In 1973, Alston Chase abandoned his academic career—as a tenured philosophy professor with degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Princeton—and “returned to nature” in Montana’s mountains. At the time he considered himself an “environmentalist” and sought to live accordingly. Successfully relocated, he undertook a writing project to document the development of Yellowstone National Park under the reigning “ecosystems management” principle adopted by park managers. What he discovered—and detailed in Playing God in Yellowstone (Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, c. 1986)—was the destructiveness of misguided good intentions, leaving the park significantly degraded and endangered. Particularly informative is his philosophically-nuanced treatment of “the environmentalists” who naively assumed and promoted “the subverted science” articulated by Rachel Carson, whose deeply flawed Silent Spring (labeled “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of modern environmentalism”) recruited so many of them to the movement. Such environmentalists include “the new pantheists” who believe, with Thoreau, that: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” They’re often enamored with “California Cosmologists” such as Theodore Rosak, Alan Watts, Fritjof Capra, and assorted Native American shamans, whose thoroughly Gnostic notions (e.g. panpsychism) promise a mystical union with Nature conducive to the inner bliss of self-realization. And they follow an assortment of “hubris commandos”—well-heeled urban elites with political connections who want to reserve the wilderness for backpackers.
His work on Yellowstone piqued Chase’s concern for broader environmental policies impacting the nation, so he researched and wrote In A Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, c. 1995), one of the most probing and important ecological studies in print. Combining a detailed narrative of events with a penetrating analysis of deeper issues, In A Dark Wood effectively exposes the heart of America’s confusion regarding how to live rightly with the natural world. Anyone one concerned with the health of the natural world—and of the cultural and political world—should read and reflect on Chase’s work. Evaluating his conclusions at the beginning of his treatise, Chase confesses they “were far more disturbing than I had anticipated. An ancient political and philosophical notion, ecosystems ecology, masquerades as a modern scientific theory. Embraced by a generation of college students during the campus revolutions of the 1960s, it had become a cultural icon by the 1980s. Today, not only does it infuse all environmental law and policy, but its influence is also quietly changing the very character of government. Yet, as I shall show, it is false, and its implementation has been a calamity for nature and society” (p. xiii). Those collegians—drinking deeply from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and adopting the pantheism of Emerson and John Muir—began an effective long march through the nation’s institutions and transformed environmentalism into a religious faith with a radical political agenda.
That process stands revealed in their determination to preserve the forests of Washington, Oregon, and California. Rejecting the traditional notion that loggers with their sawmills could wisely manage the forests and provide for their sustained rejuvenation, the activists demanded they be quarantined in what was imagined to be a primitive paradise and allowed to flourish free from human contamination. Chase shows how timber “harvests soared during the postwar building boom” and “trees grew faster than they were being cut” (p. 73). This was especially true of California’s redwood forests. The trees were healthy and provided a healthy income for thousands of folks throughout the Pacific Northwest. Admittedly, “old growth” forests were declining, but they had been effectively replaced by faster growing, younger, healthier trees. Still more: those “old growth” forests were largely a figment of the activists’ imagination! The best historical evidence shows that pre-Columbian Indians had carefully set and controlled fires, and the Pacific Northwest forests two centuries ago were “‘more open than they are now,’” containing “‘islands of even-aged conifers, bounded by prairies, savannas, groves of oak, meadows, ponds, thickets and berry patches.” Largely due to broadcast Indian burning, they “‘were virtually free of underbrush and course woody debris that has been commonplace in forests for most of this century’” (p. 404).
But the defenders of the mythical “old growth” forests, draped in the mantle of “ecology” and taking “the balance of nature” as axiomatic, believe “nature knows best” and requires us to promote her sustainability. This position is less a scientific schema than an ancient ideological stance shaped by evolutionists such as Ernest Haeckel (who coined the word ecology in 1866) and Aldo Leopold (whose Sand County Almanac became an instructional manual for environmental activists). It is less an agenda fueled by evidence than a faith founded in improbable historical and metaphysical assumptions. The Ecosystem became God! Enamored of “deep ecology,” environmentalists “unwittingly embraced ideas that synthesized an American religion of nature with German metaphysics: a holism that supposed individuals were only parts of a larger system and had no independent standing; antipathy to Judaic and Christian values of humanism, capitalism, materialism, private property, technology, consumerism, and urban living; reverence for nature; believe in the spiritual superiority of primitive culture; a desire to go ‘back to the land’; support for animal rights; faith in organic farming; and a program to create nature reserves” (p. 129). Fortuitously for them, the Endangered Species Act both enacted their aspirations and opened legal portals whereby they could effectively attain their goal of transforming America.
