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Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a leader of Earth First! in the Adirondack Mountains, where I've lived for the last twelve years. The Earth First!er said the group's members had recently located their Northeastern U.S. headquarters here because they were prepared to join the political fray over the future of the Adirondack Park, a six-million-acre patchwork of public and private wildlands and home to more than 125,000 people.

Earth First!'s land-use plan for preservation of a wilderness region larger than the state of Massachusetts included the elimination of most roads and all motorized vehicles. When asked if this goal meant an end to economic and social life for the region's citizens, the environmental leader suggested that "the people who now live here, for instance, might become guides and take advantage of the wild nature of the place."

This is a ridiculous idea, but not a surprising one, coming from a group whose rallying cry is back to the Pleistocene! If taken seriously, it means the dismantling of a mountain community and culture that the radical environmental leader later admitted "would be very difficult to achieve." It also means the tens of thousands of able-bodied folk who live in the Adirondacks would have to find jobs guiding visitors, a market that many of the hundred or so guides now licensed already have trouble locating.

This is the brand of environmental activism to which Martin W. Lewis reacts in Green Delusions. Lewis's study is a primer in eco-extremism. According to the author, radical environmentalism thrives on four basic assumptions: Eco-radicals believe that "primitive" native peoples exemplify how to live in harmony with nature and each other; that decentralization is essential to ecological and social well-being; that advances in technology and science are deceptively and innately dehumanizing and harmful; that free-market economics are, by definition, "destructive and wasteful."

What these radical green tenets all mean, of course, is that we must turn our backs on our cities, factories, and capitalist economy and march up into the hills. The eco-radicals, says Lewis, believe the movement back to nature will place us back in harmony with the natural world and put an end to all environmental devastation.

Lewis counters these assumptions incisively and with convincing support. First, he believes that eco-radicals have so romanticized and exaggerated the purity of native, or "primal," cultures that they come close to intellectual fraud. Lewis provides several examples of native people exploiting nature before and after contact with white Europeans. The subtext of Dances with Wolves mythology is that, for instance, the North American Plains Indians' supposedly harmonious relationship with the bison was disrupted by exploitative white settlers. But Lewis points out that many of these tribes, a century before, actually abandoned their desert and woodland homelands for the Plains in order to pursue the lucrative market for bison hides.

Lewis uses a similar example to question the eco-radicals' call for decentralization. He reminds us that while the Iroquois Confederacy is held up as a successful example of small-scale participatory democracy, the tribal confederacy also carried out an effective campaign of ethnocide against the Hurons to ensure a fur-trade monopoly.

The green extremists' penchant for technophobia gets the same treatment from the author. While Lewis agrees some technological advancements have adversely affected the environment and the people, a simple review of basic premodern health problems - water supply, sewage treatment, food production - should more than diminish the ecoradicals' romantic notions of life before the factory, he argues.

For Lewis, the best defense of capitalism as necessary to a healthier, saner green economy is made by comparing it to recent examples of communist socialism.

"Only with the recent downfall of Marxian regimes has the ecological debacle of the East come to light," he writes. In one of several examples, he notes that many of Poland's rivers are so polluted that they cannot serve even industrial uses.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists who diverge from eco-radical dogma are accused of selling their green souls to the despoiling devil. Lewis says such "steadfast" organizations as the Audubon Society and Sierra Club are under attack from ecoradicals. Lewis admits, after several hundred pages, that "eco-radicalism is ... a marginal social movement." He says, however, he has come forward to defend mainstream environmentalism because the radicals have "the potential to destroy the very foundations on which a new and ecologically sane economic order must be built."

Like a televangelist confessing to a life of lustful sinning, Lewis seeks to excuse his zeal and add credibility to his new cause when he reveals that he was once one of the radical green heathens: "If at times my aspersions are caustic, it is because I have had to battle against these seductive ideas myself. Until a few years ago, I too endorsed all of the main platforms of the radical greens."

While Lewis's argument is cogent and comprehensive, it is also mind-numbing in its supporting detail. Green Delusions reads like a dissertation, which means it doesn't, most of the time, read very well at all. It's unfortunate that Lewis, a professor of geography and regional science at George Washington University, will not find a mass audience for his arguments. What could have been a hard-hitting, feature-length magazine article is drawn out for hundreds of pages of dense prose. Dozens and dozens of parenthetical citations in the text assault the senses like cigarette butts and candy wrappers littering a hiking trail.

Nevertheless, Lewis's work is valuable, and the environmental movement needs a public airing of the issues discussed in Green Delusions. To make his case, Lewis provides plenty of evidence of the wacky extremism and arrogance many green radicals advocate. Despite my own sometimes frustrating experiences with radical environmentalists, however, I disagree with Lewis when he suggests that eco-radicals are the enemy within. With the aim of preserving the mainstream groups, he paints the eco-radicals with too broad a brush.

Deep ecologists and Earth First!ers have some workable, thoughtful solutions, and they have already succeeded on some fronts, not the least of which has been raising environmental consciousness. Radical green positions are essential to the spectrum of environmental solutions and models, a spectrum that is in constant flux. Just think of it - only thirty years ago, recycling was seen as a radical idea.

There are other reasons why the environmental movement needs all voices, including the extremists. For example, the "steadfast" groups would otherwise be relegated to the far edge of the political spectrum.

Some political analysts have argued that eco-radicals have polarized the environmental cause for today's electorate, a notion for which I've found some evidence in the current debate on land-use issues in the Adirondacks. But mainstream America is endorsing a strong call to action. A recent Harris Poll asserts that despite a lagging economy, 84 per cent of Americans say they would tolerate a lower standard of living to protect the environment.

With this necessary political balance in mind, Green Delusions should be required reading for environmental advocates. If nothing else, it contributes to a frank discussion of issues that all too often breaks down into greener-than-thou posturing.

James Jay Gould, a free-lance environmental journalist and nature writer, lives in the Adirondacks just north of Lake Placid.)
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Author:Gould, James Jay
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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