263 “Playing God” Environmentalism

    As we grow older, we frequently regret decisions we’ve made and causes we’ve embraced, simply wishing we’d had more wisdom a few decades ago.  Reflecting on this in his Retractions, St Augustine looked back over his many decades of preaching and writing and found himself somewhat terrified when he considered the words of Jesus:  “Of every idle word men speak, they shall give account on the day of judgment” (Mt 12:36).  He further reflected on the words of James, warning teachers not to use words wrongly.  In Augustine’s case, he noted that even in old age he was less than “perfect,” but he was less so in “early manhood,” when he began to “write or to speak to the people, and so much authority was attributed to me that, whenever it was necessary for someone to speak to the people and I was present, I was seldom allowed to be silent and to listen to others and be ‘swift to hear but slow to speak.’”  

In my “early manhood” I was persuaded, by trusted “experts,” that we faced an “ecological crisis” of massive proportions.  With typically youthful enthusiasm I supported the “environmental” movement and invested considerable time and resources championing its message and goals.  I wish then I knew what I now know!  I wish I could have read Alston Chase instead of Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich!  Unfortunately, Alston Chase was himself then in the process of learning, to his sorrow, what we both needed to know.  Recently re-reading and again appreciating two of books helped me clarify why I now consider myself a “recovering environmentalist,” still in love with the wonders of creation but deeply skeptical of those writers (e.g. Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold), organizations (e.g. the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and Greenpeace), and politicians (e.g. Al Gore and Barack Obama) who use environmentalism to justify their political agendas.  

Forty years ago Alston Chase left a tenured academic post (teaching the philosophy of science but increasingly disillusioned by the radical student assaults on the humanities in the ‘60s) and moved, with his wife, to a remote ranch in Montana’s Smith River country.  Building a log cabin 50 miles from the nearest town, they lived without electricity or telephone, enthusiastic “back-to-earth” devotees.  Later given the opportunity to write a book on Yellowstone National Park—a place he intimately knew and passionately loved—they sold the ranch in 1981 and moved to Paradise Valley, Montana, and he began a research project that culminated with the publication of Playing God in Yellowstone:  The Destruction of America’s First National Park (Boston:  The Atlantic Monthly Press, c. 1986).  A rare blend of scholarly acuity and personal passion, his treatise brilliantly illuminates much about the modern environmental movement.  He is particularly effective in analyzing its philosophical roots and New Left politics. 

Chase began his research project planning to celebrate the conservationism long associated with Yellowstone, which was set aside by Congress in 1872 “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”  Plunging into the project he soon grew alarmed at the park’s conditions and management.  Rather than being preserved it was being destroyed!  Key creatures (including the beaver) that flourished 50 years earlier had disappeared.  “Perhaps no animal was more important in Yellowstone ecology than the beaver,” and without them “the ponds had silted in, spring runoff in the streams had increased, the water table had dropped, and the drier ground was not producing the crop of palatable browse that it supported when the beaver had been there” (p. 13).  What had happened to the beaver?  (In time Chase was discovered that the park’s out-of-control elk population had destroyed the beavers’ habitat and driven them from their ancient home!)  

Thus he discovered that many of Yellowstone’s problems stemmed from the unintended consequences of park management.  Since 18th century hunters had depleted the park’s original buffalo and elk herds, game “managers” a century ago determined to restore them.  Once done, however the bison and elk, free from predators (including man)  which had once limited the size of the herds, rapidly proliferated.  “In thirty years the bison had been saved from extinction only to become a nuisance” (p. 22).  More significantly, the burgeoning elk herd especially threatened other species (such as beaver)  in the park.  To address this problem, President Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, set up a committee which issued the “Leopold Report” in 1963.  Largely attuned to the emergent environmentalism of the day, the committee urged the park be made a “vignette of primitive America.”  Wolves and grizzly bears and mountain lions (but not hunters!) were to be brought back into the park in order to control the elk herd.  

