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Sands of Death Valley [Pierre Tristam / Candide's Notebooks © 2003]

“American Earth
Environmentalism's Legacy

Some of our greatest monuments are those we never build. And some fit in the palm of our hand.

Walt Disney liked colossal projects. In 1960 he started planning for a Disney ski resort in a Swiss Alps-like gem in California called Mineral King. It was in the Sequoia National Forest, home of the world’s grandest trees, those thousand-year-old “ambassadors from another time,” as John Steinbeck described them. It didn’t matter to Disney, who was also considering buying Ellis Island at the time. He wanted his 27 ski lifts. The Sierra Club sued to stop the project. The case went to the Supreme Court, where, in 1972, the court ruled that the Sierra Club couldn’t sue on behalf of inanimate objects like trees, however stately.

 

The 4-3 decision wasn’t a victory for the development. Potter Stewart in the majority opinion gave environmentalists a how-to guide on how to win standing (all they had to show was that one of them liked to hike in the forest and that the development would sully the experience). Then there was William O. Douglas’ dissent, brief in words but grander in scope than a forest of sequoias: “Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation.... The ordinary corporation is a ‘person’ for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes. So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.” Douglas wanted nothing less than to “make certain that the inanimate objects, which are at the very core of America’s beauty, have spokesmen before they are destroyed… Perhaps they will not win. Perhaps the bulldozers of ‘progress’ will plow under all the aesthetic wonders of this beautiful land. That is not the present question. The sole question is, who has standing to be heard?”

The Disney resort was never built. Disney’s death in 1966 may have robbed it of its greatest clout. But a greater force was now in play. The Douglas dissent signaled that the environmentalist movement Rachel Carson had sparked with “Silent Spring” 10 years earlier was no longer a fringe element easy to deride and easier to defeat. Whether you believed in environmentalism or not, it was becoming a defining feature of what it meant to be American. In the words of the great naturalist Edward O. Wilson, “Perhaps the time has come to stop calling it the ‘environmentalist’ view, as though it were a lobbying effort outside the mainstream of human activity, and to start calling it the real-world view.”

July 4 reminds us what a giant step forward the Declaration of Independence represented in the history of human freedom and dignity — of the notion of individuals as sovereign in place of autocrats or clerics or, to put it in more contemporary terms, ideologues. The concept of environmentalism as a real-world view stands as an almost equally monumental contribution to the planet. It’s no less significant than America’s contributions in human rights law, civil rights and civil liberties (the present regime’s stunning march backward aside). An achievement of that magnitude may be difficult to quantify. How do you measure a revolution so diffuse over time and geography, so rich in revolutionaries?

The Library of America (libraryofamerica.org), which since 1982 has been issuing six or seven volumes a year of the best in American thought and letters, just did. It published “American Earth,” a 1,000-page collection excerpting the greatest environmental works by 100 writers since Thoreau.

Despite the plastic-tulip foreword by Al Gore, the book reads something like a walk across our land’s gifts and sorrows: Theodore Roosevelt speaking in 1903, on his first trip to Arizona, of the “the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty” of the Grand Canyon. John McPhee on the Colorado River describing the Utah canyonland “severed halfway up by a geometric plane, creating a waterscape of interrupted shapes, spectacularly unnatural, spectacularly beautiful.” Edward Abbey railing at the paving-minded National Park Service, “generally so anxious to accommodate that other crowd, the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks.” Novelist Barbara Kingsolver reminding us how “looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.” And Douglas, of course, writing America’s anthem to nature.

With these pages in the palm of one’s hand it doesn’t take a road trip (Abbey and gas prices permitting) to rediscover — beyond politics, beyond ideology, beyond these days of oppressive anxiety — where we’re blessed to live, and what we’re called on to ensure for our children’s inheritance. For the pursuit of their happiness, it’s one inheritance tax we should proudly pay every day of our lives.

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