By Bill Neil
I suppose another way to look at this is that the prints have come back from the crime lab, and ours are collectively all over the extinguished species. The best we can plead, I think, is “involuntary species slaughter.”
An environmental friend of mine passed on your letter from the “Gowood Blogspot,” and your worries that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has gone overboard in protecting “nature,” and slighted humans as a consequence.
I think it is a good thing we greens to have face tough questions about what we value, and the efficacy of the laws on the books, good to listen to those who have a very different perspective and probing questions about the ancient conflicts, between the human economy and nature’s ecology. However, neither the economy nor nature’s ecology is static, and the equations between the two may not look the same today as they did just after the Ice Ages, in 1776, or 1996.
Indeed, the two are more fatally intertwined than we ever imagined. That’s something I want to explore with you. I think that your statement in the first paragraph that “very few of the species we currently have are ones that were here 10-20 thousand years ago” is not correct. I suspect that 95-99% of them are still with us, and the ones that have gone extinct first are the ones our ancestors hunted to that fate, and I think that even if you changed “thousands to millions” that would still be the case. But I defer to other experts to confirm what survived from that epoch. And the situation is changing rapidly now, over the past quarter of century, especially with the rise of Asia to middle class American aspirations, and Brazil too, and the intensification of globalization and global warming. Something new and ominous is afoot as we will soon see, something called “The Sixth Extinction.”
Before going any further, I think you should get a little of my biography. That’s the way of old conservation hands, I regret to inform you, but bear with me, I’ll try to tie all the seeming side streams and intermittent springs into one watershed pattern, and not lose any species in the process.
I’m the former Director of Conservation for NJ Audubon Society, and my formal conservation career, which included some coastal conservation work, spanned the years 1988-2001. My first assignment for the American Littoral Society was a policy “suicide mission” if there ever was one: to win a Coastal Commission from the legislature, to regulate land-uses at the NJ shore, a project sprung from the mind of Governor Tom Kean – or his aides. I was the lead negotiator for the greens, and I was very “green” myself in the other common meaning of the word, and my role must have caused some memorable private asides from the NRDC luminaries I worked with, Lisa Speer and Sarah Chasis. Coastal mayors and the Shore Builders Association, however, had other, very non-ecological ideas. They won, and you, the federal taxpayer will be “bailing out” homes in NJ forever, ones that will be crushed by future coastal storms, because homeowners won the absolute right to rebuild in dangerous places. They may be on higher “stilts” today, after Sandy, but still. Chalk one up for the “humans.”
Those cute piping plovers, a federally “ threatened” and state “endangered” species nesting on the upper portions of the beach are in fact truly up against it, and are no one’s state bird. Although they have formal federal and state protection, there they are, right up against the American Dream, and the dream homes that go with it, Gatsby like - but with an ocean, not a bay view. Of course, as any good ecologist knows, it isn’t always the direct effects of building which matter: the poor plovers won’t have homes built over their upper beach nesting areas in most cases: they’ll suffer instead, from all the secondary impacts of affluenza.
|Female Piping Plover (credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service)|
I was then hired by NJ Audubon to “Save the Highlands,” the state’s northern watershed area, and part of the intent was to also convince people that the society was not just about protecting birds. I was the chief lobbyist in Trenton and Washington, and did considerable work on the federal ESA, which unlike the NJ law, protects habitats and not just species from that cruder form of threat, the threat of direct “take.” The real estate industry in New Jersey was so powerful, though, that not even the most deluded conservationist thought we could obtain new language to protect the habitat necessary to have a truly viable state law. So nature’s species “on the edge” in New Jersey are heavily dependent on an effective federal ESA.
