The Battle for Life Itself
Review of Been Brown So Long It Looked Green to Me
by Standard Schaefer

December 16, 2003

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Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature, by Jeffrey St. Clair (Common Courage Press, 2004)

Like a lean wolf during a mild winter when kills are rare, climate and development impinging upon its preferred 125 miles a day, Jeffrey St. Clair has wandered off from the pack in this rangy collection of articles to strike at the clichés of American environmental writing with equal parts grace, determination and stealth.

Clearly a nuanced observer of America’s great natural heritage and a partisan of the activist left, he is also a rigorous collector of scientific, political, and moral facts.

He presents them here with no sentimentality, no flaccid spirituality, just a love of all things wild, and that includes politics. St. Clair fly-fishes, rafts, and no doubt has squashed a bug or two in his day. But, he also knows policy and combines it with on-the-ground reporting. He knows the contours of industrial and political corruption, and is a damn good story teller to boot. All of this combines to give him an unusual amount of credibility, enough to deflect any shoddy ideological labels someone might sling at him as he dissects the sacred cows of Chardonnay-class environmentalists. Readers of all camps will find Been Brown So Long at times infuriating, humorous, and always enervating. Careful readers will agree that his most well-crafted stories deserve rank alongside the writing of Charles Bowden, Edward Abbey, and Rebecca Solnit.

As a journalist, St. Clair fastidiously catalogs the deeds and names, whether in regard to the river-threatening policy concessions of the Clinton administration, or what can be learned walking one of Oregon’s salmon fisheries, or how the Sierra Club provided the cover for a federal program that shoveled federal lands into the hands of private investors. For activists this book is a great introduction to the who’s who good and bad, but other readers will find St. Clair’s list of corporate criminals galling and the ways they evade justice will rile even the most complacent.

The book opens with a quick, but crucial history of environmental legislation and executive action from the 1960s until the present, in which he exposes the myth that Democrats are better environmental stewards than Republicans. He shows how the Clinton-Gore policies of accommodation and compromise literally paved the road for easy plundering by the Bush II regime, and he convincingly argues that much of this occurred because environmentalists instinctually attribute undeserved favor to Democrats, rarely scrutinizing their less than benign records. He documents the numerous capitulations of mainstream environmentalists to market fundamentalism; he “follows the blinking hand” of economic self-interest across the moral tundra of mainstream environmental conformity. This thoroughness and integrity elevates the collection from mere journalism and evoke our best environmental historians like Donald Worster and Michael Dorsey.

Like Mike Davis, St. Clair can move just as easily between subjects as large as Kyoto and global warming to specific, individual effects of mining on towns like Butte, Montana; and he shares Davis’ ability to dissolve categories and illuminate connections. But St. Clair does so without the academic jargon and theoretic pretensions. To St. Clair there is no need “to deconstruct” because there are no legitimate separations between the local and global. To him, the damming of the great Colorado River and the rise of Las Vegas directly connect to the maquiladoras along the Mexican side of the depleted Colorado delta. St. Clair argues admirably that the “think global, act local” mantra of environmentalists actually serves industry’s interest; it discourages activism on the federal and international level, where multinationals are quietly manipulating trade treaties, laws, and regulations.

If there is any drawback to the collection, it is probably that it emphasizes greed and corruption over the possibility of alternative energy industries becoming the engine that modernizes and saves America’s third-rate manufacturing sector. This is understandable given that the collection presents work from 1996 to early 2003, a period marked by extensive industrial deregulation and the effective squelching of any progressive energy policy. On the false science of free-market conservation, St. Clair proves prescient and insightful. He was ahead of the curve in revealing the machinations of agribusinesses, Enron, ARCO, and other corporate interests. He deftly connects the corporations to the fact that residents of California, Nevada, and Arizona use 120% more water than the national average, a shocking figure given how little water they actually have. But St. Clair doesn’t just lament the waste or the utter denial most people practice in regard to their living in a desert. He reminds us that this excessive consumption undermines not only the population of endangered species, but also contributes to poverty and disease. And he does it both without histrionics and without compromising the sense of urgency.

Readers of St. Clair’s great website CounterPunch will be familiar with some of the concerns ranging from toxic waste to ancient forests to native populations. But the short, punchy pieces he publishes there provide only a hint at the beauty he achieves in the longer essays of this collection. As he documents his “excursions” through small town America, the Mojave, and his interactions with locals along the way, the work compares favorably to the incendiary Charles Bowden or the loopy militancy of Edward Abbey. St. Clair writes better than Abbey, but has the subtlety of mind that is reminiscent of Bowden. The range of compassion, however, is entirely his own. His characterizations of people are top drawer, especially those whose activities he opposes, such as Wayne Hage the leader of the Wise Use Movement’s anti-environmentalist crusade.

St. Clair portrays Hage’s indubitable paranoia in a context of lost economic promise—the failed but persistent ideology of property rights. It is in his fairness in dealing with men like Wayne Hage as neither victims nor absolute monsters that reveals St. Clair’s political vision—even more so than his portraits of the environmentalists he most admires. St. Clair’s own understanding of the tangled financial interests and the political clout they purchase along with his corresponding anti-big business stance is mirrored darkly, surprisingly in Hage. Subtly, St. Clair reveals that Hage’s impulses are on-target, but that his view of the conservation movement’s interest in expanding public lands as a totalitarian socialist plot is just the remains of a bombed-out American ideology of selfishness. Hage is part of a ranching militia movement that despite its misguided anti-socialism contains that American strand of non-conformity that once produced Thoreau, the Wobblies and Earth First!. That St. Clair does not ridicule Hage as some crank desperado (while pointing out that Hage is technically an outlaw) reflects maybe not so much a political vision as a political imagination, which is not to suggest pure fantasy. St. Clair is a writer and editor uniquely dedicated to the idea that those on the losing side of history may still set their own internal divisions aside, that accurate information can straighten out the confused, and that the world can be different as long as its stewards work against blind animosities and corporate-sponsored ignorance.

Standard Schaefer is an independent financial journalist, an editor of The New Review of Literature, a poet, essayist, and an instructor at Otis College of Art and Design. He can be reached at ssschaefer@earthlink.net

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