorative and therapeutic. Among the naturalists are an increasing number of what might be called the new pantheists. In their view, animal species, plants, forests, tundra, desert, bodies of water, wilderness tracts—in fact, all that make up what we call nature—have a value and an integrity independent of man.

Whether in human terms these are good, bad or indifferent, useful or vicious, we have a moral obligation to respect and protect them, just as we supposedly have an obligation to treat other humans with respect and dignity. This point was once succinctly made by retired Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who for more than a quarter of a century was our most highly placed naturalist-environmentalist. In a case involving commercial development in a national forest, Douglas argued that just as corporations, obviously inanimate phenomena, have legal rights, so should natural objects. "The trees," wrote Douglas, "have standing."

In contrast to the naturalists, humanistic environmentalists usually came to the movement from other reform causes—antiwar and antipoverty, civil rights, planned parenthood—in which they often remain active. Generally, the names of their organizations have a more aggressive social ring: Environmental Action, Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Growth Alternatives. They tend to see the betterment of the human condition as the principal reason for cleaning up the air and water, controlling toxins and contaminants, preserving open space and recreational areas.

The merging of the two groups began in the 1960s, mainly because they viewed with alarm the same thing—environmental degradation—though often for different reasons. A well-to-do naturalist might be concerned about the effects of pesticides on the eggshells of nesting waterfowl, while an impassioned social environmentalist might be alarmed about their effects on the tissues of migrant workers. It enlarged and strengthened both cases to add to the primary charges, "And it is bad also for ducks," or, as the case might be, "people." Both groups made important contributions to the alliance. The humanists were used to battling vested authority. They had acquired expertise in organization, public relations and in using and creating law. Old-line conservationists often had Establishment and political ties and the money to back causes and pay for long legal battles. (The average annual income of the members of the National Audubon Society is $35,000.) Most important, the old liners had the troops to attend public meetings, write letters and send telegrams. (Five groups—Audubon, Izaak Walton League, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society—have a collective membership of more than two million, more than the rest of the private environmental organizations combined.)

The alliance of humanists and naturalists still functions, but there are signs that it is not quite so cordial as it was in the halcyon days of the early 70s. Leaders of the older organizations often feel that their traditional interests are being taken too lightly by the social activists. Writing in the Pacific Historical Review, the Sierra Club's Mike McCloskey commented, "In the context of the new environmental movement, wilderness preservation appears to many as parochial and old-fashioned. It looks suspiciously like a retreat to fantasy or a withdrawl from the real world. Ironically, wilderness advocates have been slow in pointing out that it is none of these things."

There is also a feeling that traditional environmentalism has been weakened by too many extraneous causes. Again McCloskey: "We began [in the 70s] to do the work of other movements, trying to deal with social ills, war, the tax system, etc. In the name of environmentalism we were asked to do too much, to do more than society as a whole could do."

On the other side of the street, the humanists are increasingly critical of naturalists for not doing enough, taking too narrow a view.

"We are shifting to people-oriented cases, away from wildlife activities," says Bill Butler of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Toxic chemicals and energy are now 80% of our cases. At times our interests clash and we have to tell wildlife people, like the Friends of the Earth, to get another group to represent them. We can't say protect seals when our scientists say there are enough seals. Wildlife people have some very impractical ideas."

"Conservation groups are good organizations, and we appreciate their leadership," says Marlin Fitzwater of EPA, "but until recently they tended to emphasize esthetics. Wetlands and forests are important, but the gut issue is public health—bronchitis and emphysema—the fact that the air is so bad in Los Angeles that on about half the days of the year it is unsafe to jog outside."

It appears unlikely that the coolness between the humanists and naturalists will result in outright divorce; both parties still have many common interests and objectives. However, a not unlikely development within the movement is that the divisions between the two will become more apparent, their mutual causes and concerns will become more specialized, and the competition for public attention and support will become sharper.

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