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Sierra Magazine
Last Words

Has environmentalism become too extreme?

Environmental extremists seem unwilling to compromise on their demands for extremely clean air and water, as well as on purely aesthetic demands such as blue skies. They continue to press for the preservation of unreasonably large numbers of plants and animals, literally millions of species, including some quite ugly ones that, from a more balanced point of view, contribute nothing to the useful production of polychlorinated biphenyls.

Every time a couple of thousand frogs appear with a few extra eyes and some missing limbs, or the CO2 content of the atmosphere rises a little more than in the past half million years, or some nitrogen-mutated microbes begin eating the flesh off fish and making people sick, green extremists demand regulatory action. And if you think environmental regulation doesn't cost jobs, just ask an out-of-work whaler. It's no wonder environmental extremists have alienated so many average Americans like Steve Forbes, or that their "Earth in the Balance" agenda seems to appeal to no more than 79 percent of the U.S. public.

David Helvarg, author of The War Against the Greens

We can't be extreme enough in this day and age, when we're losing the earth so rapidly. People want a movement that's strong, tough, and unbending. We won't always win, but we shouldn't lose because we're willing to compromise.

Martin Litton, former Sierra Club director

Relative to the magnitude of the ecological crisis, environmentalism is an extremely well-intentioned reform movement whose great accomplishment has been to slow the destruction of nature somewhat. Given the power and momentum of industrial civilization, that is no mean, or negligible, feat. The crisis, however, is a systemic problem, rooted in a place that policy can't reach: our human-centered worldview. As Audre Lorde put it, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Fundamental change of the nonviolent variety doesn't come from the top down or the center out.

Stephanie Mills, editor of Turning Away From Technology

No. In fact, it hasn't gone far enough in protecting the human rights of people of color. The record shows that racism affects everything from where dumps are sited to how they're cleaned up. Our Native communities are literally dying from toxic impacts. We need to be more extreme in protecting people equally. The contamination on our lands is a form of ethnocide.

Tom Goldtooth, executive director, Indigenous Environmental Network

Only in that there's way too much infighting. Some of us choose to work in the political arena and some choose to stay out and throw rocks, and that's fine. But it's really destructive when people get attacked as sellouts because they're not pure enough. No one should be attacked for taking advantage of existing conditions. I believe in practicing the art of the possible, gaining as much ground as you can today and living to fight for more.

Bart Koehler, cofounder, Earth First!, and executive director, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council

Not a bit. It's as mainstream as apple pie and the Fourth of July. Of course, polluters don't agree. They claim that the new clean-air standards went too far, but parents of asthmatic children don't think that cleaner air is the least bit radical. These new standards mean that kids will have fewer days of missed school, fewer visits to the emergency room, less need for medication, and a better quality of life.

The auto industry argues that increasing fuel-efficiency standards for cars to an average of 45 miles per gallon is an extreme reaction to global warming. I think that leaving our kids a world plagued by rising temperatures, more violent droughts and storms, and higher incidence of diseases is what's extreme. Some have called the Sierra Club's campaign to end commercial logging on federal public lands radical. But when you consider that in 1996 the U.S. Forest Service timber-sale program lost $700 million while damaging watersheds and destroying wildlife habitat, it's not the Club's agenda that seems unreasonable.

Debbie Sease, legislative director, Sierra Club


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