Ironically, Chase says, no one really knows what “primitive America” actually looked like!  In fact, the report “inadvertently replaced science with nostalgia, subverting the goal it had set out to support” (p. 35).   A growing contingent of environmentalists, moving from non-profit organizations such as the Sierra Club into the ranks of the Department of Interior, dreamed of “saving the wilderness.”  They shrewdly invented a “wilderness” that had never existed, since “there was never a place on earth untrammeled by man” (p. 45).  They reintroduced “predators” that showed little interest in elk, so the persisting elk problem accelerated.  The newly-prescribed “natural-fire” policy—allowing fires ignited by lightning to burn freely—failed to effectively clear the park of dead wood and underbrush.  The fires died out quickly, it was found, because the elk had consumed the dead grasses.  They neglected to notice that Indians, for many millennia, had lived and hunted in the Yellowstone area, significantly impacting the ecosystem, especially by lighting fires to keep “large areas in open grassland, forests from reaching climax, sagebrush from spreading, and many edible plants prolific” (p. 97).   Had modern “scientists” and “environmentalists” studied and followed such Indian practices rather than denying their ancient presence therein, Yellowstone would be much better than it is today!  “Denied its Indian past, it deprived us of the knowledge needed to keep it pristine.  As it turns out, ignoring the Indian was not only bad history, but bad ecology as well” (p. 115).  

After meticulously detailing and explaining developments in Yellowstone, Chase effectively analyzes the “environmentalists” whose philosophy and political activism underlie various of the park’s problems.  Many (if not most) of them are in fact pantheistic religious zealots.  Invoking John Muir rather than Jesus, they revere Emerson more than Moses and turn to Thoreau rather than Isaiah.  With Thoreau they believe:   “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”  Rejecting the Judeo-Christian faith in a personal God, they embrace nature photographer Ansel Adams’ commitment to “‘a vast, impersonal pantheism’” (p. 304).   Remarkably, in the name of “ecology” they also reject objective, empirical, environmental science!  Rather than attending to evidence regarding the environment, they follow their convictions—all too often derived from spurious treatises such as Rachel Carson’s enormously influential Silent Spring—and insist everything be subsumed under a self-regulating “web of life” perspective.  Along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Aldo Leopold’s The Sand County Almanac (setting forth a celebrated “land ethic”) serves as a sacred text, veritably the Bible of environmentalism.  Citing Carson and Leopold, an alleged “science of ecology” gained momentum, especially among activists without advanced scientific training.  Reflecting this, the “countercultural” historian Theodore Rosak declared:  “The science we call ecology is the nearest approach that objective consciousness makes to the sacramental vision of nature which underlies the symbol of Oneness” (p. 323).  

Rosak, speaking as one of what Chase calls “the California cosmologists,” found in “ecology” a way to salvation for himself as well as the planet.  His The Making of a Counterculture inspired young folks to join “hippies” and Zen Buddhists and mythical “Native Americans” and mystics of various sorts following a “new vision that sacralized nature” and liberated them from traditional social and moral structures.  “A California Cosmology materialized, coalescing around three overlapping ideas.  The search for a new religion led to the insight that Everything is sacred.  The search for a new science led to the principle:  Everything is interconnected.  The search for a new politics of commitment centered on the belief that Self-transcendence is possible through authentic experience” (pp. 347-348).  Intrinsic to this cosmology is the pantheistic dogma of the self-regulating nature of the natural world which became environmentalism’s deepest certainty.  If true, nature would function perfectly if simply left alone.  Thus elk and bison, left alone, simply could not overpopulate Yellowstone—a mysterious “invisible hand” would sustain them in healthy numbers.  But as careful scientists—biologists in the field rather than students in “interdisciplinary” college classes—studied the evidence it became clear that nature does not know best!  The deepest conviction of many ecologists stood refuted by the facts.  “Although few were aware, Leopold’s land ethic—now part of the creed of contemporary environmentalism—rested on no foundation at all” (p. 325).  

