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A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement.

Environmentalism has come of age. What was launched more than a century ago by a handful of preservation-minded naturalists, and what swept across America as activists rallied on Earth Day 1970, is today a powerful, professional mainstream movement.

But success is a double-edged sword. When a movement becomes institutionalized, it risks losing the very ideals that inspired its creation. Philip Shabecoff's A Fierce Green Fire, The American Environmental Movement leaves one with the feeling that perhaps environmentalism is in such danger.

Shabecoff, a veteran New York Times reporter who now runs the news service Greenwire, does not speak to the question directly. If anything, his account is an affirmation of where the movement is going. He gives us a thorough, readable, and, at times, interesting description of American environmentalism.

Those new to the movement will find the book a useful history. Those more familiar with environmentalism will enjoy the novel-like descriptions and behind-the-scenes details that only a seasoned journalist could provide. Those concerned about how the movement will handle its newfound success, though, may be troubled - not so much by what is in this book as by what is left out.

Shabecoff divides environmentalism into three waves. The account of the first wave, which takes the reader from the emergence of the movement in the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th, is somewhat slow going. But Shabecoff's engaging portraits of the movement's founders pull the reader through. He gives us, for instance, the "bearded, mystical Scotsman...the nation's archpriest of wild nature," John Muir. Muir, who lived around the turn of the century, launched the preservation movement that seeks to protect places for their wildness and beauty.

Shabecoff also relates the philosophical debates of the time, many of which are reflected in today's policy battles. Muir's preservationist ideals, for instance, conflicted with the emerging conservation ethic of Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester under President Theodore Roosevelt. Conservation, which seeks efficient and sustainable use of public lands, ultimately won the day, and has guided government policy ever since.

Shabecoff also brings us inspiring excerpts from first-wave philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau and fascinating accounts of conversations between the likes of mountain man Daniel Boone and naturalist and renowned bird artist John James Audubon. One of the best passages in the book is Aldo Leopold's description (in his own words) of hunting and killing an old wolf. In watching the wolf die, Leopold comes to realize the impact of human interference with nature. This experience leads to his "land ethic," in which he posits humans as but one part of nature.

The second wave had equally inspiring figures. Its heroes and heroines, though, were more diverse than early environmentalists, and they drew attention to a wider range of concerns. There was the eloquent scientist Rachel Carson and her Silent Spring of 1962, a clarion call of alarm to the ravages of the insecticide DDT on bird populations.

Meanwhile, activists such as David Brower, "'the archdruid' of the conservation movement," and legendary photographer Ansel Adams infused new life into old-line environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Even politicians - such as Senator Edmund Muskie - entered the fold.

All of these luminaries were important precursors to the true start of the second wave: Earth Day 1970. That's when environmentalism emerged as a mass social movement. "Some 20 million Americans, many of them young, massed in the streets, on campuses, on riverbanks, in parks, and in front of government and corporate buildings to demonstrate their distress and anxiety over the state of the environment...A revolution, of sorts, had begun," Shabecoff writes.

Shabecoff's account of the second wave is more engaging than the first because he is more involved. He adds, for instance, personal testimony such as a moving account of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. "Of all the damage I observed there," he writes, "none saddened and angered me and millions of television viewers more than seeing seabirds, otters, seals, and other animals coated with viscous oil and struggling - hopelessly in most cases - to stay alive."

He also draws on first-hand knowledge to provide vivid sketches of the players in the second wave. He describes Richard Ayres, founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, as the "boyish-looking and deceptively mild mannered crusader," while James Watt, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, garners a more villainous sketch. "Tall, gaunt, and dressed in funeral black, with glittering eyes and a wolfish smile beneath a shiny bald pate, Watt descended on Washington like an Old Testament prophet bearing sword and scripture," writes Shabecoff.

The third wave begins with the Bush administration. By this time, 1970 Earth Day activists had shed their bell bottoms and tie-dyed shirts and had become "more pragmatic and professional." The movement, explains Shabecoff, abandoned the direct action and youthful idealism of the first and second waves and relied instead on skilled advertising campaigns and mass marketing, experimented with economic incentives and cooperation with industries, and explored technological solutions.

Although Shabecoff at times calls for a bolder program, he generally endorses the more recent approach. "The idea is not to abandon our economic system but to strip it of those parts that threaten not only the long-term health of the environment but the long-term health of the economy as well," he states.

But are Shabecoff and the contemporary environmentalists preaching a false prophecy? Such faith in reforming an ecologically destructive economy, after all, is reminiscent of the fate of farmers in the American Southern Plains states in the 1940s. After suffering through the drought and erosion of the Dust Bowl a few years earlier - one of thc most severe of America's environmental tragedies and an event that merits just one paragraph in Shabecoff's book - these farmers went back to the profit-maximizing commercial farming that caused the original catastrophe. And Dust Bowl-type conditions returned in the 1950s.

Environmental historian Donald Worster explains in Dust Bowl, the Southern Plains in the 1930s that reformers had offered farmers a technological panacea for ecological destructiveness, when the root issue was motivation and values - a deeply entrenched economic ethos." Today's mainstream environmentalists seem to be offering the same, although the technological panaceas - pollution credits, full-cost accounting, and corporate environmentalism - are more sophisticated. Perhaps the descendants of Muir, Thoreau, and Leopold could learn a lesson or two from the Dust Bowl. Unfortunately, they won't find those lessons in Shabecoff's book.
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Author:Akula, Vikram
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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