A Reviewers Notebook: Progress and Privilege

It was Earl Dunckel, now a Washington publicist but then with the General Electric Company, who first called attention to the fact that the environmentalist movement was being exploited to keep less privileged classes from rising in the world. The environmentalists, with their talk about the “population bomb,” had linked themselves to the “zero population” drive. They resented new people. and, in their animus against “smokestack industry,” they frequently gave the impression that they would like to repeal the whole industrial revolution.

Oddly, they found their most fervent supporters in the wealthy, who could afford to drive their Porsches and Mercedes Benzes to the edge of wilderness areas and take off on backpack vacations that were beyond the reach of the blue collars among us. The blue collars, forced by circumstances to remain close to industry in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, were limited to rabbit shooting or deer hunting in local non-wilderness woodlands if they wished to gratify their love for the wild.

The alliance between the Sierra Club and the wealthy demanded consecration as “liberalism.” Earl Dunckel called it “reactionary.” The blacks and the poor, deserting their accustomed places in the old “Roosevelt coalition,” surprised the “liberals” by agreeing with Dunckel. As I found out by writing columns about Dunckel’s contentions, they wanted jobs even at the risk of some pollution. Not that they were against clean water and clean air; they simply asked for trade-offs that would permit them to work and to raise and educate children in an expanding world.

The trade-off movement had no intellectual sanction until Harper’s Magazine began printing essays by William Tucker, himself an ex-“liberal” who had made the discovery that environmentalism had been subverted by practitioners of the “politics of aristocracy.” Tucker has now adapted his essays to a remarkably sensible book, Progress and Privilege: America in the Age of Environmentalism (New York: Anchor Press-Doubleday, 314 pp., $17.95).

The “have-nots” began to register their objections to environmentalism as a “no-more-growth” phenomenon at the very outset. When, on Earth Day, 1970, a group of California students buried an automobile to symbolize their renunciation of “materialism,” the event was picketed by black students, who thought the car might better have been used to help improve the condition of the poor. Bayard Rustin, the veteran civil rights leader, called the environmentalists “self-righteous, elitist, neo-Malthusians who call for slow growth or no growth . . . and who would condemn the black underclass, the slum proletariat, and rural blacks, to permanent poverty.” And Thomas Sowell, the black economist, remarked that “you don’t see many black faces in the Sierra Club.”


As William Tucker explains in the portions of his book that are devoted to back history, the modern environmentalists have done violence to the whole memory of Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and the other early-century pioneers of the conservation movement. The modern environmentalists, says Tucker, are preservationists, not conservationists. There is a world of difference between the two approaches to wilderness. Preservationists think of the woods as temples (see John Muir), but they want to exclude people from the temples by denying them access roads or even the right to chop firewood for camping trip cook-outs. They want no change whatsoever in the pristine environment.

The conservationists, on the other hand, are for multiple use of the national reserves. What they insist upon is orderly exploitation that is compatible with sound restoration practices. They would allow timber cutting of “ripe” trees, but with the proviso that a new tree be planted for every one that is sent to the lumber mill. “Sustained yield” is the conservationist watchword—and our big forest products companies have quite honestly complied with the philosophy of renewed growth as it was set forth by the followers of Teddy Roosevelt.

In the case of leased coal lands, the trade-off between commercial use and long-term conservation would be to make landscape contouring and soil restoration part of the contract. And proper clean-up practices would be demanded of oil companies and any miners lucky enough to find cobalt in Idaho or molybdenum in Colorado.

The Sagebrush Rebellion

The modern preservationists lobby against a restoration of the Homestead Act and are for cancelling one-hundred-year-old leases on federal grazing land. So the old conservationist compromises of the Teddy Roosevelt era are in danger of being eroded. Tucker notices, however, that it is an East Coast and West Coast Alliance of the rich that insists on backtracking from multiple use. The people who live in the mountain and intermountain areas and in the dry regions of Arizona and New Mexico are, he says, “still looking for growth and economic advancement.” They fee] they are being “excluded from their land.” Hence the rise of the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Tucker doesn’t want to see the Sagebrush Rebellion succeed in pulling “the government out of its monitoring rule entirely.” He thinks this would result in burying the original Conservation ethic. The difference between the Conservation Era and the present, he says, is that the Conservation leaders—Roosevelt, Pinchot, Powell, and the others—“were able to grasp the ele ments of the situation and offer effective leadership that produced a reasonable compromise. Today, most political officials and opinion leaders don’t even know what they are talking about. They think conservation is preservation, and spend most of their time floundering in their own rhetoric.”

Tucker is not impressed with “population bomb” fears. He notes that birthrates always tend to stabilize as industrialization proceeds. The “revolt against science” is an old story, as Tucker emphasizes in his recapitulation of the attempts to outlaw the steam locomotive and the use of alternating electric current.

The environmentalists have tried in recent years to stop genetic engineering. They are afraid that fooling with the genes might result in creating monsters. Tucker, citing recent experiments, surmises that the Frankenstein phobia expressed in books such as Who Should Play God? is utterly misplaced.

Tucker thinks of the Age of Environmentalism as an interlude. “We are the wiser for it,” he says. But “history is calling us” and there is still much to be done for progress. “It is time,” he concludes, “to begin again.”

John Chamberlain’s book reviews have been a regular feature of The Freeman since 1950. We are doubly grateful to John and to Henry Regnery for now making available John’s autobiography, A Life with the Printed Word. Copies of this remarkable account of a man and his times—our times—are available at $12.95 from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.

Related Articles


{{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}} {{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}
{{article.Topic.Topic}} {{article.Topic.Topic}}