by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - June 2, 2014) I think you might agree that walking in the woods is a very nice way to spend an afternoon. Hiking in backcountry is good exercise, too, and national parks are handy destinations for summer vacationers. But does anyone really get a hoot about wilderness anymore? I don't think so. This year on the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which LBJ signed into law in 1964, wilderness activists are trying desperately to drum up support for wilderness. They're having a hard time. Maybe in part because wilderness proponents like LBJ bombed the hell out of Vietnam, defoliated jungles, and napalmed villages and villagers. Let's frack, baby, let's drill for oil and gas! That's the cry I hear today.
Yes, there are exceptions to the rule of wilderness disinterest -- notable among those employed by the national parks, the forest service and wilderness areas, along with the flacks for the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club. They're very nice folks but they're largely ineffective. The wilderness cause that was espoused by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Wallace Stegner and that once seemed radical has been wrapped up and packaged, prettified, and commodified. Yesterday's heresy is today's orthodoxy.
National parks are and have been for decades, playgrounds for the wealthy. No one else can afford to travel great distances to get to them or spend the time away from work it takes to appreciate them. The masses that do go to national parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and Big Bend are usually served up a helping of ersatz wild with Coca-Cola, potato chips, and postcards. In 2014 wilderness is no more radical than Social Security or Medicare, except to right-wing Republicans and to corporations that would like to annex parks and wilderness, extract resources, and the environment be damned.
There's still a battle for the bit of Earth that hasn't been paved over and locked down, but where are the impassioned troops for the environment? What happened to the tree-huggers and tree-sitters? Where's Earth First!? I don't think that anyone believes, as Thoreau did, that wildness will preserve the earth. And who would agree with the sentiment expressed recently by an employee of the US Forest Service, that "wilderness is the place where life is most clearly and earnestly lived!" Come on. The kitchen, the bedroom, the street, the library, the school, the backyard, and the workplace are all spaces where life is most clearly and earnestly lived! Wilderness is no more sacred space than any other. Earth is sacred and profaned, too.
For decades, wilderness rallied citizens who cared about Nature. Today, those same people are old and tired; their sons and daughters have taken up other causes, or forgotten about causes altogether. Moreover, it's increasingly clear that wilderness hasn't done much if anything to prevent global warming, rising ocean levels, the extinction of plant and animal species, and the pollution of air, water, earth itself. Supporters of wilderness say it's a weapon against climate change, but increasingly it seems to be an ineffective weapon.
The planet is on fire and nobody has a plan in place to put it out. As I said recently to an environmentalist I met at a dinner to honor environmentalists, "We're all going over the cliff." He looked back at me and said, "At least we can go over the cliff with style." I think that's about it.
On the first Earth Day in 1970, journalist I. F. Stone pointed out that Earth Day was a sham unless it included Vietnam. "We're not going to be able to save our air and our water, until we end the militarization of our society and end American imperialism," Stone said. Senator Edward Kennedy told the Earth Day Crowd at Yale, "We cannot fight air pollution in New York and ignore the oppressive environment of Harlem. We cannot ban 2, 4, 5-T in the United States and ignore the use of napalm in Vietnam."
Anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out that the Earth was "small and lonely and blue." It's a smaller, lonelier place today. It's a lot bluer, too -- a lot sadder, from Alabama to Afghanistan, Iowa to Iraq. Where, I wonder, are the I. F. Stones of today? Who's denouncing the militarization of our society and the environmental destruction caused by American imperialism? Who condemns the wonton annihilation of the Earth in China, Brazil, Russia, and nearly everywhere that the virus of civilization exists? At Earth Day in New York in 1970, Kurt Vonnegut said that while Nixon wasn't the first US president to lose a war he was probably the first president "to lose an entire planet." Every American president since Nixon has gone on losing the planet, acre-by-acre, foot-by-foot, inch-by-inch. How much longer will it take to lose the planet entirely?
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. He is the author of the booklet, A Few French Scenes, that was first published on Swans in November and December 2013 (see the Travelogue's archives). To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)