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Acquaintance of the Earth

Teddy Roosevelt was the first national politician to care actively about what we now call the environment. The parks, refuges, monuments, and preserves he set aside in his terms in office have remained intact throughout the nation. And he acted not from political calculation, but from sheer love of the land. When McKinley died, the news reached him in the heart of the Adirondacks where he was busy climbing Mount Marcy, the Empire State’s highest peak.

So it is no small shame that conservatives have emerged as the great enemies of conservation and environmental work a century later. With a few notable exceptions like New York governor George Pataki, the Republican Party in the years since Richard Nixon launched the EPA has dedicated itself to blocking virtually every important environmental initiative: every effort to curb the Forest Service’s rapacious logging comes up against merciless conservative opposition; the heavily Republican Western congressional delegations protect mining and ranching interests against even modest reform, and do their best to block schemes, like the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, which would have gladdened TR’s heart. When Newt Gingrich first took power, one of his early mistakes was to take seriously a proposal to shut down numerous national parks. George Bush senior helped lose himself the presidency by taunting Al Gore as Ozone Man; one of Reagan’s cabinet ministers advised that we deal with the destruction of the stratosphere not by banning fluorocarbons but by wearing baseball caps; the Great Communicator himself apparently believed that trees were a major source of pollution.1

Against such a backdrop, Peter Huber’s “conservative manifesto” for the environment is welcome. With considerable courage, braving attacks from both the establishment right and the politically tone-deaf ideological purists of the various think tanks, Huber salutes Roosevelt for his true greatness as a federal conservationist. He announces straightforwardly that “great wide-open spaces are valuable because they are great and open,” and calls for government to protect more wilderness for its “aesthetic” value. That such remarks sound shocking coming from a self-described conservative says a good deal about the modern conservative movement. Still, as with the child watching the naked emperor strut by, it sometimes takes an honest innocent to say the most obvious things. There are deep problems in the rest of Huber’s book, but at least it opens a dialogue where none had existed, and for that he deserves credit.

He begins his manifesto by breaking environmentalists into two camps: “soft greens,” who chase after will-o’-the-wisp problems like climate change or pesticide exposure, and “hard greens” in the TR tradition, who care about scenic grandeur and will let the market solve other challenges. A genuine understanding of nature would concentrate on places that are, in his words, “awesome, fascinating, or simply beautiful.” That, he implies, was TR’s standard, and Huber’s symbol for the decline of standards in the intervening century is the kangaroo rat: Roosevelt would have supported an Endangered Species Act for bear, bison, and cougar, he writes, but would have been dismayed that it was written “quite broadly enough to protect kangaroo rats, too.” Ninety pages later, he indicts the soft modern green for being “not concerned with aesthetic sensibilities.” This sort of person, he says, “is offended—outraged—at the suggestion that a kangaroo rat, not being beautiful or demonstrably useful, may not matter so very much.”

This is to sell TR short. It is true that he saved many scenes of Western splendor with the stroke of his pen—but it is also true that one of the first refuges he created, entirely typical of the fifty-three established during his tenure, consisted of “all small islets, commonly called mud lumps, in or near the mouths of the Mississippi River.” He saved them to protect not game birds but herring gulls. This made sense. Roosevelt was a mighty hunter—I spent my freshman year at college dining under chandeliers made from the uncountable antlers he sent home from his various safaris—but he was also a devoted birdwatcher. His first publication was a list of birds of the Adirondacks, and one of his last official positions was president of the Long Island Bird Club. After leaving the White House, he published a dense 111-page article in the Bulletin of the Museum of Natural History on “Revealing and Concealing Coloration in Birds and Mammals,” which discussed antelopes, cougars, and giraffes, but also oystercatchers, wading birds, redstarts, blackburnian warblers, hummingbirds, ravens, red-winged blackbirds, skunks, gophers, chipmunks, and woodchucks.

As for kangaroo rats, if you go to the Roosevelt collection on the fourth floor of Harvard’s Widener Library, it takes only a few minutes to find, among other arcana, his brief, admiring review in 1918 for Outlook magazine of Edward Nelson’s Wild Animals of North America. The finest parts of the book, writes Roosevelt, are “the descriptions of Mr. Nelson’s experiences with kangaroo rats and pocket mice [which] are among the best and most delightful of all such things that have ever been written.”

Huber, in any case, provides no good reason why our aesthetic impulse should be frozen at the turn of the century. One of the great pleasures of the last hundred years has been the spread of new enchantments with the natural world: the work, for instance, of Aldo Leopold, the great wildlife biologist who had his Damascus-road experience with a she-wolf in the New Mexico wilderness and began to help us under-stand the glory and necessity of predators; or that of Mary Austin and then Edward Abbey and then Terry Tempest Williams, who all made the desert come alive. Or Rachel Carson, whose magnificent works on the sea around us, in the 1950s, prepared the way for Jacques Cousteau, and for an entire new affinity with the underwater world. The appreciation of nature continues to grow around the world; people find themselves charmed by particular species, and also by the growing understanding of the ecological web of which those species are a part. TR would have found enormous pleasure in this evolving, growing understanding.

One thing that all these people—Leopold, Carson, Cousteau, even Pataki—have in common is an emerging understanding that you can’t simply identify beautiful spots, put a fence around them, and consider them protected. You need to worry about what’s going on outside their borders. Here Huber seems to disagree, and it is the major weakness of his book.