Not too long after I was hired by NJAS, I was offered, as a job “perk,” the chance to live, rent free, on a 67 acre “farm” in the Highlands I, high up on Musconetcong Mountain in Hunterdon County. I lived there for a decade, as close as anyone can come to living directly amidst nature in suburbanized New Jersey, a conservationist’s version of the American Dream, I suppose. And to the extent that I had the power and the means, I set in motion land-use changes that would send existing fields and lawns back to wildflower meadows and, eventually, forests - if the deer herds would allow. They, not me, would have the dominant say in what eventually evolved. And yet their great unbalancing impact on Eastern forests is human induced, and the efforts of all the sportsmen in the USA can’t seem to set it right again. If we were serious about undoing their effects, in re-establishing the native understory, it would be a big project, and generate lots of work: deer herd thinning, removal and vast amounts of fencing. There they are, conservation jobs staring us in the face…
Just after I moved to the farm in late October of 1991, I was lying awake one night, blinds open to the stars and that NJ “wilderness, “deer- browsed as it is, when from deep inside the altered forest on the opposite side of Tunnel Road came a cry so piercing and shrill that I thought it must have come from an act of infanticide, or at least, the ax murder of a young child. It was not an imitation. It was, whatever its ultimate source, original, of that I have no doubt. And it went on, on and then off, far worse than the nuclear test sirens of the 1950’s, for about fifteen minutes. Its originality meant it was part of nature, and as much as even the best passages of Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales ever did, it took me back to the frontier line of the 1750’s, of the French and Indian Wars, with the accent falling, rightly or wrongly, on the Indians. The best anyone could come up with for the scream’s author was to pin it on juvenile great horned owls, profoundly protesting being pushed off last year’s nesting site, having to wing it now on their own in nature’s great, complex system. Although the proof isn’t conclusive, I believe that was source of those screams, and despite their initial impact on me – “what have I gotten myself into” – I realize now that they were and will remain forever a privilege; a privilege to have heard those forest primeval sounds, full of terror and wonder and implicit human humility in the face of what remains of the original North American Nature.
|Fledgling Great Horned Owl (credit: Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife)|
Sentimental and esthetic you say? “Guilty” I plead, I’m an American, and that’s part of our birthright, imagining the great eastern forest, where it was once said that a squirrel could travel from Maine to Florida and never touch the ground, running alongside Daniel Day- Lewis and Chingachgook (Russell Means) atop those narrow Allegany ledges. If you want to mix in the soundtrack from some romantic Scots and Randy Edelman to enhance the experience, go ahead, but remember, a Native American tribe, human beings, are going extinct, and that’s the way the movie, The Last of the Mohicans ends, and who knows, buried deep somewhere in our collective white subconscious, there may be uneasy traces of who did what to whom to get all this land, and subtle reminders of it may surface every time we wax too sentimental about bats, spotted owls and rare garter snakes, painful links between “reservations” and habitat conservation plans.
But I digress, as forced early retirement “old white men,” or “surplus men,” if you would prefer, do tend to wander, hoping they don’t lose the ability still to wonder. Those cries, they were also a sharp reminder, and rebuke, to those conservationists who want to overly sentimentalize nature into something softer and more anthropomorphic than it ever was, or, even as we have bent it so out of shape, is still today. In that middle-of- the-night, unholy top-of-the- food chain scream is also contained a reminder of all of the best of our literature’s protests, the push back against humans ground up and determined and finally crushed by impersonal forces, whether natural or human-made. American Dream or not, the content of that Dream and its release of our “Animal Spirits” is a problem, a huge one. It is still a struggle to see if humans are the masters or just lowly servants of these immense forces, especially the economic forces, that they have set in motion, even as, all the while, they are proclaiming freedom and liberty and the full powers of individual human agency. We shall see, indeed, who or what is finally “determined,” and who will do the determining.
How could I forget, in recalling that primeval howl, especially given its setting in an over-deer browsed forest that could no longer reproduce itself, that there were missing voices, another chorus from the top of the food chain, and whose absence was intimately connected to this ecosystem’s careening out of control. I’m referring, of course, to the howl, the group serenade of the wolves, from which all our dogs are descended, and matched 97% genetically, even the most unlikely looking present genetic renderings. In their absence, we’ll have to console ourselves with their closest matches, our Shepherds and Malinois’ and Huskies, who, try as they might, have lost a little edge in keeping the deer herds, our “hooved rodents” as one ecologist in NJ called them, in check.
