Excerpted from the introduction to the newly published Pacific Northwest Timber Wars
I led Kalmiopsis Audubon Society (KAS), a small volunteer environmental group headquartered in a small village on the remote Southwest Oregon coast during a period of great environmental conflict from 1989 to 2002. During this time, the environmental community brought to an end a decade of flagrant and illegal clearcutting that had been approved and facilitated by the very federal agencies who were supposed to be protecting the forests. In the words of Judge Dwyer who issued the injunctions which stopped the over-cutting of our forests:
(the evidence reveals) “a deliberate and systematic refusal by the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to comply with the laws protecting wildlife … [The two agencies committed] a remarkable series of violations of the environmental laws.”
In books and articles about this conflict, our Audubon chapter was often singled out as one of the leaders in the fight to save the forests because we were the primary environmental group in a remote region that contained hundreds of thousands of acres of intact old growth and ancient forest. In the late 1980s, in just our region, hundreds of clearcut timber sales were in the queue, in various phases of preparation, up to and including trees tagged for clearcut, sale boundaries marked, timber auctions scheduled and even bids awarded. But today, nearly all of this old growth is still untouched and planned sales were cancelled or withdrawn, and much of the area was withdrawn from future logging.
These writings demonstrate the hard-hitting completed staff work that an independent volunteer local group is capable of producing and which is always the fundament of successful local activism. They give insight into the emotional roller coaster of day-to-day environmental advocacy.
And they illustrate the range of issues a fully engaged, multi-issue, local group can encounter when people pay attention to what goes on behind the scenes in their community. Any group, in any town, in any state would find comparable numbers and ranges of issues that cry out for action if they but looked. For example, when I see thousands of homes flooded in planned reservoir overflow zones in Houston or million-gallon pig shit “lagoons” overflowing into North Carolina rivers, I see neither any evidence of “acts of god,” nor “perfect storms.” I see only dispositive evidence of no grassroots environmental organizing and a criminal absence of advocacy in land use processes.
I expect prospective activists will caution that confronting flood plain development in Houston or industrial meat factories in North Carolina could be confrontational, dangerous, or, even worse, could expose one to the primary fear of our time: to appear unseemly or unsettling to one’s friends and neighbors, or guilty of disturbing the neighborhood’s peace and quiet, or perceived as having bad manners.
Recent natural disasters are exposing unnatural and revolting political decisions, like deliberately locating “lagoons” of pig shit and new houses where they are certain to eventually flood. And these are merely environmental examples of an even broader problem—that people in all walks of life simply don’t object to all manner of wildly shortsighted policies. For example, the simplistic quality metrics administrators in hospitals, schools and government now impose on their professionals that purport to assess quality by collecting easily gamed quantitative measures. All these disparate failures are evidence of a fundamental problem that perplexes and frustrates all professionals and all activists.
It is a problem within our democracy that George Orwell predicted and discussed in several of his essays. He said that in democracies, governments and managers cannot establish control over citizens and professionals by placing soldiers on every corner, as communist or fascist governments can.* Instead, when democracies impose totalitarianism, it is always in a form appropriate to democracies. He called the democratic version of totalitarianism “managerialism.” In his view there are three forms of totalitarianism: fascism, communism and managerialism. Under managerialism, freedom of speech and press and the right to vote and assemble and the outward trappings of a democracy are all retained. But soldiers are placed in our minds so as to cause the expression of opposition to the government or authority to be perceived by one’s friends and neighbors as unseemly, unsettling or unsporting. So, managerialism creates its controls internally within citizens minds. We see examples of this when heart doctors turn away very sick patients to avoid patients abruptly dying and ruining their stats, or when teachers in a school districts (increasingly and all over) manipulate student test answers to make their school look better.
When you wake up a person to be active in environmental issues, you also free them from the thrall of managerialism. And this will affect every aspect of their life.
One might assume that the recent large protests and marches mean that citizens are newly empowered to speak up. Not at all. All these marches and noise are harmless diversions equivalent to yelling at clouds. No one in power minds them in the least because they know that none of this energy will ever be directed to anything serious like flood plain zoning, issues with local landfills, local environmental activism, or dechartering bad corporations.
Before you speak to a meeting of an Indivisible group who has mobilized to change the world, check to see what the current environmental issues facing their local community are and ask for a show of hands of anyone who is working on any of them. I doubt you will see more than one hand.
All the current so-called activism is all being harmlessly diverted to demands for perfection of the bozosphere, or western civilization, the political process, mankind generally or men specifically. It is far easier to find a hundred thousand people to get on busses to Washington to march than find a single person willing to object to a rezoning of farmland into light industrial. Why? Those busloads of people know for certain that Mr. Global Warming or Mr. CO2 will never call their boss to get them fired.
If we want to fix problems with clearcutting, bad zoning or stupid school metrics, we will simply have to get over the fear of appearing unseemly to our neighbors. But beyond the fear of looking unseemly, is there actually any real danger of doing local activism?
During the period of my life when I wrote these pieces, many, many forest activists in the Pacific Northwest and nationally—including a dozen of my friends—were targeted with violence and some were hurt. Several close friends had homes and barns burned. One forest activist was murdered, and another close friend was almost killed in an attack that was intended to kill her. So, threats were continuous and, when driving home, I came to consciously steel and prepare myself to see that my house had been burned while I was away. Even today I still mentally prepare myself to see my house gone every time I am returning home and my house is about to come into view.
But what is worse? To see your home flooded with pig shit and covered in black mold with everything you cherish piled out at the curb as garbage, or to stand up and fight and learn to live with some element of fear?
If you really want to actually change the world and seek courage, authenticity, and relevance, take a walk around your town with your eyes and awareness on wide scan and look at what is going on and you will see that all the challenges you ever need in life are all sitting there looking at you. This collection of pieces is about people who did just that and changed their lives because of it
* The Orwell Reader, see essays: “Second thoughts on James Burnham” and “Politics vs literature: an examination of Gulliver’s Travels.”