He devotes much space to ridiculing those scientists and bureaucrats who worry about ethyl dibromide or pseudo-estrogen or low-frequency electromagnetic radiation—the kinds of things that you need to model on computers to discern their impact. “Nothing is too small, too personal, too close to home” for this microenvironmentalism, which threatens to “fence” in “humanity itself.” That’s hyperbole—it’s a little much after the 1990s to complain that the economy is being endlessly hobbled by nitpicking regulation. It’s true that the Feds have wasted lots of money on politically popular but often low-priority causes. I agree with Huber that some Superfund clean-up sites should simply have been fenced off as monuments to our crudity, and the billions spent to semi-clean them should have been spent instead on protecting wild lands, expanding city parks, and protecting urban gardens. But in broader terms, it is hard to argue that we overregulate industry for environmental reasons. Look at biotechnology: in five years’ time, genetically modified corn and soybeans went from being ag-school experiments to covering a third of the cornfields of the United States, without even the rudimentary testing that would have raised serious questions about things like their toxicity to, say, monarch butterflies.

There is simply not some implacable army of bureaucrats ready to shut down free enterprise to save snail darters. There is, however, one overriding issue that, if dealt with, really will demand altering the habits of the entire world, and that is global warming. Serious environmental discussion in the first few decades of this century will center on climate change—nothing else approaches it in scale, danger, and complexity. It should be the test of seriousness for presidential candidates, and for those who write environmental manifestoes: if you can’t deal with the greenhouse effect, then your environmentalism is too shallow to matter.2

Unfortunately, Huber handles the topic in a kind of schizoid fashion. On the one hand, he pours on scorn. Scientists in the 1970s thought the earth would cool; so, he concludes, that must mean there’s nothing to the claim about greenhouse effect. The numbers are small: humans add “only” six billion metric tons of carbon per year to the atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations go up and down all the time over the geologic record. And it’s all based on models anyway, and natural systems are “too inherently complex for theories about them to yield any practical green advice at all.”

A decade ago, such skepticism was still justifiable. But now scientists have done the work that contradicts it. The research efforts of the last ten years are unprecedented; proceeding in the dialectical tradition of their trade, scientists have broken down this enormous environmental issue into workable parts, studied it, and reached a consen-sus that embraces all but a small number of eccentric experts. Their work has been peer-reviewed and corroborated by the planet itself; in the last decade we’ve seen seven of the warmest years in recorded human history. And we’ve seen some other things too, in the unchallenged scientific record:

å? a 20 percent increase in the number of severe storms which dump two inches or more of precipitation in a twenty-four-hour period—which is just what you would expect, since warm air holds extra water vapor;

å? a dramatic change in seasonality, with spring coming seven days ear-lier, on average, across the Northern Hemisphere than it did just thirty years ago.

These changes, only a sample of dozens like them, can’t just be ignored. Climate change is not some distant phenomenon, a figment of some modeler’s imagination, but the most pressing political issue of the new century, one that is crashing down upon us with unimaginable rapidity and power. In 1998, the warmest year to date on record, 300 million people were made refugees for a week, for a season, or forever by the weather, especially the devastating floods that drowned so much of Asia and Latin America. Insurers paid out $98 billion in damages, 60 percent above the previous record set two years before, and far more in real terms than in all the 1980s.3 And the data just keeps coming. In December 1999, for instance, we learned that Arctic ice is 40 percent thinner than four decades before—and entirely sober researchers are contemplating seriously the implications of that diffusion of fresh water for the continued flow of the Gulf Stream.

To reach this point and still be scorning the idea of global warming as some unproven semi-fantasy is a journalistic failure. Forget the impact on humans—the submerged islands, the drowned cropland, the refugees, the spread of disease. Let’s confine the argument to the aesthetic questions that would interest, say, Theodore Roosevelt. For conservatives, Huber writes, “conservation happens in well-defined places, places you can see and draw on a map. Yellowstone and Yosemite start here and end there.” Not anymore they don’t—and this is the crux of the issue. Bears don’t live in Yellowstone because they understand that they are helpful to the local tourist economy. They live there because their food is there. Recent studies, for instance, showed that the nuts of the whitebark pine provide 40 percent of the fat layer on Yellowstone grizzlies as they prepare to den for the winter. (They take the nuts from caches hidden by red squirrels, the kangaroo rats of the Rockies.) But a warmer, moister climate in the region is helping spread a blister rust which may soon decimate the trees.

  1. 1

    Such folly is not, of course, confined to the Republicans. Senators of both parties have rallied in opposition to the Kyoto treaty on climate change. Even Al Gore, as Charles Lewis makes clear in his The Buying of the President 2000 (Morrow, 1999), has let political calculation cloud his vision: on the same day that he was warning one audience of the “terrifying prospect” of climate change, he was pulling the strings that reopened oil drilling on the Teapot Dome lands, a concession eventually leased by his longtime financial supporters at Occidental Petroleum.

  2. 2

    As “Earth Day” approached in late April, the official committee made climate change its chief focus. Its chairman, Denis Hayes, published The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair (Island Press, 2000), which bids to become the next Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. It is strongest on possible solutions to warming problems. For a more thorough explanation of the problem, readers can turn to Gale E. Christianson’s Greenhouse: The 200-Year Story of Global Warming (Walker, 1999) or Beating the Heat: How and Why We Must Combat Global Warming, by John J. Berger (Berkeley Hills Books, 2000), each of which provides a concise, clear-headed account of where the science stands and where the politics might go. Those who want a comprehensive picture of the small minority view that global warming either doesn’t exist or won’t be much of a problem should turn to The Satanic Gases, by Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling Jr. (Cato Institute, 2000).

  3. 3

    As the veteran Greenpeace campaigner Jeremy K. Leggett makes clear in his vivid book, The Carbon War: Dispatches from the End of the Oil Century (London: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1999), more and more insurance executives have come to understand what their premium data is telling them—i.e., that the historical world on which their actuarial tables depend is not the world that now exists.

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