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The ecologist movement gathers force in the United States

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The most important ecologist groups in the United States work with lawyers, scientists, economists and lobbyists inside the political system and the economic establishment; in addition, an alternative movement has developed, which focuses its work on environmental justice, conservation and political impartiality. They all fight to avoid the apathy of the United States society, which is more worried by terrorism and the economic crisis than environmental protection.

 

THE HISTORY OF THE WEST, from the Judeo-Christian tradition to rational scientists, is the history of the fight against and the gradual domination of nature by man. This concept is the necessary base for understanding the origins of the North American ecologist movement. Christianity inherited from Judaism the belief in Humanity’s continued progress. The transformation of nature is the key to this relationship. The modification of the environment is an expected result of human development.

In the Middle Ages, man applied new techniques to dominate nature, like the plough and the mill. The increase in Europe’s population was strongly linked to advances in agricultural production. “The new European colonizers molded the new continent in the image of the old one, in that nature was made to succumb to human necessity” The 15th century was the era of exploration and the starting point of the biggest migration ever in human history. The search for new markets opened new routes in Asia, and commerce intensified and replaced the feudal system. The first nation states emerged with important alliances between merchants and nobles.

In 1517 Luther [1] presented his 95 Theses, denouncing the abuses of the Catholic Church and initiating the Protestant Reformation. On the other hand, Calvin [2] presented a different theology in which prosperity and wealth were virtues. Calvinist doctrine had a strong influence on the Puritans and other settlers that immigrated to the New World. The new European colonizers molded the new continent in the image of the old one, in that nature was made to succumb to human necessity.

THE MAN-NATURE CONFLICT

The scientific revolution of the 7th century brought with it a naturalization of the universe. Galileo [3], Kepler [4] and Newton [5] saw in nature a machine of great precision. Descartes [6] understood it as a mathematical formula with a coordinated geometry that could be controlled not by divine grace, but rather by man and his ability to reason and to define it. Humanity tends to feel superior to nature in a constant process of evolution in search of happiness and not salvation.

“According to Nash, progress and the ideals of colonization constitute a myopic vision of exploitation for a means at any cost” In 1776, thirteen colonies located in the New World declared independence from Great Britain, and a new nation, the United States, rose. The colonies in America debated about the meaning of nature, about its utility for fulfilling human necessities and about the existence of spirituality, or lack thereof. The Native Americans played an important role in the development of the environmental movement in the United States through their special relationship with nature (animist religion [7]) and their traditions, influenced by the romantic vision in which the tribes lived in perfect harmony with their environment. Today they have become an icon of environmental organizations.

“The arrival of the 20th century brought the economic expansion of USA and an unprecedented process of industrialization precedent that was unable to accommodate the environmental question” The North American environmental historian Roderick Nash, in his essay The State of Environmental History, talks of the invasion of the New World as a massive assault in the name of civilization and Christianity. According to Nash, the progress and ideals of colonization constitute a myopic vision of exploitation for a means at any cost, as in the destruction of the frontier in the conquest of the west and the transformation of the landscape, a vision that currently continues with force and is part of popular doctrine.

In response to the uncontrolled abuse of the environment, the expansion of the railroad, the exploitation of mines, the increase in agricultural crops in previously unused zones, and unlawful appropriation of lands belonging to the natives, some pro-nature voices were raised, like those of Ralph Waldo Emerson [8], Henry David Thoreau [9] and George Catlin [10].

THE CONSERVATION MOVEMENT VERSUS THE PRESERVATION MOVEMENT

“The conservationist movement originated thanks to the romantic ideas of President Theodore Roosevelt and his worries about the difficulties confronted during the hard years of the Depression” The arrival of the 20th century brought with it the economic expansion of the United States and an unprecedented process of industrialization that was unable to accommodate the environmental question. Consequently, it caused the devastation of great extensions of earth, the exploitation of aquifers with the dramatic destruction of hundreds of species of birds and plants, and the beginning of a desertification of the Midwest that provoked, in the thirties, one of the worst famines in recent American history.

The conservationist movement originated, rightly, as a reaction to this situation and thanks to the romantic ideas of President Theodore Roosevelt [11] and his worries about the difficulties confronted during the hard years of the Depression. According to his own words… It is safe to say that the prosperity of our people depends directly on the energy and intelligence with which our natural resources are used… The government assumed major responsibilities in seeing to human needs. “Paralleling the conservationist movement was the birth of the preservationist movement, led by John Muir and Aldo Leopold, with a more radical vision that wished for vast zones of land not to be used at all” They regulated the use of different natural resources (Taylor Grazing Act [12] and the Soil Conservation Act [13]), cleaned up the cities, strengthened education and controlled the activities of big businesses. Gifford Pinchot [14] became in this decade the major publicist of the conservationist movement and filled the position of Forest Chief of the Ministry of Agriculture. In the same year, he directed the North American Forest Service, introducing the idea of the administration of the forests and their controlled and efficient exploitation under state control.

Paralleling the conservationist movement was the birth of the preservationist movement, led by John Muir [15] and Aldo Leopold [16], with a more radical vision that wished for vast zones of land not to be used at all. For Muir… to preserve nature is essential for improving human life…The preservationists continued fighting for the protection of natural spaces by means of articles in the press and private campaigns. Currently the Sierra Club [17] and the Audubon Society [18], two important private organizations, continue fighting for preservation. On the other hand, the Roosevelt administration established the precedent for future governments to become a mediator between business interests and public access and use of the environment at a national level.

AWARENESS OF SELF-DESTRUCTION

“Television was fundamental in promoting ecology. The National Publicity Council released an advertisement in which a Native American appears dressed in his traditional garb, crying upon seeing his land full of trash” The era of ecology was born at the start of the nuclear era and the new positioning of the United States as a world power after World War II. The Cold War and the incipient Civil Rights Movement left the ecologist movement waiting until the mid-sixties. Rachel Carson [19]’s book, The Silent Spring (1962) had a strong impact on American citizens, who were unaware of the effects of DDT, chemical spills and radiation on human health.

In 1963 the Clean Air Act was approved, as was the Wilderness Act in 1964, reflecting the governmental wish to preserve the natural beauty of the United States. The role of television was fundamental in promoting ecology. The National Publicity Council released an advertisement in which a Native American appears dressed in his traditional garb, crying upon seeing his land full of trash. “Americans finally realized that humanity was capable of destroying the planet. This new awareness permitted ecologist organizations to grow and have each time more strength” In the seventies activism increased with the foundation of important environmental organizations like Environmental Action [20], The League of Conservation Voters [21], the Environmental Defense Fund [22], Greenpeace [23], Friends of the Earth [24] and the Southwest Research Center, rooted in numerous accidents, including the nuclear one of 3 Mile Island, and the ecological disasters in California, Wisconsin and Alaska, and culminating in the celebration of Earth Day (1972).

Americans finally realized that humanity was capable of destroying the planet. This new awareness permitted ecologist organizations to grow and have each time more strength, achieving an important number of legislative initiatives. This new political activism centered its work on controlling urban and industrial waste.

THE ROAD TO FOLLOW

Currently the mainstream ecologist groups work with lawyers, scientists, economists and lobbyists within the established political and economic system, paralleled by the development of alternative movements like eco-feminism, deep ecology and the Green Party that focus their work on environmental justice, conservationism and political impartiality.

Both groups fight to avoid the apathy of the American society that now seems more worried by global terrorism and the economic crisis than protection of nature.

The consequences of global warming and environmental catastrophes will determine the road to follow.