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From Apocalypse to a Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century.

From Apocalypse to a Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century, by Frederick Buell. New York, Routledge Press, 2004. ix, 400 pp. $32.05 US (cloth), $23.95 US (paper).

This award winning account of American environmental history asks big and important questions. The author, Frederick Buell, a cultural theorist who teaches English and Cultural Studies at Queens College/CUNY, explores how and why the environmental movement has evolved to its present state of irrelevance in American politics. Unfortunately, Buell fails to satisfactorily answer that question. Instead, Buell is more concerned with convincing readers that an environmental crisis is upon us and relegates the history to the margins. As a work of cultural criticism Buell's book is interesting; however, as a history it utterly fails.

Buell's book is divided into three main parts: the Politics of Denial; the Environmental Crisis; and Imagining Crisis. The first portion of Buell's work is the weakest. In this section, the author claims to write the history of the environmental movement from Rachel Carson's 1961 bestseller, Silent Spring, to the present. Unfortunately, Buell's "history" of the environmental movement is little more than a polemic. To Buell, the initial optimism and environmental activism generated by Carson's tome has evolved and now "announc[es] itself as apocalypse." This apocalyptic and "environmental crisis" rhetoric, in turn, has become a normal part of everyday life, enabling "new conservatives" to stymie reform through their "politics of denial."

In chronicling how conservatives have successfully turned environmentalists into "chicken little" extremists in the public mind, the author often misconstrues basic concepts of environmental history. For example, at the conclusion of his screed detailing the anti-environmental record of contemporary conservative Republicans, he compares this record unfavourably to Theodore Roosevelt's "environmentalism" (p. 66). Unfortunately, Buell fails to understand that Roosevelt was a conservationist not an environmentalist, a key and elementary distinction made in any introductory course in American environmental history.

The American public's turn against environmental activism is an important development in the history of the environmental movement. Buell, however, never critically examines mainstream environmentalists, failure to engage the electorate. Instead, the author simply attacks the critics of environmental orthodoxy.

Disguising his politically-charged assault as "history," Buell contends that the "new conservativism" has spawned an "authoritarian top-down populist social movement" which has stymied environmental reform. Taking shape in the 1970s, an era of economic and political drift, anti-environmentalists have successfully debunked environmentalism through lies and deceit. By weaving Rush Limbaugh, Ronald Reagan, and Tom Clancy into his far-flung narrative, Buell tries to depict the history of anti-environmentalist thought. Instead, he reveals why environmentalists are losing the public relations war: his rhetoric is not only charged--but also lacks coherency.

In his book's second primary section, "the Environmental Crisis," Buell details the various oncoming ecological disasters confronting humanity. From an open space crisis to a global disease crisis, the author contends that environmental catastrophe awaits an American public that has become so "habituated to crisis" that it has become a transaction cost of modernity.

The author's non-critical acceptance of the environmental movement's orthodoxy undermines his authority. For instance, Buell quotes biologist Paul Ehrlich throughout the text. This is the same Ehrlich who argued in his 1968 classic, The Population Bomb, that global overpopulation would result in mass starvation killing hundreds of millions in the 1970s. Obviously Ehrlich's pessimistic assessments never reached anything close to fruition, yet Buell insists on relying upon the biologist's analysis and predictions. Though the author excoriates conservatives for their reliance on questionable science and experts, Buell has no such compunctions against freely quoting from Ehrlich's forecasts predicting impending destruction.

By far the strongest portion of the book is "Imagining Crisis." In this section, Buell plies his craft as a cultural critic by examining environmental themes in American popular culture. Through tracing ecological topics in science fiction and film, Buell concludes that "ecodystopianism," visions of a future world after an ecological collapse, permeates the genre. In Buell's mind, ecodystopianism has stimulated popular acceptance of anti-environmental politics as Americans have become accustomed to imagining a future which necessarily involves ecological collapse. As cultural criticism, this is engaging; however, as history it fails.

Buell's book is a wide-ranging and largely incoherent ramble masquerading as history. Instead of revealing the history of the contemporary environmental movement, a much needed narrative, Buell opts for advocacy over scholarship.

Jeff Bloodworth

Contemporary History Institute, Ohio University
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Author:Bloodworth, Jeff
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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