In defense of environmental extremism

David Brower and friends
David Brower and friends

The other night, I saw A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary history of the environmental movement, as part of the excellent DC Environmental Film Festival. The movie was OK, worth seeing, but not great, a bit PBS-like in its sweep.  By trying to cover a  lot, the filmmakers mostly skim the surface: Here’s Sierra Club  founder John Muir, there’s Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, remember when Jimmy Carter put a solar heater on the White House roof, say hello to Stewart Brand and Bill McKibben, meet Wangari Maathai, and let’s not overlook environmental justice and the Copenhagen climate talks, and wasn’t that Buckminster Fuller? Nor does the film look critically at environmentalism; it’s narrated by Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.

FierceGreenFire_posterHaving said that, the film, sometimes by design and sometimes inadvertently, manages to deliver a useful reminder about radicals and rabble-rousers: They are often the ones who drive change. Had Barry Goldwater been an environmentalist, he might have said that extremism in defense of the earth is no vice and that moderation, when it comes to climate change, is no virtue. The environmental movement’s heroes, at least in this telling, are David Brower and Lois Gibbs and Chico Mendes and Greenpeace, and not those who work inside the Beltway or travel to UN conferences. At the very least, grass-roots, bottom-up activism created the conditions that drove change in Washington.

Consider, for example, these stirring words from a presidential State of the Union address, which is (too) briefly excerpted in the movie:

Shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?

Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.

Clean air, clean water, open spaces-these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be.

We still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called…

As our cities and suburbs relentlessly expand, those priceless open spaces needed for recreation areas accessible to their people are swallowed up–often forever. Unless we preserve these spaces while they are still available, we will have none to preserve…

The automobile is our worst polluter of the air. Adequate control requires further advances in engine design and fuel composition. We shall intensify our research, set increasingly strict standards, and strengthen enforcement procedures-and we shall do it now.

We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor’s yard.

Yes, that was Richard Nixon in 1970, three months before the first Earth Day, when an estimated 20 million — 20 million! — people took to the streets on behalf of the planet. Nixon obviously couldn’t have known that Earth Day was coming that but he was a shrewd enough politician to sense that a movement was brewing, as was Gaylord Nelson, the U.S. Senator who came up with the idea for Earth Day. Nixon and Nelson and others in Congress deserve credit for the wave of early 1970s environmental regulation that followed but it was the 1960s-style uprising that demonstrated the urgent need for laws to regulate pollution. 

Lois Gibbs
Lois Gibbs

Earlier, grass-roots efforts by David Brower and the Sierra Club to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon provoked a different reaction from Washington: The IRS said it would challenge the club’s tax-exempt status. Brower won the battle over dams, but he was then ousted from the Sierra Club, evidently because he was too uncomprising in his approach–the film doesn’t get into this, unfortunately. Later, the feminist and environmental movements came together at the toxic waste dump known as Love Canal where Lois Gibbs and other women organized homeowners and demanded that the government do something about a cluster of children being born with birth defects. The women actually held a couple of EPA officials hostage for an afternoon, and eventually President Carter went to Love Canal to thank them for their tireless advocacy.

In the film’s most powerful episode, A Fierce Green Fire chronicles Greenpeacc’s campaign to stop whale-hunting and seal-hunting, with a focus on the exploits of a contentious, profane agitator named Paul Watson. Why, he wonders at one point, are  Russian and Japanese fishing boats harpooning whales so that their oil can be used in the manufacturing of missiles? “We’re insane,” he laments. “We’re just totally insane.” Watson is too radical for Greenpeace  (which he later describes as “the Avon ladies of the environment movement”) and so, after being voted off its board, he forms the Sea Shepherd Society to carry on his crusade; he turns to violence against property, ramming and damaging whaling ships. It sounds extreme but the film suggests — and I don’t know the full story — that Watson and his allies helped bring about a global moratorium on commercial whale hunting in 1986.

What’s clear from all this is that the environmental movement needs activists of all stripes — pragmatic insiders like Fred Krupp and Mark Tercek, sure, who can work inside the Beltway or with Wall Street or Silicon Valley, but also those who are louder and less compromising, like Bill McKibben and Mike Brune and James Hansen (despite what you may have read in The New York Times). Yes, their rhetoric can go a step too far, but the movement needs more of their passion and determination. Politeness is to be admired in children, but it’s no way to build a movement.

Photos courtesy of A Fierce Green Fire. The film is based on a 2003 book by journalist Philip Shabecoff, which I look forward to reading.


  1. Warren Goldstein says

    Fine, thoughtful piece, Marc, alive to the often difficult lessons of history. You probably wouldn’t have wanted most of the Old Testament prophets at your dinner table. Many abolitionists were extremely unpleasant people, and without them slavery would have lasted much, much longer. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s saying “Well-behaved women rarely make history” is on point. The Rev. Fred Shuttleworth’s impolite activism in Birmingham eventually pushed his better-behaved elders toward advocating racial justice. Stonewall’s foot soldiers were the indispensable precursors of this week’s Supreme Court litigators about gay marriage. Thank goodness for all of them.

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