And now for some historical context, because the when is very important in both nature’s evolution, and human history. My career started late, in 1988, with most of the famous federal laws already on the books, from early in the conservation movement’s history, whose golden age achievements were recorded in the decade after the first Earth Day in 1970. It became harder and harder to pass new laws, or even update the famous existing ones, as the American Right, largely now the Republican Right, gained momentum. Let me be clear about this, and I hope that you have gotten some of this in your environmental courses, although I have my grave doubts about that. This is what has been called the “Starve the Beast” strategy, the beast being “government,” alleged to be the one that no longer belongs to Lincoln’s famous formulations. Just whose government it actually is also is a matter of huge dispute between left and right.
The American political Right’s philosophy should be understood, agree with it or not. It is anti-regulatory, anti-spending (government spending) and anti-tax, which, if you come to think of it only in regards to environmental laws and matters, would, if taken fully at face value, cripple public environmental protections, would “nullify” them (and you know whose ghost that belongs to, I hope: William Lloyd Garrison’s Antebellum foe) except for voluntary, “charitable” actions by non-profits, buying what we want to protect at fair market value. We would therefore become dependent upon the “Nature Conservancy” types, faint green echoes of the Robber Barons, and their “charitable” undertakings, after their having served as undertakers for American Democracy in the late Gilded Age. This was the sermon I had preached at me, being portrayed as an “Alamo” defender of the regulatory state, in far too many lunch time meetings whose design, usually not too well concealed, was to break my will and turn me into another smiling, easy going, optimistic “realtor for nature.”
At night I would come home after legislative struggles, or nasty internal fighting amidst the swirl of competing conservation groups, and break out the wine and the books, usually books about the vast changes in our economy, books by William Greider, Who Will Tell the People (1992) and One World, Ready or Not (1997) books which spoke of democracy being crushed by corporate power, by “Citizen GE,” and the coming impact of the second great age of Globalization, especially upon America’s blue collar workforce. Greider didn’t perhaps know it at the time, but Paul Krugman surely reminded him, cruelly and bluntly after that second book, that he was about to become a man wagging his finger at the howling intellectual wilderness of America’s cruel “consensus” on political economy.
How could I not be aware that all my conservation work was unfolding in a deeper, non-environmental context, a world dominated by neoliberal economics, what the 19th century called conservative, “classical” economics, an economics that was intimately intertwined with the late 20th century rise of the American Right, both being anti-statist, anti-interventionist, anti-spending, anti-tax, and above all for we greens, anti-regulatory. How could I not be carried back into the world of political economy when my daily work demanded, in every environmental battle I ever fought, that I understand the economics of the business interests we were trying to restrain on behalf of nature, from Ocean Spray Cranberries to the New Jersey Builders Association to the Rockefeller’s International Trade Center in northwest New Jersey. And how could I ever forget, all the attempts by private sector actors to turn NJ’s “Central Park,” Liberty State Park in Jersey City, into a water theme park or golf course or some other cash generating economic machine.
Starving the Beast has unintended consequences, creating conditions of permanent “Austerity,” enmeshing Democrats as well, not a difficult task, and the consequence for Nature is to try to seize every acre of “unimproved land” and turn it into a potential commodity for sale or income generating “scheme.” And scheme is not too strong a term for what I have seen attempted in New Jersey.
I had to become an “economist,” there was no choice, because I had to answer the economic “calamity” implications that were always being hurled against us, whatever our environmental rationale was for protecting this or that resource or region. Jobs? We were always “elitists” ignoring the jobs our protective programs would cost. We were working against the American Dream and in NJ, the costs of that Dream as measured by the single family home were soaring, and we were the chief cause of that, Dream Breakers.
Matt, I’m conceding a point to you here in your accusation that the Endangered Species Act seems to favor nature over people, and your being partial to the human side, that being only “natural” for a human. You’re right and our critics in NJ were often right: much of what we proposed would, in the short run, put a break on the immediate job creation effects of construction work. The fact that regulatory pressures could drive inventions and innovations that would in themselves create new industries and jobs was a more intermediate or long term possibility, a realistic one, but which did not sound comforting enough to workers who live with their unpaid bills in the short run world. And the long term dream of conservationists, that we could build an entire new economy around a better relationship with nature, a non-exploitative one, is even further out on the horizon.
