jueves, marzo 09, 2006

From the Grist.org web site:

Caste From the Past

Environmentalism's elitist tinge has roots in the movement's history

By Matthew Klingle and Joseph E. Taylor III
08 Mar 2006
Pretty, yes, but what about the people?

North Americans love their heroes, and environmentalists are no exception. The hall of fame includes some of the biggest hitters from our nation's past: John Muir, David McTaggart, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Paul Watson, David Brower, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey, to name just a few. Every Earth Day, speakers invoke these legends, yet there are also the lesser lights of the green pantheon: Alice Hamilton, the scientist who studied industrial lead poisoning and founded the modern discipline of occupational health; Crystal Eastman, the settlement-house worker who brought attention to the dilapidated housing of Pittsburgh's working classes; and Lois Gibbs, the homemaker-turned-activist who decried the poisoning of a blue-collar suburb in upstate New York called Love Canal.

What united the latter, unsung group and others like them was a commitment to the dispossessed and the poor. In contrast, some of the most venerated conservationists and environmentalists demonstrated a decidedly misanthropic streak. Therein lies a startling and unsettling tension within the history of environmental activism.

The relationship between inequality and environmentalism is vexing. It inheres in some of North America's most troublesome conflicts: efficiency versus equity, individual liberty versus the common good, abundance versus scarcity. Environmentalists have passionately defended things endangered or in short supply, but have rarely considered the hard truths about who benefits from saving wilderness, eliminating pollution, or halting logging and fishing. When we put a human face on the environment, the choices seem less obvious. All too often, that historical face has been poor and dispossessed.

Poverty & the Environment
Introduction to the series.
How environmentalism got its elitist tinge.
Photos of Louisiana towns battered by Katrina.
A look at the poultry farms ravaging the South.
How coal mining has scarred the hills of Appalachia.
A virtual walking tour of the polluted South Bronx.
More stories on poverty & the environment.
It is an old problem. In the mid-19th century, people began to confront nature's limits. Centuries of development had turned a seeming Eden into a wasteland of stumps and gullies. Immigration, natural reproduction, a market economy, and industrialization transformed a wilderness into commodities with astonishing rapidity. "Nor could it be imagined," the English colonial historian Edward Johnson wrote in 1653, "that this Wilderness should turn a mart for Merchants in so short a space."

By the time the continent came of age, the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, feet planted firmly in the soil of his own virtuous labor, was vanishing with the forests and fields that had sustained the myth. By 1864, George Perkins Marsh, a Vermonter who had seen the denuded farmlands of Italy, warned, "we are, even now, breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling." Marsh urged immediate action if the New World was to avoid the ruin of the Old.

The ensuing story is familiar. By the close of the 19th century, concerned citizens had stood up to stop the slaughter of the bison, stay the logger's axe, and set aside scenic places with the help of that greatest of American inventions, the national park. Yet who were the people behind the original conservation and preservation movements? They were the upper crust, or aspirants to high status, the new middle class. And why did they fight so hard to conserve and preserve? The answers lead us into a shadow history that few environmentalists know or want to admit.


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