There was a time when environmentalists were an important and necessary part of American letters. From Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard, there has been a long, healthy, and necessary tradition of cranky, irritating, and brilliant American writers heading for the frontier and reporting on what they saw and felt.
But from Earth Day 1970 onwards, environmentalism became a mass political movement, one in which the organization counted for far more than the individual. As these groups grew in strength and importance, the battlefields in environmentalism shifted from the wildernesses of the West to the corporate jungles of Manhattan and Washington. The heroes of the environmental movement today are not people who live in the wild, but K Street lobbyists able to get bills passed or Madison Avenue publicists who are successful in planting stories in the press or writing lucrative fundraising letters.
It is this mass homogenization of the environmental movement that bothers me the most. I would be more persuaded by environmentalism if there were more forceful writers advocating it, more individuals who, like Aldo Leopold or John Muir, used their own thoughts and deeds as the basis for defending nature. But with rare exceptions (most notably Wendell Berry), nature writing has been a victim of the bureaucratization of the environmental movement. You cannot write lyric, impassioned phillipics about the need to amend the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
I'm also troubled by the increasing tendency among environmentalists to preach in what Jay Walljasper, in the Utne Reader, described as a "puritanical tone of penance." For many Americans, environmentalism is a debased form of Christianity, in which Christ's redeeming love does not exist. In their eyes, every American is a sinner; every polystyrene hamburger container, every plastic soda bottle, every chemically produced piece of clothing moves the world one step closer to eco-Armageddon, that certain earthly hell where we will all choke on our own wastes and stew in our greenhouse gases.
The leading American apocalyptic is writer Bill McKibben, whose misanthropic tract The End of Nature alternates between a series of extended whines about fiendish neighbors in the Adirondacks who disturb his peaceful repose (They block his pristine view! They make noises at night!) and rants about the inevitable evils of our consumerist society that come as close as decency allows to urging everyone to kill themselves in order to make the world a better place to live. (After all, if you're dead, you can't pollute, can you?)
The approach of the environmental magazines is usually more subtle. Looking through their publications, I could detect no differences among the views of the National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, or the National Wildlife Federation. Perhaps they have had philosophical differences in the distant past, but the main differences among their publications today are cosmetic. I suspect subscriber surveys would show that readers of Sierra tend to be rich yuppies, while National Wildlife readers prefer to buy their clothes at J.C. Penney rather than Banana Republic. But all these organizations stand for the same principles and fight the same battles.
The differences among Audubon, Sierra, Wilderness, National Wildlife, and The Amicus Journal (the Natural Resources Defense Council's publication) are so slight as to be unimportant. The Amicus Journal has somewhat better political coverage than its competitors; National Wildlife is more middle-class than the others, and Audubon is a little more snobbish. But environmental magazines tend to utilize the same freelancers and, in many cases, run nearly the same articles. Most of these magazines, for example, featured 25th-anniversary tributes to the Wilderness Act of 1964 in their November issues.
In an environmental organization's magazine, you will always find superb photography and many advertisements for expensive toys and gadgets. You will also find at least one article that fits the following template: A pristine wilderness is threatened by evil developers, loggers, or other capitalists. Then selfless bureaucrats, committed only to goodness and environmental purity, create The Plan, designed to preserve the wilderness from destruction.
Sometimes, as in "Portrait of a Deepening Crisis," by Peter Steinhart, in the October/November National Wildlife, the plan is accepted and the environment is saved. (The North American Waterfowl Management Plan described in Steinhart's story would cost Canadian taxpayers $1 billion and U.S. taxpayers $500 million.) In other cases, the plan is ignored, with dire consequences. In "War in the Woods: Swan Song," in the November Audubon, John Mitchell tells how the failure to enact a plan that "tolled off the copy machine at nearly 560 pages" doomed the Flathead National Forest.
The problem with "plan" stories is not only that they show a touching faith in the inherent rightness of the state, but that the formula for these stories inevitably depicts a world divided into black hats and white hats. No doubt—and no compromise—is possible.
While most major environmental magazines present a seamless web of airtight political correctness, there is dissent within the environmental movement. But the dissenters are largely radicals who think that the large organizations are headed by mushy moderates. Most of the radicals publish in small-circulation journals that are not sold at even the largest newsstands. The highest-circulation radical environmental magazines are those published by animal-rights advocates.
Of all environmentalists active today, animal-rights advocates are the easiest to dislike. They always appear as prune-faced ayatollahs out to destroy the pleasures of life. In the utopia of the animal-rights movement, circuses and zoos would be banned, and anyone who dared to eat anything made out of meat would be ostracized for life.
If the readers and writers of The Animals Agenda are typical, the animal-rights supporter spends her days looking for causes to be outraged by and corporations to denounce. Ordinary objects that most of us would take for granted are used by animal advocates as touchstones for sharing their feelings, whether you want to listen to them or not.
For example, rabbit's feet, according to a letter from reader Julie Wilson in the November issue of The Animals' Agenda, are all part of the plot. She explains that she loved fondling these feet as a child, but as she grew up, she became Sensitive and Compassionate. Why, she walked past a display of these feet in a store, and "deep sadness came over me. There they were—red, purple, yellow, and my once favored green. Jumbled up in tiny silver chains awaiting the naive young consumer of animal misfortune."
But Wilson comes off as a moderate in the pages of The Animals' Agenda. The magazine gives its readers dozens of corporations to boycott, such as Hallmark Cards, which uses "dead, stuffed models for 'cute' animal poses." The Chinese also receive criticism. While every other media outlet in the country condemned the murderous crimes of Deng Xiaoping and his henchmen, The Animals' Agenda reported the real story: The butchers of Beijing had slaughtered 12,000 dogs! "Despite Buddhist influence, which generally injects a gentle approach [sic] towards other animals," the magazine reported, "China has traditionally exhibited a highly speciesist attitude." The slaughter in Tiananmen Square, of course, was not reported.
The one exception among environmental magazines is World Watch, published by the Worldwatch Institute. I'm not a fan of the organization's founder, Lester Brown, a man who has predicted nine out of the last two global famines. But I like World Watch because its writers at least prefer facts to emotion and economics to political correctness.
In most cases, I disagree with World Watch's conclusions. With rare exceptions—chiefly in the area of selling water rights, where the magazine edges toward the free-market position—the people at World Watch, like nearly all environmentalists, favor more regulation and more government spending. But I respect their methods even as I disagree with their solutions. If you want to read cutting-edge environmental analysis, World Watch is the best place to find it.
Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON. Next month: How mainstream magazines cover the environment.