We are being carried there, like it or not, though, to that seemingly distant rendezvous point on the horizon, by very powerful economic and natural forces, carried faster than we can even fathom, so a big adjustment is coming, and I don’t want to sound like I am conceding everything, or too much to the arguments I’ve always heard hurled against our protective efforts. There is something else going on here in this struggle between the business world and the conservation world that is very important to understand, because it does directly influence and bear upon the complaints you have lodged against the ESA, in what are, in effect, your efforts to re-write or re-authorize the law to be less protective of nature and more protective of human economic needs.
What is going on is that despite all the environmental laws and regulations on the books, and the many victories conservationists have won, our human economy, what is properly called capitalism, no matter of what variety, is overwhelming the natural world by its increasing scope and power, it’s waste products as well as the costs of its various stages of production and distribution, costs which are mightily transferred to nature’s and the public’s “balance sheets.”
I don’t know how many other full time conservationists have had a similar moment of revelation in their careers, but I remember mine quite vividly, not in the middle of public testimony, or in the aftermath of a victory or defeat, but in having the message of a good BBC drama series sink in. It came in the way of a retelling of the Battle of Britain, the at one time “heroic” struggle of the pilots of the RAF in 1940-1941 to fend off the Nazi air attacks against England, a time when England famously stood alone. The series was called, tellingly, and ironically, “Piece of Cake,” and it must have been 1993 when I saw it, or close to that. It would have been my sixth year of conservation work, and by that time the struggle to save the Highlands had stalled out in the face of the mood of the times: very much against public spending (it was Bill Clinton’s “Austerity Era” before the late 1990’s Roaring 20’s rerun…) and most decidedly against any new regional regulatory Commissions, like the model NJ Pinelands – that had become the anti-model in a conservative era that saw the property rights movement rise as the “Tea Party” of its day.
In this series, the RAF heroes were inverted in a Catch 22 re-telling: the best pilots, the few who could shoot straight, were awful human beings, Darwinian in their attitudes to their fellow pilots. And they couldn’t tell who was winning; the day-to-day mood was one of near despair, as pilot after pilot was killed in the efforts against the Nazi waves of bombers and their fighter escorts. It seem to match my own sense that, win, draw or mostly, lose, the environmental movement had crested, was being outflanked as all of its tools were being ideologically negated by the rise of the Republican Right. I saw this clearly, and when I put it into direct words, first, inside NJ Audubon, then in some public speeches - “The Greatest threat to the environment is the rise of the Republican Right” – jaws would drop, isolating efforts would be set in motion…and a feeling of fighting against hopeless odds would visit me, visit and not leave. And those words were the message of my final speech in New Jersey, given as I accepted the “Lifetime Achievement Award” in Environmental Advocacy from the NY-NJ Baykeeper, on a memorable day, September 9th, 2001, the last time I would ever see the Twin-Trade Towers which had so dominated the NYC skyline over my Jersey City work for so many years.
Of course, the other bases of countervailing power in our society must have been feeling similar things, whether that was the consumer movement, the labor movement, what was left of the Civil Rights movement; any movement whose main current ran overtly against the flood tide of the economy to the Right, was being drained if not crushed. James Madison’s hopes and designs for fragmenting power was being outflanked by an ideology which was uniting businesses of all sizes in a new ideological trinity against government, regulation and public spending (except for defense and tax subsidies to vast to list.) Power, economic and political power whether measured by wealth or income, was moving up higher on the human “food chain,” and, strange as it may seem, the fate of nature and the fate of the proverbial blue collar worker were ending up on the very short end of the stick, and to make matters even more befuddling, those blue collar workers often voted, when they did vote, to support the policies and leaders who were emasculating their own economic interests, sidetracked in their pursuit of vanishing cultural conventions, or perhaps “privileges,” as some of their opponents would have it.
