Interview with Jeffrey St. Clair
Recently, co-editor of Left Hook M. Junaid Alam had a chance to interview Jeffrey St. Clair, co-editor of Counterpunch, about his devastating critique of corporate-government ruination of the environment presented in his recent book, Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature.
(Read our review here).
Jeff, thanks for agreeing to this interview.
In your book, you consistently document and expose how environmental
groups of the 1970s that once succeeded in passing crucial laws through
Congress have largely sold out and capitulated to predatory interests.
Why have big supposedly pro-environmental groups like the Sierra Club
ceded so much ground to market-oriented and voluntary regulations
approaches? Is this simply a case of being too close to the corridors of
power in DC?
The Sierra Club is actually the most progressive of the big 10 enviro groups. That
tells the entire story, because through much of the late 80s and 90s they were lead
by a Republican. At the institutional level, the environmental establishment has
always been cautious, conservative, timid and tied to rich funders. It's gotten
demonstrably worse since the 1980s and the wholesale decampment of most big green
groups to DC. Environmentalism became political in the most malign sense of the
word, meaning calculating, compromising, looking for a hand out or a seat at some
sub-cabinet level table. Most environmental groups are no longer funded by their
members, but by big foundations, often deriving their endowments from oil wealth.
These outfits are by nature neo-liberal. They reward groups that promote market
oriented approaches. This began with a fervor in the late Reagan early Bush 41
years, promoted zealously by Teresa Heinz Kerry's former husband, Sen. John Heinz.
Then Clinton legitimized it for a new generation and promptly set about dismantling
decades worth of regulations.
One of the most interesting concepts you bring out in your analysis is
that the Democrats have been able to get away with attacks on the
environment and wildlife unimaginable under Republican administrations
through progressive rhetoric and meaningless gestures. Then, when
Republicans are in power, they can easily destroy the weakly enforced
federal regulations. Do you see this as a sort of coordinated two-party
tag team against the environment?
Saul Landau says that the Republicans are the party of the polluters and the
Democrats are the party of the polluters and the environmentalists. That about sums
it up. I don't think the Democrats are more anti-environmental than the Republicans
(with a few notable exceptions like Rep. Norm Dicks and Senators Feinstein and
Baucus), but the environmental groups fought the Republicans, largely to
standstill, while they prostrated themselves to Clinton and Gore. They offered no
resistance to the same policies on forests, endangered species and trade. In fact,
they were often complicit. John Adams, director of the Natural Resources Defense
Council, bragging about "breaking the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA.
By and large, the environmental establishment has become a wholly-owned subsidiary
of the DNC. It's an extremely dangerous situation. David Brower said that Clinton
and Gore did more damage to the environment in their first four years than Reagan
and Bush did in 12. He was right. And the bloodtrail leads right to the doors of
NRDC, EDF, Audubon and the Sierra Club. They were silent partners in the eco crimes
of the Clinton era.
Most people tend to think of the Forest Service people as the guys who
protect the forests from logging and clear-cutting. But as you explain
in your book, their role is virtually that of selling off the forests,
partaking in absurdities such as "thinning" the number of trees in
already healthy areas and bringing in private lumber businesses with the
worst records to carry out the destruction. Was this historically always
the role of this department?
The Forest Service has always been in the business of selling off the public
forests. Although it was started by progressives in the Teddy Roosevelt
administration, it was never about preservation, but so-called "wise-use" and
"scientific management." That said, the real heavy logging didn't begin until the
post-WW2 housing boom. By then, many of the private lands in the West had been
logged over and the corporations set their eyes on the public estate and the Forest
Service opened the gates. For the next 40 years there was a frenzy of logging that
shames the deforestation of the Amazon. Brazil still has about 80 percent of its
primary forest intact. We have less than 5 percent. There's so little left in
Oregon, Washington and Northern California, once the greatest temperate rainforest
in the world, that more than 3000 species of plants and animals face extinction.
Yet, the logging continues, largely thanks to Clinton and Gore. Now the Forest
Service has cloaked its assaults in the rhetoric of environmentalism. Salvage
logging, thinning, the "healthy forest initiative." But it's really the same old
clearcutting. The last orgy of logging in America's most diverse forest.
You note the irony of the fact that "Billions of dollars were invested
in flood control in the past thirty years so that hundreds of millions
more could be spent logging off national forest land", contributing to
floods and landslides across the Pacific Northwest in 1996. Has this
situation worsened in recent years with further clear-cutting?
People are getting killed every winter in the Pacific Northwest as clearcut
mountainsides collapse into houses and even towns. It could have been much worse.
But we've been in a drought for the past 5 or 6 years. If the normal rainfall
patterns resume, the situation is going to deteriorate. In the little town where I
live, the last normal winter put about 6 feet of mud-clotted water down Main
Street. Guess that's why some people up here have become sudden converts to global
You highlight a particularly sickening example of corporate ransoming in
Yellowstone National Park, where, as you explain, the Noranda company
with its abysmal environmental record was literally paid hundreds of
millions of dollars and given a free license to plunder other federal
lands by the Clinton administration just so it wouldn't mine a mountain
in the park that they never would have been able to mine anyway. What's
the method behind the madness here?
