Tending the Garden : A FIERCE GREEN FIRE: The American Environmental Movement By Philip Shabecoff ; (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $25; 352 pp.)

A free-lance writer, Russell covers the environment for numerous magazines. His first book, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," was just published by Carroll & Graf.

Numerous books in recent years have examined specific ecological crises--from global warming to the demise of the African elephant--but a comprehensive history of the American environment movement has been surprisingly absent and long overdue. From the era of Columbus through that of Reagan/Bush, Philip Shabecoff’s “A Fierce Green Fire” takes a probing look at the struggles of the past in an effort to illuminate a direction for the future.

For his 14 years as the New York Times’ chief environmental correspondent, Shabecoff was widely regarded as an astute and objective reporter. Suddenly, late in 1990, he was informed that certain editors felt he had become too “pro-environment”; thus, he was being reassigned to cover the IRS. Instead Shabecoff quit, created a daily environmental news service called “Greenwire,” and embarked upon this book. He is, one senses, particularly in his analysis of the contemporary period, a skilled journalistic observer who is finally able to unleash the fires within himself. For “A Fierce Green Fire” is more than a chronological overview; it is ultimately a call to action.

Shabecoff’s conclusion is that the environmental movement has the potential--even the mandate--to revolutionize society, but that time is running out for averting global ecological disaster. These are not new ideas. Shabecoff’s contribution is unique in its perspective on our deep-rooted dual nature: the centuries-old image of America as a new Eden, yet a simultaneous carelessness about tending the garden. Such ambivalence was visible from the outset, where Columbus’ journals describe the beauty of the land, and the profits envisaged from it, in almost the same breath.

The first third of Shabecoff’s book draws upon numerous historical sources in following the activities of our forebears, up to Earth Day 1970. Besides offering up such little-known vignettes as the forest encounters between Daniel Boone and John James Audubon, Shabecoff, without over-romanticizing, describes how our ancestors separated themselves from nature in subduing it: “The settlers never thought of their ax work as ‘deforestation’ but as ‘the progress of cultivation.’ ”

Ironically, Andrew Jackson seems to anticipate Ronald Reagan in his insistence on “the people’s” rights to the nation’s resources, reversing an edict by John Quincy Adams--the first President to evince any real interest in conservation--to set aside oak forest lands. Thoreau’s impassioned ecology--"Who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica Dam?"--is seen, in part, as a precursor to the contemporary “monkey wrenchers” of Earth First!


Once the frontier was conquered, a growing number of Americans--primarily from the urbanized, industrialized East--set about preserving the remaining wild fragments. Through following the footsteps of the pioneering thinkers and doers--John Muir speaking of the interconnectedness of all life; Henry Adams calling for an intellectual “jump” to “confront the forces let loose by energy and technology”; F.D.R.'s man Harold Ickes championing Native American rights--Shabecoff weaves a continuity that offers a ray of hope as we approach an otherwise ominous future.

For, despite the great changes, especially over the past two decades, in environmental awareness, laws, policy, even corporate attitudes, Shabecoff points out in chapters on saving land and life that the natural world’s destruction continues to accelerate. The middle third of “A Fierce Green Fire,” using interviews with many of the key participants, describes the rise of today’s environmental organizations and the awesome tasks confronting them.

In large part, Shabecoff places blame for a leadership gap directly upon the Reagan/Bush “counter-revolution.” The final and most impassioned third of his book opens with a searing dissection of the past 12 years, delineating the influence of such corporate powers as Joseph Coors on political appointees at the EPA and the Department of Interior. It is a grim accounting indeed, making Richard Nixon (under whose aegis the EPA, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act all came into being) look like St. Francis by comparison.

But the Reagan era’s blatant disregard for environmental values has also inspired a burgeoning grass-roots movement. In telling a story that begins with Lois Gibbs and Love Canal, Shabecoff observes not only that environmental threats cut across all ethnic lines to bring communities together in common cause but also that pollution and land degradation “are of a piece with other forms of social injustice.”

Establishing this linkage is the gauntlet which Shabecoff lays down to the bigger national environmental groups, which, he believes, “have yet to blend their agenda with the broader social agenda of economic and racial equity.” This is viewed as far more important than the so-called “Third Wave” approach, which advocates using market incentives to meet environmental goals. Although many corporations are finding (to their surprise) that efficiency and profits are up as the result of technological changes made to protect the environment, Shabecoff notes that bottom lines possess their own built-in limits on how far Big Business will go. Basic economic assumptions need re-evaluation, he insists: “Does it make sense for us to spend well over $100 billion a year to repair the ravages of pollution and then count that sum as growth, as progress, because it adds to the GNP?”

To Shabecoff, the potential is there for “a new set of democratizing values that may be in the process of replacing many of the principles that have long dominated our economics and our politics.” But this will require political power, which can only be achieved if the environmental movement becomes far more inclusive. Shabecoff pulls no punches about the demanding task ahead, nor its necessity: “Freeing ourselves of the machinery of the industrial age and replacing it with a technology that serves both organic nature and human society,” he concludes, “is today’s mission into the wilderness.”