The Rise and Fall of the Environmental Movement, American-Style : Activism: Organizations are too big, too rich, too remote. Sacrificed before the altar of the Self was a contemplative, quiet relationship with nature.

<i> Tom Wolf, who has worked for the Nature Conservancy in Wyoming and New Mexico, frequently writes about the West. </i>

Among the blessings of the drought is the opportunity to re-examine and perhaps abandon some old baggage of the War of the West against itself. If the cowboys and irrigation boys lost their way in the desert, where they sought empire and wealth, so did we, the enviros. We share responsibility for the death of the wild, for the death of what was unique and valuable about the West.

The environmental organizations courted disaster when they “succeeded,” American-style. When they got too big, too rich and too remote from the environmental effects of their actions. When we substituted “wilderness” for “wildness.” When we couldn’t hear the call of the wild above the din of our own voices.

Most of all, when we abandoned moral appeal for fund-raising appeals, when we substituted holy war against the infidel for the sweet science of swaying souls. Like our competitors in organized religion, especially the televangelists, we enviros lost our credibility when we bought into the junk-mail business. When the salvation we offered lost out to our insatiable need for money. When the enticement of tax deductibility led to abuses of our nonprofit status.


One enviro message is: “There are too many people! (Except for us!) We (you!) are destroying our only chance for contact with the Divine, with the Other, with the wild!” When clerics saw their enviro competition pitch both guilt and direct contact with the Divine, they challenged us in a way that made tactical, if not theological, sense. “More people!” they cried. Thus did they join us in the arrogance of humanism, which always says, “Up With People!” With help from Uncle Sam, the pro-people people won. Now the West is like everywhere else--overcrowded. Except for our one hope: We live in a desert.

The Church of Nature squandered its soul when it encountered someone who understood its pretensions and weaknesses. Someone who also claimed direct contact with God. Someone who knew the Washington Beltway and its habit of seeing wealth and empire--cities of gold--in the deserts of the West. Someone who had run the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. If there is anyone left who doubts Ronald Reagan’s genius, let them contemplate James G. Watt’s performance as secretary of the interior.

A perfect example of the cowboy mentality, Watt of Wyoming provoked religious warfare with every move he made. He baited the enviros out of morality and into politics, the courts and the markets, places where we had no rightful business, places where we did not do business well. More than anyone else, Watt “won” the War of the West. People who ridiculed him were blind to his claim that the enviros and the anti-Vietnam War crowd had a certain relation to each other. Watt could simply point to the enviro bible--Edward Abbey’s 1975 book “The Monkey Wrench Gang"--that made this connection openly.

We Watt-haters rejoiced as our memberships and bank accounts burgeoned during his reign. We sat at the feet of radical organizer Saul Alinsky, a proponent of “Just win, baby” power politics. On a dark day for the wild West, Alinsky sold us on seizing the desert’s wealth and empire within the Democratic Party. Only the wealthiest of all the national environmental groups, the Nature Conservancy, resisted this partisan blunder.

While Richard M. Nixon was distracted with war and Watergate, Congress had passed all the significant environmental legislation that governs us today. But government should only do what people and groups cannot do for themselves. And because morality cannot be legislated, these “victories,” such as the Endangered Species Act, became part of our tragic loss of the wild. This legislation gave enviros, but not wild things, standing in court. Our loss of species accelerates daily. We did not represent the wild well.

Hope for the hopelessly outgunned environmental movement lay in its moral superiority, in nonviolence, in civil disobedience, in shame. Instead, we enviros tried every other tactic in the book. But our cause misfired. We could not imagine a world without us at the center. We failed to imagine a world where wild things counted on an ethical calculus.

Maybe only writers and artists could “represent” nature in any meaningful way. But ours in the West failed to imagine a myth or story about life in the West with the imaginative power to displace the myth of the cowboy. The most compelling Western image remains: an armed man on a horse kills everything that might threaten him and his cows.

Who else but the enviros has the strong stomach and the time to read all the silly and downright bad writing about the West? Drawing our members chiefly from the white leisure class, we chose Larry McMurtry’s literary equivalent of television over direct, personal, creative relations with the wild. And because we had so much time and money to waste, we fell into another interesting trap. When we chose to play the game by Watt’s rules, nature became an escape, not a place to live and work. Natural settings became scenes for displays of our athletic prowess. Only white folks could make so much work out of so much fun, as if nature were a testing ground for our fitness, whether spiritual or cardiovascular.

Our culture of narcissism spread its sickly, sweet smell through environmental boardrooms in the ‘80s, as former radicals changed overnight into yuppies, as small organizations became huge and unwieldy. Since they are in the leisure business, the outdoor-sports firms quickly realized their opportunities. Being driven became chic. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, became an embarrassment we shunted off to a distant side altar in the Church of Nature. His rope and burlap gave way to Gore-Tex and Synchilla. Poverty, chastity and obedience wilted before the prospect of empire and power, “careers” in the institutionalized environmental movement.

Sacrificed before the altar of the Self was the quiet, contemplative relationship with nature that had been a condition for experiences of the divine, for creativity, in European art and literature for millennia. Just as we enviros lacked this sort of aesthetic, so did we lack the habits of critical inquiry.

When aging rock bands like the Grateful Dead and outdoor-equipment manufacturers got market-smart and started contributing to environmental political activities, the circle closed with a dull thud, guaranteeing the failure to imagine an environmental ethic humans could live by in the West.

Our most conspicuous failure was the wilderness ideal. Does anyone still believe that officially designated “wilderness” is still wild enough for the flowering of the human spirit? Our own behavior never bore out our rhetoric. Our desert time never yielded an environmental ethic. Perhaps the reason for this lies in our inability to relate to nature through either work or leisure. So we came up against the cowboy work ethic, whose environmental impact statement shoots first and talks little. And, God help us, we had nothing to say.