Environmentalists often talk like revolutionaries but agitate like reformers. But however moderate its tactics, environmentalism has led Americans to questions rarely asked: Is economic growth necessary? Must individual freedom and democracy be paramount? Can human reason save us? And, especially, are nature and humanity of equal worth? These questions haunted mainstream groups aiming to gain popular support. They have also animated fringe groups, especially in the American West, which are frequently criticized, lampooned, or dismissed. But these are questions that need our attention, says historian Keith M. Woodhouse
, author of the important new intellectual and political history of environmentalism’s most radical lines of thought and the people who have fought hardest for them: The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism
(Columbia University Press, 2018). Woodhouse mines the writings of EarthFirst! and other groups and finds that their insistence on a moral equivalence between humans and nature has, as critics charged, led them to dismiss social and economic inequality and sometimes permitted racist and fascist musings. Yet they also had a demonstrable influence on the Sierra Club and other mainstream groups. And, even more importantly, they persistently foregrounded the importance of humility, doubt, and even pessimism, which he argues environmentalism abandons at its peril.
Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he is researching African American environmental history in the nineteenth-century Cotton South. He is also an editor of the digital environmental magazine and podcast Edge Effects.