It's simple: win/win solution, the happy-go-lucky mantra of Clintontime. Instead of
invoking environmental laws or regulations to keep corporations from doing bad
things, they paid them off. It was a neat way to reward campaign contributors, get
a nice photo-op and brag to one-and-all that you'd been able to "break
environmental gridlock." Of course, as environmentalists we LOVE gridlock. Gridlock
is the only thing standing in the way of the bulldozers and chainsaws that are
itching to pulverize the West. More menacingly, it was part of the neo-liberal
project of deregulation. The difference between Clinton and Bush is that Clinton
knew you had to throw the enviros a bone (even if it was a bone they'd already won)
to get away with it. Bush, cretin that he is, rejects all such niceties. It's the
main reason he's gotten into to such intractable trouble.
Citing several examples where the government ludicrously gives up
valuable land for clear cut or even toxic lands, you describe the Forest
Service's land swapping practice as "a wholesale privatization scheme"
with "particularly lopsided" trades, whereby "most of the land exchanges
favored private parties at the expense of the government and the
environment". Why is the government ripping itself off?
Because the government has never been in the business of protecting public land.
It's beholden to political contributors. Liberals live under an illusion that
government in this country is a force for justice, civil rights and enviro
protection. They persist in this notion despite all contrary evidence, which stacks
up about as tall as Mount Rainier. There have been a few periods where sustained
citizen action has restrained the government, but that's about all. Without endless
pressure, the government slides back into its accustomed role of being a servant of
the corps which fund the careers of politicians. Now that the developers and timber
companies and mining firms have thoroughly fucked up there own lands, they need
access to public lands. They've come up w/ an ingenious plan for selling this to
the public and a gullible press. Land swaps. They pawn off logged over or toxic
land to the government in exchange for pristine public lands that are then turned
into resorts, golf courses or gold mines worth billions of dollars. Nice scheme and
often too complex of a transaction for the dumbed-down press to follow, even if
they had the desire too. Back in early part of the 1900s, these kinds of swindles
sent federal officials to jail. Now, they retire from office and land million
dollar salaries as lobbyists for the very same companies.
You explain that Bush's deceptively-dubbed Healthy Forests Initiative,
which proposes forest thinning, will actually further decimate forests
because "The last thing a burned over forests needs is an assault by
chainsaws.", and note that the forests have only suffered "catastrophic
blazes" in the first place because the Forest Service has been
suppressing almost all naturally occurring (and healthy) forest fires to
bail out industries who view the trees "as a commercial resource." So
isn't in the interests of the timber industry to oppose the Bush plan in
the longer term? Or are they just infected with myopic greed?
The timber industry defines myopic greed. Cut it all, cut it now. Move somewhere
else or get into another kind of business, like real estate, which is what Plum
Creek Timber has done. That's the mantra of big timber and it always has been. The
dot.com boom/bust cycle is nothing compared to the boom/bust cycles of the timber
industry. Economic suicide is their gameplan. They don't even try to hide it any
more. Not even from their workers, who they despise.
Articulating the position against the pretentious risk-assessment and
cost-benefit analyses undertaken by food corporations who seek to keep
foods soaked in chemicals on the shelves, you cite statistics showing
that "between 30,000 and 60,000 people die each year from exposure to
cancer-causing chemicals" and that "more than 40 percent of the
pesticides dumped by planes drift off the target area, ending up in
streams, schoolyards, and neighborhoods." This is obviously serious
stuff. Is there any kind of organized campaign against continued use of
chemicals linked to cancers and such?
All of these issues are being fought and fought hard. Of course, chemical spraying
takes place in some of the least populated areas of the country. The people exposed
are migrant workers, the least powerful and most abusively treated group of people
in America. But there are hundreds of groups fighting off the likes of Monsanto and
Dupont. To name a few: there's the Pesticide Action Network in DC, Californians for
Alternatives to Toxic Spraying in Arcata, Food and Water in Vermont, and the
Organic Consumers Association outside of Duluth, Minnesota on the shores of Lake
Superior. I also highly recommend The Agribusiness Examiner, a free online
publication (though people should chip in a few bucks) published by Al Krebs out of
One thing that is immediately clear from the very beginning of your book
is your passionate and heartfelt appreciation of nature, wildlife and
our connection to it. How did this come about? Do you think there is a
way out of our current pattern of despoiling our surroundings and
Get outside. Enjoy the planet. You'll have fun. You'll fall in love with a river or
a forest or a mountain or desert. And once you fall in love, you'll feel no choice
but to fight for its preservation. And you won't be alone, either. Or that's how it
worked for me, anyway.
Jeff, Thanks again for your time and responses.
- St. Clair's book can be purchased through Common Courage Press.