This may come as a surprise to you, because implied in your posting about the ESA was the power of the environmentalists to carry the day on behalf of this or that obscure endangered species. I have a very different perspective, but I concede your point here: greens can still mobilize very well to fight defensive battles, but please note the qualifying adjective: we have lost, to the rise of the Right, the power to win large new laws – the fate of the struggles against Global Warming being the proof of that – or even to substantially revise the famous landmark pieces of legislation from the environmental glory days: the ESA, the Clean Water Act, Superfund…
Matt, the saddest part of all these tensions and allegedly terrible tradeoffs between jobs and the protections of the old environmental laws, is that they were unnecessary. A Civilian Conservation Corps might have been developed, a robust one through the combined economic and environmental troubles of the 1970’s, when American economic hegemony was breaking apart, and have met both needs, and not just for the ESA. In my mind, it borders on an intellectual crime, how we have buried and refused to build upon some of the best of our own history from the New Deal. I’ve met some old West Virginia sons, Matt, while living in Maryland, the two states seemingly running a perpetual exchange program, who proudly took out their CCC medals, kept right alongside their Purple Hearts from World War II, and I was told what it meant to have a job in the jobless 1930’s: they kept $5.00 per month to spend on themselves, the rest was sent back to their families, and what they built and planted can still be found all over the country, a shining beacon of hope from a time when the government was a friend of the average citizen, not an alleged alien force.
Matt, thank you for sending me back to review some of the nitty gritty of the ESA; I haven’t worked in its details for some time. It’s always a good idea, in policy matters, to go back to the “Finding’s Section” of legislation, where the legislators best disclose their values and thoughts about the matters at hand. And so we see very early here in the ESA, the very first “finding,” in fact, that human economic impacts, detrimental ones, are one of the triggers for the threats to species, and in the third finding that “these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people…” That surprised me and refreshed me, because I am not a complete utilitarian when it comes to nature, and here it is, in the heart of the law’s values, stating that our human, and American interest in preserving nature, is not entirely selfish, it touches some other ideals. (It doesn’t quite come up to Peter Singer’s standards, but then, which ones do?) Later, in the definitions, I found the justification that answers your bat assertions: we can intervene to save species even if we don’t know the cause of their jeopardy; the harm and threat doesn’t have to be human generated, even as most of the harms do have, in reality, direct or indirect human causation.
Your posting also sent me to exploring the US Fish and Wildlife Services’ website on the ESA, here at.. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/index.html and their very well done “justification piece, ‘Why Save Species,’” here at http://www.fws.gov/endangered/species/why-save-species.html . As you probably can understand by now, I’m an idealist when it comes to preserving nature, the nature humans have evolved out of and which we will depend upon for future survival, like that fact or not. We often do our best to obscure our power to do that nature, and therefore ourselves, do ourselves in. But if that linkage between our species and the rest of the webs of nature, and all other species is as I believe it is, fatally intertwined, is the preservation of nature self-interest or idealism? I think the two blur, and I have my doubts that human kind are going to act decisively in time on the basis of humility, the admirable humility that is built into this little piece done by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “Why Save Species.” And I have to chuckle a bit, because the folks there, at USFWS, I like to think of as Nature’s Marine Corps, the best defenders of what’s left, and indeed, the most stubborn and diligent defender of T&E species, and wetlands, in NJ, was a former Marine, the head of the NJ Field Office, Clifford Day. It’s a little different perspective there in the USFWS than the first words that came out of the mouth of Joe Michaels of the US Forest Service, which was hired to do the initial study to save the NJ Highlands. As Joe mounted the fire tower and glimpsed the surprisingly expansive forest vista of the region, a visual rebuke to all the cruel national jokes about New Jersey, his first words paid tribute to the potential “board footage” of the “resource.” That wasn’t quite what we had in mind, but that’s why the Forest Service got the job from Congress and not the USFWS. Joe and the Forest Service study turned out to be better and broader than those first words, but you can see the struggle we humans have to rise above our “Speciesism,” even when many of us think our own necks are on the line in what we have wrought, and not “just” the amphibians.
