Growing a Green America

TWO fundamental challenges emerge when an author tries to write a book about something as big and as fluid as the environmental movement in the United States today. One is that lots of other good works on the subject are around. And the other is that the movement is becoming increasingly complex and is moving at an accelerated pace - news becomes old in a hurry.

Considering these two challenges, journalist Philip Shabecoff has produced a worthwhile overview of environmentalism in the United States. "A Fierce Green Fire" traces the history of mankind's impact on and concern for nature dating back to the arrival of Europeans on the continent, and moving forward to the post-Earth-Day growth of grass-roots environmentalism, legislation, regulations, political resistance, and corporate readjustment.

Shabecoff acknowledges up front that this "is not a work of historical scholarship" and that he uses "chiefly secondary sources." Nevertheless, he does a good job of citing hundreds of expert sources - some from published works, many from personal interviews. And given that, of his 32 years as a reporter for the New York Times he spent 14 of them covering the environment (before becoming executive publisher of a daily environmental news service called "Greenwire"), Shabecoff is somewhat of an expert hims elf.

Looking at the spread of this movement, especially in recent years, Shabecoff correctly concludes: "Virtually no part of the public and private sectors has remained untouched by the environmental revolution." He may be going too far in speculating that "environmentalism could be the most democratizing influence on national politics in recent history, perhaps exceeding the trade unionism of the 1930s and the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s." But events already have confirmed his predictio n that "over the long run, environmental issues are increasingly likely to dominate the international political agenda."

While the work is generally objective, the author does not pretend to be wholly neutral on a subject that has generated considerable political controversy - indeed, raised fundamental questions about values and ethics. "Time is running out for saving what is left of the American landscape," he writes.

If this book is comprehensive, it is not intellectually rigorous. Nor is it philosophically, psychologically, or religiously deep, as are other books published in recent years that probe beneath the scientific, political, and economic top layers of man's relationship to nature. Modern-day equivalents of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold exist, but one does not learn a lot about them here.

Also, because of publication deadlines, some important recent events were overlooked. For example, there are just two brief references to last summer's "Earth Summit" in Brazil, where grass-roots environmentalism played a historic role. Also, there is no mention of Vice President Al Gore Jr., whose own book on the environment both reflected and influenced US environmentalism.

But again, Shabecoff is writing journalism - which someone once described as "the first draft of history" and which tends to dwell on newsmakers (elected officials and special interests) rather than on deeper thinkers and others at a distance from political power.

Where the work is weakest is in assertions that lack factual backup or are merely superficial. Some examples: "[T]here can be little doubt that chemicals that kill insects and weeds can also harm people, particularly if they are not used properly.... The problem is how to prevent genetic engineering from endangering humans and their environment without standing in the way of progress.... The age of petroleum is surely drawing to an end." All of these are self-evident.

Elsewhere he writes: "The timber industry and its workers angrily defend their right to cut down the forests, saying that the environmentalists who are trying to stop them are tree-hugging radicals who care nothing about the well-being of the region." This is a typical journalistic device of pitting two sides against one another in a political battle fought by caricatures. If the author had spent any time recently in the Pacific Northwest, he would know that both environmentalists and timber workers are searching for a solution that preserves endangered species as well as jobs.

Judged as a "first draft of history," "A Fierce Green Fire" is a sound and valuable snapshot of an important watershed in American environmentalism. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in comprehensiveness and clarity.

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