FLASHBACK: Big Greens and Real Greens

Biodiversity in the Age of Big Money Environmentalism

Counterpunch Weekend Edition January 15-17, 2010


“The real history has yet to be written.”

—Mike Roselle

As a grassroots activist involved in the environmental campaigns of the last four decades, of course I’m going to be interested in histories written about them. Especially one that mostly comes thru, with one thesis-killing lacuna, on its promise to delineate the taxonomy of green activism.

So, I’ve read another one…and, I’m still waiting for an accurate, complete one that celebrates the victories and explains the defeats of committed citizen activists instead of merely providing hosannas to paid, non-profit professionals – of whatever genus.

Maybe it’s a function of time and distance and real journalism – someday, we’ll get a real history – but “The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear” a dissertation-turned-book by Douglas Bevington falls into the same sad mix of hagiography and self-promotion as one of his main sources – Kathie Durbin’s beyond awful “Tree Huggers.

No Pay; No Count

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

—Upton Sinclair

In both books, the wrongdoings of the Big Green/Democratic Party lapdogs are decried and then the very same sins of the Mid-market Greens are not just overlooked, but deemed positives. Instead of telling the tales of the highly-paid green factotums in DC, Bevington tells the tales of lesser-paid folks in the hinterlands who suffice for “grassroots” to such authors. In either case, the interests of the institution – mostly a perpetual money chase to pay staff and rent posh digs be they in DC, San Francisco, Portland or some small town – come before those of any underlying protection campaign.

Non-paid citizen activists are nowhere to be found. An entire genus missing in Bevington’s taxon. Yet, show me any effective movement – large or small – that consists solely of professionals; one that ever succeeded without the synergy of a mass of regular citizens rallying to the cause and paid staffers who take direction from the larger group. The top-down nature and utter lack of grounding in a wide-spread, active-participation, place-based citizenry is precisely what’s wrong with environmentalism today and why we keep losing. Not only is a citizen underpinning missing; the professionals undermine, drive out or co-opt any such assemblage that arises despite them; usually taking credit for any gains the citizens have achieved. To the non-profit pros, the function of any “membership” consists of writing donation checks, swallowing/parroting false victory claims, signing Petitions and voting lock-step for Lesser Evil Democrats.

A Compromise is a Compromise is a…

Bevington begins by noting that “The institutionalization of the nationals tied them to a process of deal-making that would sacrifice some biodiversity protection in order to broker political compromises.”

He quotes Mark Dowie, “Compromise; which had produced some limited gains for the movement in the 1970s, in the 1980s became the habitual response of the environmental movement…These compromises have pushed a once-effective movement to the brink of irrelevance.”

He then goes on to produce a tome that snarkily dismisses the No Compromise philosophy and Civil Disobedience (CD) efforts of the volunteer activists of Earth First! as not “influential.” And, while spending considerable time on the Ancient Forest issue, he fails to even note our true grassroots Ancient Forest victories in the Oregon Cascades (at least Durbin deigned to give Opal Creek/Breitenbush one sentence in her “comprehensive history”). He then proceeds to celebrate a series of smaller groups that started strong yet went “mainstream” and fully adopted the Big Green trade-off game plan as their coffers and bureaucratic empires expanded. He does feature some who stayed true to their roots; saw others claim credit for their efforts, when not sabotaging them; and, ultimately withered or now teeter on the brink from lack of support.