And that speaks, Matt, to your willingness to write off species that don’t meet your criteria, as crucial links, or keystone species or tied directly to human needs. They’ve died out before, you say, and will die out again. We can’t save them all, and why try if humans have to give up something important, the alleged jobs or property rights. Well, I think the USFWS has some pretty good answers, humbling ones, and it comes down to this: we don’t know it all, far from it, so we can’t just write off links because based on our understanding today, they appear to be limited and insignificant, even on nature’s own terms. We think our planet has some 10-50 million organisms – please note the huge gap in knowledge there, already…no precision on how many, what a range; and we’ve only formally documented 1.7 million of those. Very likely, and ironically, it is among the less spectacular of the organisms, the plants, insects and bacteria, that we are most likely to find useful, human species saving chemicals and medicines, ones we can’t yet make in our own Bell, DuPont and Monsanto labs. This brochure speaks of the cancer fighting drug Taxo, derived from the Pacific yew, a species that “was routinely destroyed during logging operations.” It was called a “weed tree.” Although I doubt it was intended, I guess you can read that as a gentle elbow from the USFWS directed towards the logging oriented US Forest Service, but the deeper message, and danger, is that of being too “utilitarian” for even our own good. And a parallel irony, it seems to me, is that on the man-made side entirely, we have tens if not hundreds of thousands of chemicals that we push out into the broader environment, and therefore into our bodies, and we haven’t even cleared .01% of them with our own primitive health screening tests at EPA, which is charged with their safety. But that doesn’t quite fit the “over-regulated script” that we’ve been hearing since Reagan’s election in 1980.
Matt, as much as I want to defend the ESA to you and to any other readers “listening in,” I’m afraid to say that the momentum of our times, economic and ecological, is outflanking the whole approach of the ESA and its complex, historical “set piece” battles, the ones which seem to have prompted your postings. Maybe the best way to dramatize this sea change in perspective is to recall that the National Marine Fisheries Service, under NOAA, has the aquatic side of the ESA, and has also long been famous for its attempts through the fisheries councils, to “save” one over-fished species after another, duplicating in spirit and complexity so many of the famous land-based efforts contained within the ESA. But here’s the thing: if the power and scale of human fish harvesting technology hasn’t already convinced you that we’re an imminent threat to other species, even the ones we most like to eat, what’s going to happen when the nature of the threat shifts from the seining nets and bottom dragging trawls to the chemistry of the ocean itself, its pH, which is trending towards the acidic side because of global warming? It’s more subtle, but probably a greater threat to the most sensitive stage of aquatic creatures - the larval stage - and it’s already devastating coral communities. Such a prospect forms an important part of Naomi Klein’s 2014 book about global warming, This Changes Everything, as she compares the hidden yet major aquatic damage from the infamous Gulf Oil Spill to her own difficulty in conceiving her first child.
One of my favorite conservation authors, Elizabeth Kolbert, the writer of cheerful, uplifting volumes like Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change, has another gem out, called the Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, published in 2014. I’m going to assume that Penn State has familiarized you, Matt, with the previous five great extinctions enmeshed in the language of geologic Eras, Periods and Epochs, and the concept of “background” extinction rates, which for our current 5,500 species of mammals works out to about one per every 700 hundred years, under “normal conditions.” But as the title of Kolbert’s book suggests, humans have not “sustained” normal conditions and in fact, are creating extinction rates across the flora and fauna that are unmatched except for these five infamous mass extinctions from the geologic record. Kolbert says the extinction rate for amphibians is as great as 45,000 times the background rate, and that “one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” This is a world–wide phenomenon that threatens to overwhelm the type of mechanisms the USA employs in its ESA protocols for listing and protection. In fact, what is happening is so unprecedented and alarming that it has prompted a Dutch Nobel Laureate chemist, Paul Crutzen, to propose changing the name of our contemporary “epoch,” the “Holocene,” (wholly recent) to the Anthropocene, to honor, if that is the right word, the unprecedented human impact upon other life forms, and upon the very structural basis of what we call Nature. His proposal is formally up in 2016 before the International Commission on Stratigraphy (the ICS), Kolbert tells, us, “the group responsible for maintaining the official timetable of earth’s history.”
I suppose another way to look at this is that the prints have come back from the crime lab, and ours are collectively all over the extinguished species. The best we can plead, I think, is “involuntary species slaughter.”
