Recalling when ‘environmentalism’ wasn’t a dirty word
During the Angora fire, I found myself in a waiting room in Carson City as my daughter was in surgery. The TV on the wall was tuned to the news, and all of us in the room were watching pictures of tall flames racing through the forest.
“This wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the environmentalists,” said a man to my right.
What? I thought this was due to a century of fire suppression, lots of wooden houses built in the middle of an overgrown forest, and lack of defensible space.
“Nope,” he said, “It’s because the environmentalists don’t let anyone chop down any trees. Did you know we have more trees in this country than we’ve ever had because the environmentalists sue anyone who tries to cut them down?”
I had no way of knowing whether his assertion was correct or not, although I suspected it wasn’t. But after a statement like that. there was little more to say. So I put on my I-pod, listened to music, and sent my thoughts towards my unconscious daughter somewhere on the other side of the door.
But I’m not going to write about the Angora fire, or even about wildfires in general. What I want to write about is the way that “environmentalist” has become – among some people – an insult, and about the way that some, like the gentleman in the waiting room, use environmentalists as scapegoats for any mistakes of resource management. Environmentalists have somehow – again, only among some people – come to be seen as unpatriotic outsiders intent on subverting the American dream.
For me, conservationists and environmentalists have been heroes for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Yosemite National Park, and one of our childhood expeditions was to leave our home barefoot to wade across Yosemite Creek to a stone bench surrounded by sweet-smelling Western azaleas set in a clearing with a ponderosa-framed view of Yosemite Falls.
We knew this delightful place as “Mr. Muir’s Bench” – the stone bench had been placed there to commemorate the great Scottish-American conservationist John Muir. When I was very young, I thought I might meet “Mr. Muir” sometime at his bench, and I remember my embarrassment at about age 9 when I discovered he’d died a long time before I was born.
Growing up in a national park, I learned very young about the great 19th century and early-20th century American conservationists, not only John Muir, but President Theodore Roosevelt, the landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted senior and junior who did so much to bring parks to both urban and rural America, and Gifford Pinchot, whose ideas about resource conservation led to the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service.
I learned about what these men and others had done in an era of sometimes-rapacious resource exploitation to protect at least some of our country’s resources and open spaces for future generations.
And I think it’s important to remember what the environmentalists of the last half of the 20th century accomplished. As a result of the Clean Water Act of 1972, as well as state laws, Americans now are able to enjoy the benefits of cleaner water for fishing, drinking and swimming.
Does anyone remember the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught fire and burned due to oil and other pollutants? Other rivers and waterways burned in that era, too, including the Rouge River in Michigan, the Buffalo River in upstate New York and the Baltimore Harbor.
Then there is the Clean Air Act, which established the national air quality standards that make our air more breathable now than it was 30 years ago. Does anyone remember the toll that pollutants from leaded gasoline took on the health of urban children?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the way business is conducted in China, with poisonous pet food, fish turned back by FDA inspectors as “filthy,” toys painted with lead-based paint (outlawed in the U.S. for many years), whole cities without water for days because the water supply is too polluted to use, and the national reliance on coal-burning power plants with the resulting severe air pollution that sometimes even makes its way to the western United States.
China has a 19th century economy operating – and selling goods – within the 21st century. Where are the Chinese environmentalists and others who could work to control the excesses and messes of Chinese capitalism? It seems to me that rather than blaming American environmentalists for anything that goes wrong with resource management, we should thank them for paying attention to protecting the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the views we see from our windows, and the birds that nest in our back yards.
After a somewhat-anxious two hours in the waiting room, the doctor came to tell me my daughter’s surgery was over and successful, and a nurse led me to the recovery room.
As the nurse and I wheeled her through the waiting room a little while later, I noticed the T-shirt she had chosen to wear home from the hospital. Written on it was “Carson High School Environmental Club 2007: One Earth, One Chance” – and I was suddenly grateful, not only for the successful surgery, but for a new generation of young people ready to carry on the work of their American environmentalist forbears.
• Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues. Anne Macquarie, a private-sector urban planner, is a 19-year resident of Carson City.