Magazine article The American Prospect

Shades of Green

Magazine article The American Prospect

Shades of Green

Article excerpt

More than two-thirds of Americans call themselves environmentalists. Their rank includes every serious presidential candidate, a growing list of corporate executives, some of the country's most extreme radicals, and ordinary people from just about every region, class, and ethnic group. Even allowing for some hypocrisy, finding consensus so tightly overlaid on division is reason for a closer look.

In fact, there are several environmentalisms in this country, and there have been for a long time. They are extensions of some of the most persistent strands of American thought and political culture. They stand for different and sometimes conflicting policy agendas, and their guiding concerns are often quite widely divergent. Recently, though, they have begun to contemplate a set of issues that promises to transform each of them--and to expand environmental politics from its traditional concern with a limited number of wild places and species to a broader commitment to the environment as the place where we all live, all the time.

The oldest and most familiar version of environmental concern might be called romantic environmentalism. Still a guiding spirit of the Sierra Club and the soul of the Wilderness Society and many regional groups, this environmentalism arises from love of beautiful landscapes: the highest mountains, deepest canyons, and most ancient forests. As a movement, it began in the late nineteenth century when America's wealthy discovered outdoor recreation and, inspired by writers like Sierra Club founder John Muir, developed a reverence for untamed places. For these American romantics, encounters with the wild promised to restore bodies and spirits worn down by civilized life. Today's romantic environmentalists blend this ambition with a delight in whales, wolves, and distant rain forests. More than any other environmentalists, they--still disproportionately white and prosperous--feel a spiritual attachment to natural places.

Muir's environmentalism contains the idea that our true selves await us in the wild. Another type, managerial environmentalism, puts the wild at our service. This approach is a direct descendant of the Progressive era's hopeful reformism, specifically of Teddy Roosevelt's forestry policies; it makes its basic task the fitting together of ecology and economy to advance human ends. Pragmatic, market oriented, but respectful of public institutions, managerial environmentalists design trading schemes for pollution permits at the Natural Resources Defense Council, head up programs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to collaborate with businesses in developing clean technologies, and envision global environmental standards advancing alongside free trade accords. In their wild-eyed moments, they imagine a high-tech economy that follows nature in producing no waste or, like The New Republic's senior editor Gregg Easterbrook, genetic engineering that will turn carnivores into grass eaters and bring lion and lamb together at last. Although it began among policy makers, this managerial attitude is gaining ground in the optimistic culture of Silicon Valley and has many adherents younger than 35.

The environmental justice movement is another thing entirely. Only an idea a decade ago, this effort to address the relationships among race, poverty, and environmental harm has come to rapid prominence. Grass-roots projects in inner cities and industrial areas around the country have drawn attention to urban air pollution, lead paint, transfer stations for municipal garbage and hazardous waste, and other environmental dangers that cluster in poor and minority neighborhoods. Eight years ago, romantic environmentalism was virtually the only movement that engaged students on college campuses; now young activists are equally likely to talk about connections between the environment and social justice or, on an international scale, the environment and human rights.

Environmental justice follows the tradition of social inclusion and concern for equity that had its last great triumphs during the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty. …

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