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Sierra Magazine
In Print: Book Reviews

A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton by John Jacobs. (University of California Press, $34.95)

"How was it," asks John Jacobs, "that a man less at home in Muir Woods than in a darkened cocktail lounge with an unfiltered Chesterfield in one hand and a tumbler full of Stoli in the other could amass such an astonishing conservation record?"

The man in question is Phillip Burton, the late San Francisco congressman who engineered the most sweeping national-parks laws in U.S. history. As drawn in this breezy political biography, Burton was abrasive, profane, and ambitious, a "type A-plus" personality who terrorized underlings, snatched food off strangers' plates, and even challenged then-House Majority Whip Tip O'Neill to a fistfight. He was also a man of high principles and extraordinary intellectual powers and, until his death in 1983, among Congress' most fervent advocates for minorities, the poor, labor, and the environment.

Thanks to his tour de force orchestration of huge parks bills, Burton managed to set aside more national-park and wilderness acreage "than all presidents and congresses before him combined." In addition to Redwood National Park, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and other California treasures, he was pivotal in establishing or expanding protection for wonders far from his home state, such as Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area and New Jersey's Pine Barrens National Reserve. In all, his legislation set aside nearly 2 million acres of wilderness nationwide and protected nearly 5 percent of California's landmass.

This is all the more remarkable since Burton was well along in his career before he took up the cause of conservation with the help of Sierra Club leaders like Dr. Edgar Wayburn (many of whom appear in the book). Jacobs, a longtime reporter for San Francisco-area newspapers, gives a thorough and often hilarious account, although less than a three-dimensional portrait. If there's a fault to be found with A Rage for Justice, it's that Burton himself never quite leaps off the page. Given the great man's personality, though, that may not be entirely a bad thing. --B. J. Bergman


Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor by Tom Athanasiou. (Little, Brown, $24.95)

Right-wing think tanks, corporations, and their pundit pals like to claim that environmentalists exaggerate hazards, government goes too far in remedying tree-huggers' pseudo-problems, and the free market in a global economy will save the planet anyway.

This well-funded disinformation is scathingly debunked by environmental writer Athanasiou: global warming, a favorite target of skeptics, can no longer be dismissed as eco-panic now that insurance industry planners have noted an increasing intensity of storms around the world; habitat destruction continues unabated, as does the human misery that is so tightly bound up with environmental ruin.

Athanasiou's solution is a radicalization of green politics based on a demand for more equitable distribution of the world's wealth and an economic vision that emphasizes quality of life rather than sheer volume of production. This aligns him squarely with the "new ecology . . . unabashedly political, economically and technologically sophisticated, insistent about justice," which sees the much-touted global economy, based on growth through cheap labor and wanton resource extraction as "a free-trade world that pits every nation and community against every other, a world in which ecological rapine and human slavery are both means of lowering prices on merciless global markets."

Alternatives abound, but resources for solutions like energy conservation, solar technology, and sustainable agriculture are squandered in hyperconsumption and a trillion-dollar-a-year world military budget. Meanwhile, stronger standards for labor and environment are stymied by industries. These realities, so clearly presented, are what makes the author's call for a more militant, international movement so timely and significant. --Bob Schildgen


"Tell Newt to Shut Up!" by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf. (Simon & Schuster, $10.95, paper)

This look behind the scenes of the Contract With America by a couple of Washington Post reporters is a bracing read for those intent on kicking Newt Gingrich and his anti-environmental minions out of Congress.

The authors take us back to 1993, when Gingrich began hammering out his strategy to take over the House with his Republican "gang of five": Texans Tom DeLay and Dick Armey (two of the most anti- environmental congressmen), and Bob Walker (Pa.) and Bill Paxon (N.Y.).

After their early triumphs, contradictions started to break up a lot of easy generalities. For example, while the gang built careers opposing federal spending, their allies' districts often benefited from federal largess, and these allies ended up battling their own tight-fisted committees for more funds.

The personnel might turn out to be a bigger liability than the policy paradox. Though they have made much of Bill Clinton's "character" issue, these gentlemen aren't exactly at the top of the morality index themselves. We see enough spite, anger, and self-pity here to wonder if their contempt for the environment isn't a simple case of self-hate projected onto spotted owls. Dick Armey is a "self-described 'bush league professor at a bush league school,' squabbling incessantly with colleagues who considered him a power-grabbing lightweight." Gingrich, another disgruntled product of the academic backwaters, apparently lacks the patience to hammer out deals face-to-face, preferring instead the narcissistic joys of manipulating an auditorium full of disciples.

The brighter side is the tale of a democracy still alive enough to rein in the gang as the public became increasingly shocked by its "revolution"--especially its anti-environmental proposals. As a result, some Gingrichites have attempted to green up their image. But given the loyalty to well-heeled special interests noted in these sketches, this protective coloration will no doubt wash off soon in showers of campaign contributions. --B.S.


New From Sierra Club Books

The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit, & Politics by Tom Hayden. A study of spiritual traditions that calls on the power and insight of religion to renew our bond with the earth.

The Case Against the Global Economy: And for a Turn Toward the Local, edited by Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith. An unrelenting critique of the global economy by Ralph Nader, Wendell Berry, Kirkpatrick Sale, and others.

A Condor Brings the Sun by Jerry McGahan. A daring first novel celebrates Peru's Runa people, their stewardship of the land, and survival through 23 generations.

Resist Much, Obey Little: Remembering Ed Abbey, James R. edited by Hepworth and Gregory McNamee. The "Thoreau of the American West," radical environmentalist Edward Abbey portrayed by three dozen admirers.

Order these titles from Sierra Club Books by phone, (800) 935-1056, or mail order, 85 Second St., Second Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441.


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