Sometime in the early 2000’s Matt, I realized that I was probably never going back to a full time career in conservation, having turned past 50, and with somewhat a bounty placed on my head in New Jersey: an entirely well-deserved and honorable one, I would maintain, placed there by those conservative conservationists who still believed that incremental, bi-partisan compromises could be obtained, and that they could make a difference in stemming human impacts. And so I began to pay more and more attention to the world of economics, which after the dot.com bust and the famous accounting scandals, was making less and less conventional, “classical sense.” It didn’t take a genius, in my view, to sense something very wrong when massive layoffs of human beings, in the thousands, sent stock prices soaring. Eventually it led to me writing an essay that declared that we were, in a very punitive, moralistic sense, being treated as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Market,” as if the economic world humans had created functioned like some huge, impersonal naturalistic machine where we could no longer “intervene,” we just had to strive and hope that our offerings pleased the “private sector,” and later the “bond vigilantes.”
And then came the great financial crisis in 2007-2008, and a book, which, although it was written too late to take that event into account, seemed in all other respects to have anticipated it. I’m referring, of course, to James Gustave Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Here was a Forestry School Dean, a man of largely conservative temperament as Forestry people and Deans both tend to be, who also had a cabinet full of environmental laurels reaped from nearly every phase of human social life, spanning the globe. Gus Speth was nobody’s fool. I was stunned at his conclusion. Here was someone familiar with every aspect of environmental law and regulation looking at the big picture and seeing that we were failing. He seemed to be at the same place I was in 1993 when I was watching “Piece of Cake.” I wanted to pronounce the title of his book, “The Bridge at the End of the World…,” not at the Edge. His conclusion is fairly easy to summarize: “Capitalism as we know it today is incapable of sustaining the environment.” I think we can add, in the wake of the work of Thomas Piketty and Naomi Klein and Yanis Varoufakis, that the fate of the average citizen, and democracy itself, is at risk under the present system. (If you would like to read my formal review of “The Bridge…” here it is online at http://www.amazon.com/review/R2APXCJ1AUCUGY under the title “When the Traditional Environmental Prescriptions Don’t Work.”
Speth hasn’t stopped with that work, he continues to write and to speak out, and perhaps the best way for you to come up to speed with his analysis and vision is to visit with his 2012 essay, America the Possible: A Manifesto, Part I,” which appeared in Orion magazine. Here’s the link: https://orionmagazine.org/article/america-the-possible/ I’m partial to Speth and this essay in particular because we’ve ended up in pretty much the same intellectual territory, despite having never met: “I think America got off course for two primary reasons. In recent decades we failed to build consistently on the foundations laid by the New Deal, by Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and his Second Bill of Rights, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Instead, “dominant American values today are strongly materialistic, anthropocentric, and contempocentric” and we are living under a “manufactured consumerism that is not meeting our deepest human needs.”
Matt, I’m afraid to get out of the situation we find ourselves in today, environmental and economic,” we’re going to have to “intervene,” accept our responsibility for the predicaments, and chart a very different course. We can’t do that if we allow the dominant economic thinking to declare boundaries so rigid that it amounts to a straightjacket, such as the declaration that “only the private sector can create jobs.” Today the private sector does not have the ability or the inclination to create full employment, or anything close to it, despite all the work that needs to be done in repairing the damage to the natural world and our own human infrastructure, and the obvious damage long term unemployment causes to human beings. And yet conservative Republicans and Centrist Democrats compete with each other in designing new financial incentives to put business “in the mood,” to create shining lures which only aggravate the already shameful maldistribution of income and wealth. Full citizen standing in our republic of wealth is now reserved only for entrepreneurs, in all sizes, some 15-20% of the population.
The “can do” and experimental attitude so well exemplified in FDR’s New Deal is now a limited prerogative of just one social type. The rest of us can only hope to become “one.” But the channels that these traditional American values flow in have become terribly erosive, just as they had become during the Gilded Age and the 1920’s. The tremendous energies built into the material striving, the “upward mobility or perish ethos” that forms the heart of the American Dream must find more constructive pathways than strip-mining nature and leaving less “driven” citizens behind in the equivalent of Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes ( that’s from The Great Gatsby.)