The ecological activists, looking for an opportunity to kill the logging industry with its “clear-cutting” and access roads, chanced on an “endangered species” in the Pacific Northwest—the spotted owl. Only a few birds (14 in the first important study) were found, and they appeared to prefer “old growth” forests. To preserve these owls’ “ecosystem” a massive effort was almost immediately launched to halt all activities in the forests that might endanger it, though in fact “spotted owl policy would be built on the thin air of uneducated guesswork” (p. 251). Well-funded by environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and the wealthy eastern aristocrats such as Teresa Heinz Kerry who finance foundations (e.g. Pew, Rockefeller, Heinz and the Tides), the activists successfully manipulated the media, academia, and the judiciary to preserve the extensive lands allegedly needed for the spotted owl to flourish. They deliberately ignored accumulating scientific studies finding ever-more spotted owls thriving throughout the region, especially in recently harvested private timber properties. “By 1993 six thousand to nine thousand would be estimated to live in northern California alone, and perhaps an equal number in Oregon and Washington. Yet federal demographic studies continued to claim that the species remained in deep decline” (p. 365). True believers cannot be deterred by the facts!
So they successfully pursued their agenda, primarily through the courts, and managed to earmark large sections of the Pacific Northwest as “old growth” forests, forever inviolable and off-limits to cutting of any sort. Timber harvests in California dropped by 40% within two decades. Loggers lost their jobs, sawmills closed, and small towns shriveled. Unlike the urban environmentalists (burnishing their self-esteem by supporting the Sierra Club, which paid skilled lawyers to pursue their agenda through the courts) the working folks in the forests lacked both the money and organizational skills with which to resist the lock-down of their region. “Saving the owl had effectively shut down an area larger than Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut combined, costing the economy tens of billions of dollars and casting tens of thousands out of work” (p. 398). When grass-roots groups (identified as the Wise Use Movement) tried to rally and defend themselves and their livelihood, environmentalists invested millions of dollars to discredit them, calling them “a mob” bankrolled by the evil timber industry. Environmentalists orchestrated meetings with President Bill Clinton and his Vice President Al Gore, who then packed the President’s Council on Sustainable Development with leaders of various well-heeled environmental organizations. Remarkably, within three decades the ecological “movement became a war launched by the haves against the have-nots. It is a situation analogous to what the late Christopher Lasch has called ‘the revolt of the elites’ whereby ‘upper-middle-class liberals have mounted a crusade to sanitize American society.’ Indeed, Lasch could have been thinking of environmentalist when he added that ‘when confronted with resistance, members of today’s elite betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence’” (p. 415).
Tragically, the natural world would suffer harm along with the loggers and the small town economies they sustained. “The great effort to save old growth would eventually destroy the very landscapes it was intended to preserve. For it demonstrated an important principle: that seeking to halt change merely accelerates it. Nothing more clearly revealed this truth than the rising threat of wildfire” (p. 400). Allegedly “saving” forests and wildlife, the preservationists paved the way for the fires we now witness throughout the West. Trees that could have been logged and provided a living for thousands of people now burn, for wherever old trees die and underbrush thrives the potential for massive fires increases. For instance: “Officials in southern California, following the 1993 firestorm, attributed the lack of prescribed burning that could have reduced or eliminated much of the destruction to public opposition, some of which was based on concern for the habitat of the Stephens kangaroo rat and the gnatcatcher” (p. 401). The raging fires should awaken us to the truth of Dante’s words that provide Chase the title for his book. In The Divine Comedy the great poet said: “I went astray / from the straight road and woke to find myself / alone in a dark wood. How shall I say / what wood that was! I never saw so drear, / so rank, so arduous a wilderness.” Today we’re in a “dark wood” that results from our captivity to an ancient philosophical error: identifying the good with what is “natural,” imagining the “state of nature” as ideal for man, formulating “new values based on systems ecology, which from the beginning was less a preservation science than a program for social control. Supposing that protecting ecosystems was the highest imperative for government, it increasingly viewed the exercise of individual liberty as a threat” (p. 413).