Sadly enough, for Yellowstone this foundationless “land ethic” became the prescription for the park’s destruction!  The mule deer and antelope, the bighorn and beaver seen by Theodore Roosevelt can hardly be found.  Following the New Philosophy of Nature dictated by environmentalists, park managers rely on the “interconnectedness of things” rather than biological data.  Trying to “deep-freeze an ecology” that never existed, indulging in nostalgia rather than empirical investigation, Yellowstone may very well become the “Victim of an Environmental Ideal” (p. 375).  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A decade after issuing Playing God in Yellowstone:  The Destruction of America’s First National Park, Alston Chase published an equally prescient treatise focused on the Pacific Northwest entitled In a Dark Wood:  The Fight over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology (New York:  Houghton Miflin Company, c. 1995).  Writing this book drove him to a deeply “disturbing” conclusion:  “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).

Ecology masquerading as science gained credibility in 1962 with the publication and popular reception of Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring.  “The book launched the modern environmental movement, which changed the values and politics of the nation” (p. 1).  Those changes were dramatically evident in the Pacific Northwest, where environmental zealots effectively disabled a logging industry that represented an earlier understanding and use of natural resources.  Throughout most of American history, loggers had helped fuel and growth and economic vitality of the nation.  They were a hardy and highly-respected corps of workers.  Blessed with productive soils and abundant precipitation, the Pacific Northwest (with its fast-growing, demonstrably renewable Douglas fir and coastal redwood trees) was producing one-fourth of the nation’s softwood.  Forestry experts (rooted in the empirical science of silviculture) and federal bureaucrats (entrusted with managing public lands) alike declared that logging was good for the forests, a blessing for both the people who used wood and the lands that grew trees.  

And, indeed, America’s forests were growing, producing more trees than were being cut!  “Private timberlands that had been clear-cut earlier in the century were coming back, ensuring a continuing supply in the next century.  As tree planting reached record levels, wildlife, benefiting from improving habitat conditions, flourished” (p. 71).  The more scientists studied the California redwoods the more they found evidence favoring clearcutting—an abhorrent thought to tree-hugging “old forest” devotees.  Studious silviculturalists “found that the more trees they cut, the greater the redwood regeneration.  The undisturbed stands experienced almost no regrowth of any kind and the heaviest mortality; the areas of light selection encouraged resurgence of shade-tolerant grand fir and hemlock.  But in the clear-cuts redwood sprang back in profusion” (p. 225).  By the mid-1980s, especially on carefully managed private lands, “redwood forests were growing as they never had before” (p. 225).  

An alternate approach to the forests, however, dramatically surfaced on the first “Earth Day” in 1970, featuring a parade of 100,000 people walking up New York’s Fifth Avenue.  Rooted in the pantheistic visions of Emerson and Thoreau, of John Muir and Ansel Adams, shaped by the shifting paradigm of colleges and universities, and sharing the ethos of the ‘60s New Left, radical “ecologists” championed “preserving” rather than “conserving” Mother Nature.  Rejecting Western Christian Civilization, they imagined themselves capable of inventing a “new,” far better civilization that respected and followed the “web-of-life” portrayed by Rachel Carson type ecologists.   “A new era was dawning in which not sustainability but aesthetics and the desire to maintain forests in their “natural” state would be paramount, and increasing numbers of the public would perceive efficient forestry as an oxymoron.  Forests would be seen by many as cathedrals in which to worship a new god” (p. 74).  

Their worship would be empowered by federal legislation, especially the 1973 Endangered Species Act—termed “a law for all seasons” for its unclear and easily expanded provisions.  The congressmen drafting the law had minimal biological understanding but maximal confidence in what they’d heard about “ecosystems” and “ecology” and “biodiversity” and “the balance of nature.”  They took seriously the pronouncements of “ecosystems ecologists” such as Barry Commoner and environmental activists overflowing with “fuzzy, pantheistic, and animist notions of the unity and spirituality of nature” (p. 103).  “Nature knows best,” Commoner declared in The Closing Circle, and multitudes believed him.  “Few noticed there was little evidence for the doctrine.  Ancient philosophical ideas, resurrected by the government as a means of control and masquerading as science, had captured the public imagination, producing an Endangered Species Act whose consequences no one could anticipate” (p. 104).  

