Book Review


Losing Ground
By Mark Dowie
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
317 pages, $25.00

Reviewed by Ned Daly

More than 80 percent of U.S. citizens polled describe themselves as environmentalists. With such a broad potential base, why is the national environmental movement "courting irrelevance"? This question is at the heart of Losing Ground, Mark Dowie's critique of the U.S. environmental movement.

The answer, which Dowie lays out in detail, is a national movement that is out of touch, too willing to compromise, and much too close to the industries and legislators they are trying to influence. Dowie, who broke the stories on the Dalkon Shield and the Ford Pinto in the mid-1970s, uses his investigative skills to ferret out so many stories of capitulation, compromise and double-dealing that it seems there is little hope for environmentalism in the United States. Fortunately, Dowie does see some hope within the movement, all of which comes from grassroots activists like Lois Gibbs, Tim Hermach, Andy Mahler and others who he describes as the "fourth wave" of the environmental movement.

While the national groups or "environmental corporations," try to make careers out of saving the planet, fourth wave activists have been thrust into the movement by experiencing the destruction first hand. Like Lois Gibbs, a mother from Love Canal, New York, who inspired millions with her crusade against toxics, the fourth wave germinates within communities facing environmental degradation, rather than the divine intervention model which the national groups often try. The fourth wave does not crave power, access or money, only the protection of their communities.

 Losing Ground serves as a case study of the two U.S. environmental movements that exist today: the "nationals" controlled by the old establishment of the environmental movement, including Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund; and the grassroots which includes thousands of small groups fighting specific problems, usually on the local level.

 Of the nationals, Dowie paints a picture similar to that of many "relic" species that these groups are trying to save. Like the Florida panther and the mountain gorilla, the national groups are dangerously close to losing the ability to sustain themselves. Unlike these species though, the nationals have brought this fate upon themselves.

Michael Fisher, a past director of the Sierra Club, spells out the problem in an interview with Dowie when he proclaims, "Sierra Club national leaders know that they can't just walk into Congress and say no more clearcutting. So we are stuck with the incremental approach, which we hope will lead to slow progress in the halls of power. The problem is the incremental approach lacks the ability to stir people's souls, to get them angry and fulfilled." A reliance on the incremental or capitulation approach and the inability to stir up the masses creates a dependence on legislators for action. This makes the legislators so crucial to "success" that they are above reproach.

Even legislators who fail environmental ratings like the League of Conservation Voters scorecard are able to receive endorsements and PAC money from the nationals if they are marginally better than the next guy. The support of the national environmental movement makes it easier for legislators to fight stronger grassroots initiatives that they oppose. The capitulation of the nationals makes the grassroots seem extreme, so proposals based in science or local sentiment, rather than beltway politics, are written off as "politically unrealistic."

What is most unbelievable is that despite what the Sierra Club leadership knows, a bill that would ban clearcutting in all national forests was perhaps the most widely- supported piece of forest management legislation in the last Congress. The bill has been pushed by Save America's Forests, a grassroots coalition based on the model of Dowie's fourth wave. What Save America's Forests lacks in insider connections they make up in activism, the formula Dowie believes will eventually save environmentalism.

 The nationals have also compromised their effectiveness by soliciting corporate funding. A particularly egregious example of putting corporate interests above environmental interests is an infamous meeting in which Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), joined Dean Buntrock, chief executive officer of Waste Management Corporation (now WMX Corp.) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director William Reilly for a breakfast meeting. Buntrock, an NWF board member, was having problems in South Carolina, where state standards were higher than federal standards and difficult for the waste management industry to meet. Buntrock was also seeking approval for a toxic waste incinerator in New Jersey. Reilly agreed to change EPA policy to fix the South Carolina problem and approve the New Jersey facility. Despite his presence at the meeting where this was decided, Hair opposed the new EPA policy, but later admitted after a congressional inquiry that his involvement in the meeting had been "injudicious." Worst of all, none of the local citizens or grassroots groups working on these issues were invited to the meeting.

Though this may be one of the most blatant examples of subversion of environmental standards it is not the most damaging. The nationals have changed their agenda in order to make it easier to work with corporations they should be fighting against. Dowie calls the nationals' move toward market incentives, "a convenient, all encompassing, label for every possible concession to free enterprise." In their attempt to work with corporations, the nationals have ignored the voice of the grassroots and their ability to win. The victims of this strategy are people like Lois Gibbs, president of the Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste, and those Gibbs represents, mostly community members affected by hazardous waste.

 In some cases, the nationals went international with their undermining strategies. In 1991, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) gave its blessing to DuPont- owned Conoco oil to drill on the Huaorani indigenous reserve in Ecuador in exchange for a $10 million donation to an Ecuadorian foundation set up by NRDC and Cultural Survival. "NRDC has jeopardized two years of work by the Ecuadorian environmental and indigenous communities to fend off Conoco's oil development plans," said a statement by a coalition of environmental and civil rights organizations in Ecuador. "In pursuit of their goals NRDC misrepresented the views of Ecuadorian environmental organizations [and] intentionally deceived Ecuador's indigenous people about their true aims and extent of their dealings with Conoco."

Dowie opens the book with a quote from John Berger, "The world has left the Earth behind it." This also seems to be Dowie's view of national environmental groups.

 Toward the end of the book, Dowie devotes too few pages to the burgeoning environmental fourth wave. Dowie hopes that this fourth wave will transform environmentalism into a social movement rather than a political movement. This makes sense after reading seven chapters describing failed legislative and litigation strategies advanced by national groups.

 It is diversity and commitment to environmental justice issues that will allow the fourth wave to make this transformation, Dowie contends. Among its other shortcomings, the national movement is too white, too male and employs too many lawyers and MBAs making it unable to relate to middle America and those most effected by toxins and unsustainable extractive industries. But grassroots leaders like Lois Gibbs, who did not plan on becoming a career environmentalist until the children in her Love Canal, New York community began to get sick from toxic waste, do relate to middle America. Gibbs is making people part of their own community rather than part of an organization outside of their community.

 Unfortunately for the reader interested in the on-the-ground efforts and successes of the fourth wave, Dowie spends much of this chapter on some of the new philosophies of the fourth wave. The synopses are interesting, but with so little ink afforded the fourth wave, some readers may have a difficult time jumping from Lois Gibbs' straightforward approach to feminist ecology, bioregionalism or spiritual ecology.

Dowie's tight writing style allows him to pack a huge amount of information into 250 pages, but there are some parts of the story that have been left out. Foundations and Congress are discussed in the book, but it is usually in reference to the nationals' inability to succeed. Both Congress and foundations bear some responsibility for the failure of the environmental movement, but Dowie seems to place all the blame on the Big Ten national groups.

 Also absent is any discussion of the seemingly unsolvable and universal problem of fracturing and mistrust as a movement gains power. This is important because Dowie lays blame on the nationals for something few other movements have overcome. What really split the environmental movement, like so many other movements before it, was fragmentation and distrust among environmentalists.

Those "out in the field," as the grassroots are often described, are seen by the nationals as incompetent and unable to use the movement's new-found power. The nationals, working inside the Beltway, are often described as "sellouts" who are doing the bidding of politicians. Similarly, Malcolm X described a conflict between "the House nigger and the field nigger," where the workers in the field were afraid of being "sold up the river" by those in the house who were trying to impress their master. Malcolm's analogy is fitting not only for the environmental movement, but also the labor, women's, gay rights and many other movements. If this is problematic in so many social and political movements, should the blame lay squarely on the nationals or is it a larger problem which society needs to wrestle with? Perhaps Dowie can enlighten us on this question in the future.