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Nothing better illustrates the “rising tyranny of ecology” than Elizabeth Nickson’s Eco-Fascists: How Radical Conservationists Are Destroying Our Natural Heritage (New York: HarperCollins Publishers/Broadside Books, c. 2012). She claims to “walk the green walk more than anyone I’ve met” and lives on 16 acres immersed in older-growth forest in a geothermal-heated house on a Canadian island (Salt Spring) in Puget Sound. There she witnessed and recorded, in fascinating detail, how we have been misled by “a corrupt idea—that an ecosystem has to be in balance, with all its members present in the correct proportion, to be considered healthy” (p. 6). According to the litany: “Nature knows best. Man is a virus and a despoiler and must be controlled” (p. 18). Though touted as “conservation biology” it is a demonstrably “bad science” that is doing great harm. “Evil may be too strong a word for us modernists to use comfortably, but what else do you call an idea that ruins everything it touches?” (p. 173). “In just thirty-five years, conservation biology has created one disaster after another, in something that observers are now calling an error cascade. Tens of millions have been removed from their beloved lands. Immensely valuable natural resources have been declared off-limits to the most desperate in the developing world” (p. 200). Consequently: “Range, forest, and farm are dying; water systems have been destroyed. Conservation biology has created desert and triggered the dying of entire cultures” (p. 200).
A seasoned journalist, working in various parts of the world as a reporter for Time magazine, Hickson went home to care for her dying father and remained on the land because she learned to love it. She “built a cottage at the top of my hill” and “resolved to stay” (p. 12). In the process, however, whenever she tried to do literally anything on the land she owned and sought to improve she encountered the front line of a totalitarian movement—“an uncompromising and rigid bureaucratic command-and-control structure, which is creating yet another hybrid of the totalitarian state” (Kindle #82)—that saddled her with a series of irrational and onerous restrictions and burdened her not only with anger at the fanatical environmentalists on her island and senseless bureaucratic restrictions but with a concern for the future of our world. In the process she effectively “lost all but 4 acres of the original 28. I still pay taxes on the 16.5 acres I supposedly have left, but I’m lucky I am allowed to walk on it” (p. 177). She had to deal with “grim zealots [many of them angry, wealthy, divorced women] seeking to remake the world” in accord with their mantra of “sustainability” and who find allies in affluent NGOs and “fervent true believers in federal and state agencies” such as the EPA (#98). She discovered a “labyrinthine public planning process” aptly described by historian David Clary as “the eternal generation of turgid documents to be reviewed and revised forever.”
True to their Leftist principles, environmental zealots follow the utopian visions formulated by Rousseau and Marx, validating the oft-uttered generalization that “when the Iron Curtain fell, fellow travelers migrated to the environmental movement. And when they arrived to transform the rural world—a world few of us visit except on vacation, when no one is paying attention—they brought their planning with them” (p. 45). Consequently: “There is no starker way to describe what is taking place right now in the country than as the full flourishing of the bureaucratic state. Private property rights have been largely removed, the culture is dying, but the state, consisting of federal, state, and local ministries and departments, has bulked out so that a giant superstructure of bureaucrats with rulebooks piled high around their desks flourishes, grows, and feeds on ever-diminishing wealth” (p. 47).