That’s the tale one of our greatest historians, environmental historians, that is, tells in Dust Bowl: The Southeast Plains in the 1930’s, which won the Bancroft Prize in history when it came out in 1979. The author is Donald Worster, and I would hope, Matt, that somewhere you have encountered one of his many books. I think this is perhaps his best one, because it does what we must in turn do, mesh economic history with ecological history to find a better way forward. You asked, in your posting, what would have happened if the buffalo had entirely died out, and the great American grasslands had been left to themselves, would that have been so bad? Well, most of the buffalo had been slaughtered by 1876, and their passing was filled by investment driven cattle ranching, which peaked in the early 1880’s, many herds being entirely wiped out in the terrible winter of 1884-1885, but not until after much over-grazing had damaged even the toughest of the grasslands. Worster’s focus is on those Southern Plains, west of the 100th Meridian, where the average annual rainfall is around 20 inches. Trees can’t make it in most of these lands (parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas) much less traditional farming as it was known and practiced further to the east, on the moister parts of the Great Plains. Yet that is what this last gasp of Jefferson’s vision became, the very last phase of “the Western Frontier.” The American Dream, translated into single crop yeomanry farming on 160 acres, then 320; monoculture for sale in the vast grain markets, usually wheat, was the dream’s ticket, and so powerful was the psychology behind this madness that it had to invent its own rationale to make up for what nature wouldn’t supply with any predictability: rain would follow the plow. Worster follows the great human and ecological disaster, which in turn unfolded as grasslands, which never should have been disturbed for anything but carefully supervised grazing, were ploughed and planted “fencerow to fencerow” in the 1920’s. The region couldn’t survive the drought which descended in the 1930’s, and lasted for most of the decade. By May 11, 1934, the wind-blown soil had travelled all the way to the Eastern Seaboard and rained down upon both parties in Congress, and finally, upon ships at sea. No wonder that the opening sentence of Worster’s book has a feel familiar to us today: “The Southern Plains are a vast austerity.” Farming survives, though, and in conventional terms, “thrives.” But it can only do so by deeply mining underground aquifers with expensive pumps, and the farms are now huge, capital intensive operations.
What happened in the 1930’s then, the Dust Bowl, was shrugged off. But we should have no illusions about what it meant: “…it was also an event of national, even planetary significance.” Worster tells us, in the Introduction, that George Borgstrom, an authority on world food problems, considers it the “one of three worst ecological blunders in history.” (The other two were “the deforestation of the Chinese uplands about 3000 BC…and the destruction of Mediterranean vegetation by livestock…” Editor’s Note: that would have been in “Classical” Greek and then Roman times.). Worster points out that unlike these much earlier events, “the Dust Bowl took only 50 years to accomplish. It cannot be blamed on illiteracy or overpopulation or social disorder. It came about because the culture was operating in precisely the way it was supposed to.” (My emphasis.)
And that’s what we’re facing Matt. If we pursue the American Dream in its traditional form we are chasing that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, “the orgiastic future that year by year recedes from us” - and, I might add, that pursuit is altering the nature we are still dependent upon. Nature’s power is implied, and yet its transformation already duly noted in some of the greatest lines ever written in American literature, on the last page of The Great Gatsby. I think that Americans have tried to preserve what we could of this “capacity for wonder” by saving some remnants of “pristine” nature in our Wilderness areas, National Parks and Pinelands preserves, and through the habit conservation plans of the ESA. Gus Speth and many others are now telling us that it has not been enough, nature is being overwhelmed by the illusions of economic necessity, illusions also trapped in unsustainable forms with far from illusionary impacts. Who can look out upon the tragedy of “fracking,” for oil and gas, and the pursuit of the last remaining fossil fuels in some of the most difficult and vulnerable geographies known to us, and not think of the compulsions of the American Dream and the “permanent green light?”
We’ll need something, and more, of FDR’s spirit displayed in his 1932 convention acceptance speech, when he declared he was not going to be trapped by the supposedly iron clad economic laws of the 19th century: “economic laws – sacred, inviolable, unchangeable – cause panics which no one could prevent…We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.”
We need FDR’s spirit to find a new path, but our task is even harder, because now, at every step of the way as we try to forge new economic tools, we have to ask not only what their impacts are going to be upon human society, but also their impacts upon a diminishing nature. So it makes me hopeful, yet worried about whether we have left enough of the vast “Tree of Life” to still inspire what Fitzgerald meant by our “capacity to wonder.” I think it’s a good place to end here, with his words, suggestive of forests, and ecology …and their loss in the pursuit of the American Dream:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.