Pushing beyond Commoner’s “nature know best” mantra, Bill Devall (yet another California professor) delved into the notion of “biospherical egalitarianism” and “deep ecology;” therein he picked up a “sledgehammer of an idea” with which he wanted “to change the world” (p. 120).  Probably unaware of the idea’s 19th century roots (in G.W.F. Hegel and Ernst Haeckel), Devall embraced a monistic philosophy that erased significant differences between human beings and other creatures.  Thus all living creatures are equal and merit respect if not reverence.  If everything is interconnected and equal, humans neither differ from other organisms nor have special rights.  Indeed, those “ecosystems” that constitute “fundamental units of existence” may be more entitled to protection than humans.  Followed by a variety of back-to-earth enthusiasts, “deep ecologists . . . unwittingly embraced ideas that synthesized an American religion of nature with German metaphysics:  a holism that supposed individuals were only parts of a large 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; belief 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).  

Thus armed, intellectually, radical environmentalists turned their eyes on the Pacific Northwest and determined to “preserve” it in accord with their idyllic image of an “archaic,” primitive forest, unsullied by the hand of man.  And they found an effective tool with which to accomplish their ends—the spotted owl.  Chase’s meticulous examination of the spotted owl should be read by anyone seriously concerned with America’s environment!  With virtually no scientific basis, activists effectively persuaded both the public and the judicial system that the own was an “endangered species” that needed vast amounts of “old-growth forests” to survive.  Though only 14 owls (that’s right:  14!) provided the basis for the first report on them, the political battle to save the trees (and the owls) was launched.  When carefully examined, another influential paper (by Russell Lande) proves to have been “an exercise in scientific wool-gathering, a collection of calculations based on scanty evidence and laced with false assumptions” (p. 247).   By promoting Lande’s paper as bona fide science, “environmentalists captured the political ground while simultaneously writing a new chapter in the continuing corruption of science” (p. 248).  Ever more “species” and spurious “sub-species” were declared to be endangered—the Pacific yew tree, the marbled murelet, several kids of salmon, sparrows, beetles, and trout.  With amazing rapidity, the federal government (primarily through the courts) moved to stop logging throughout much of the Pacific Northwest, bankrupting small logging firms and devastating scores of once-prosperous communities.   Biocentrism reigned!  “Even as evidence accumulated” to the contrary, true believers such as Dave Foreman and his “Earth First!ers” pushed their way into those “positions of power and prestige” that shaped the nation’s future (p. 173).  “Emotion and plausibility, not truth, count in politics” (p. 226).  

Earth First!ers and their allies (notably Judy Bari and her Wilderness Women) used a variety of tactics—spiking trees, staging protests, lobbying politicians, enlisting radicalized professors, filing endless lawsuits.  Chase carefully describes the activists and their proclamations, showing how they were consumed by their biocentric philosophy.  They were in effect waging a class war to defend the forests. Representing the upper-middle class and supported by affluent city dwellers filling the coffers of elitist environmental organizations such as the Wilderness Society and Environmental Defense Fund, the activists overwhelmed the generally less educated and significantly poorer loggers, ranchers, and farmers living on the land.  More importantly, by 1990 “biocentrism had become the philosophy of America’s ruling classes” (p. 359).  Journalists and professors, bureaucrats and professors, elementary teachers and recycling devotees were all passionately committed to a spurious creed that cited computer models resting on “ecosystem” assumptions rather than empirical evidence.  “Teaching that humanity was destroying the earth, they spread fear of global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, dioxin, asbestos, and indeed anything that was new, was made by humans, or signified change” (p. 362).        

With the election of President Bill Clinton (and his fear-mongering Vice President Al Gore) in 1992, biocentrism spread throughout all levels of the nation’s polity.   “Save the trees!  Save the forests!  Save the fish!  Save the woods!”  Such words, chanted as a “catechism” by Denis Hayes in a 1993 “rock concert for trees” shortly before President Bill Clinton presided over a “Forest Conference” in Portland, demonstrated the triumph of the modern environmental movement.  Though Clinton himself “was another reed blowing in the ideological wind,” he adroitly aligned himself with the Gore-style biocentrists, filling “his administration with apostles of the new order” (p. 384).  Like-minded scientists were relied on as “experts” and activists in various environmental organizations were appointed to head bureaucracies.  “Sustainable development” became the slogan for minutely supervising “every square inch of American real estate” (p. 389).