Facilitating this process (and feathering their own nests while granting rare privileges to their wealthy political friends such as Harry Reid) are powerful organizations such as the Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s 10th largest NGO, “the biggest of the big dogs, the mythic wolf-king of the forest primeval” (p. 61). In a complicated, convoluted and surreptitious process, The Nature Conservancy works with “the nation’s richest individuals, like Ted Turner, David Letterman, the Rockefellers, and the DuPonts. Basically, TNC is acting as agent for the wealthiest among us, acquiring enormous tracts of land, using $25 donations from its 1.3-million-strong membership and $100 million in annual government money, and then selling that land at a discount to the very rich, who in effect receive a substantial tax discount as well as an extremely beautiful place in which to establish a country estate” (p. 68). The good folks living on the land distrust and fear TNC, so it generally “operates through a proliferation of ‘partner’ land trusts, conservancies, and operatives. TNC’s sending polite, fresh-faced kids into the middle of nowhere to start local actions for waterbirds or watersheds or ancient forests was the trigger that started the landslide collapse in rural America” (p. 72). Environmentalists have created legions of smaller foundations, now run “by a subset of grim zealots seeking to remake the world” (#96). The feared “robber barons” of yore have been replaced by equally pitiless celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Teresa Heinz, and Robert Redford! Readers such as I (for many years a member and admirer of The Nature Conservancy) will never forget Nickson’s meticulous deconstruction of TNC—and by inference the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, etc.
Her personal frustration led to an investigation, including an extensive journey throughout the rural West (marked by an in-depth interview with Alston Chase in Montana) as well as plowing through the written materials that resulted in the publication of Eco-Fascism. She explored the forests where logging and sawmills once sustained a vibrant culture and the open range backcountry where cattle once ranged. There she found: “Deserted lands, mile after mile after mile. No one on the highways, not even trucks. One broken little hamlet after another. . . . . What I was looking at was death. Death not just of the little towns but death of millions of acres of rangeland. . . . it was like driving through Ghost World, with wraiths drifting across the fields whispering of what was once all fecundity and life” (p. 235). She came to believe that there has been a well-orchestrated war on rural America, where folks earn their living from the land rather than preserving it as sanctuary for either veneration or vacation retreats. Enamored with their own purity, environmentalists have effectively sequestered nearly 700 million acres of land, 30 percent of the nation’s land base. “The amount of land classified as wilderness has grown tenfold since ecosystem theory took flight, growing from 9 million acres in 1964 to 110 million acres today” (p. 96). Amazingly, as a result of crusades to create parks and “wilderness areas,” nearly half (40%) of New York state, “almost 14 million acres—is in the process of being rewilded, turned back, in all essentials, to Iroquoia” (p. 40). Worldwide the same process proceeds apace—as a result of the creation of parks and refuges “more than 10 percent of the developing world’s landmass has been placed under strict conservation—11.75 million square, miles, more than the entire continent of Africa” (p. 38). In the process, “more than 14 million indigenous people have been cleared from their ancestral lands by conservationists” (p.36).
With the support of the Clinton Administration in the 1990s and the Obama Administration today, environmental activists have banned logging in millions of acres in the national forests. However well-intended, the meticulous study of Holly Fretwell, Who Is Minding the Federal Estate—“the most important analysis of the effects of environmental activism on rural America to date” in Nickson’s judgment (p. 129)—shows “that everything, everything, we have been doing was wrong” (p. 130). Wildfires vividly illustrate this, for nothing—neither timber harvesting nor road building—can compare with the damage that wildfires inflict on” the forests (p. 130). The fires resulting from environmental policies consume vastly more timber than “evil corporations” could possibly have done, and the devastation inflicted on spruce and pine trees by the pine beetle and budworm could have been controlled by rapid cutting had not environmentalists insisted the bugs be allowed to pursue their destructive ways.
Nickson admits: “The title of this book is harsh, particularly when used with regard to environmentalists, whom most people view as virtuous at best, foolish at worst. But I do not use this term lightly, nor as a banner to grab attention. My father landed on D-day and, at the end of the war, was put in charge of a Nazi camp and told to ‘sort those people out.’” He was thus highly sensitive to the fact “that man defaults to tyranny over and over again, and while the tyranny of the environmental movement in rural America has not reached what its own policy documents say is its ultimate goal—radical population reduction—we cannot any longer ignore that goal and its implications” (#132). And she believes there is in fact an answer: “The Gordian knot of the countryside mess can be solved with one swift blow of the sword. Property rights must be restored to the individuals who are willing to work their lives away tending that land. The people, the individuals and families, in other words, who want it. Confiscation by government, multinationals, and agents of the megarich—the foundations and land trusts—must be reversed. Otherwise devastation beckons” (p. 314).