sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

February 4, 2011

Environmentalism and Ideology of Freedom

In anticipation of the oncoming deprogramming of my children, I try to stay on top of environmentalist news.  And so, I found an awesome essay by Travis Kavulla in the last print issue of National Review.  Unfortunately, the essay entitled Endangered? Specious is unavailable anywhere online at this time.  Kavulla looks at the dangerous “preservationist” policy carried out on the federal lands in Montana.  Dangerous because the lack of logging on the federal lands is certain to precipitate catastrophic fires.  And why the scare quotes around “preservationist”?  Listen to Kavulla:

Man has transformed nature, and that bell cannot easily be unrang.  While environmentalist doctrine today favors the concept of preserving “wilderness,” Indians on the eastern seaboard and the West were active foresters who wielded fire to manage forests and brushland.  As William Cronon argued in his classic work of environmental history, Changes in the Land, controlled fire set by American Indians resulted in a landscape considerably altered from its natural state, with greater habitat for beaver and other fur-bearers and widespread growth of wild strawberries, which would have been crowded out by forest run rampant.  All this, even before the white man had discovered this nature.

Only later did romantics like Henry David Thoreau wax poetic about great, untouched, even slightly menacing woodland.  They dreamt up what was essentially new nature.

A few year ago I read 1491 by Charles C. Mann.  The book is chalk-full of fascinating information about the Americas before Columbus and the first encounters with Europeans.  Mann explained that the crying Indian of environmentalists propaganda is hogwash.  Pre-Columbus Indians in both North and South America developed clever ways of shaping their environments.

Iron Eyes Cody: a 70s propaganda classic.

I read 1491 back to back with Collapse by Jared Diamond.  Collapse was released to horrible reviews by people whose opinions I care about.  I read it anyways because from time to time I feel obliged to read things that run a chance of raising my blood pressure, and because I’m a sucker for lightweight ethnographic information. Diamond dedicated considerable amount of pages to Bitterrot Valley in Montana, a place he convinced me I need to visit.

Diamond felt that the freedom-loving characters who populate Montana need to learn to love the lawyers.  On one hand, there are the disputes with the blue state transplants who might think that the cows are all bucolic, but then don’t like the smell.  On the other, there is the impending global warming Armageddon.  Both need to be addressed in court, preferably federal court.  Collapse has a what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas feel, from the environmentalist point of view.

The book saddened me.  What can your average aging Montana farmer do against a New York city lawyer retiring next door to him?  Is said farmer’s ideology nothing but a relic of the past?  What can sustain it today?  Lots of things, if you trust Kavulla.  A smart environmentalist policy should be conducted locally by people with education and know-how to conduct such policy:

While environmentalists like to claim the mantle of science, federal environmental law hands decision-making to judges, who work to produce outcomes in conformance with the maze of the law.  The bottom line is that decision about forests are not made by foresters, and wildlife is not being managed by biologists.  Increasingly, management decisions of a highly technical nature are made in faraway places by political agents of judges with no subject-specific training.

Kavulla explains that Montana locals see the ineptitude of federal land-management policy:

Why do Montanans and westerners in general have such distaste for the federal government?  Just look at the reams of court opinions, the numerous injunctions, and the bureaucratic tangles that never even make it to court.  America’s federal lands used to be engines of productivity.  Now they are fallow — even as Montanans remember brighter days, even as they await inferno that will destroy the beauty and of the place where they had lived their lives, even as they worry about a stroke of the president’s pen that could do more to spell out a rancher’s future than he himself does.

The rural western states’ economy had always revolved around natural resources, and always had been dependent on public lands.  The more federal policy erodes that consortium, the more the livelihoods it will destroy and the worth the ultimate conflagration be — not only of the trees, but of the political sentiment of the westerners, trammeled by the law.

Montanans find themselves in a horrible predicament.  I doubt that the EPA responsible for this predicament will be abolished, like I’m not holding my breath about the Department of Education being abolished.  Yet I’m heartened to learn that there are still people in this country who, when faced with danger, want more local control and less federal government in their lives.

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