The Billings Outpost

Who are real radicals on environmental issues?



I’m a radical environmentalist. I’m not sure what that means, but it must be true. Certainly, I’m a member of organizations that have been labeled “radical.”

In fact, the term has appeared widely. I would guess that the majority of Montana Republicans and even many Democrats consider Montana Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation and other mainstream organizations hotbeds of radical environmentalism.

In order to make some sense of the term, I have had to parse its components: “radical” and “environmentalist.”

Radicals can be found in mathematics and in medicine, but I assume that in this instance “radical” refers to extremism. Radicals are wild-eyed, ravening creatures who clamor to destroy established institutions and who even practice violence.

And an environmentalist, I gather, is someone, usually from California or New York (strangely, never my native Utah), who cares about what is termed “nature,” as if “nature” is separate from “culture” or humanity.

Certainly, “nature” has no consumer value. It consists of air, water, topsoil, golden eagles, and sunlight.

It can even be dangerous, as is the case with wolves, bison and Lyme disease. To favor nature over the economy is a sort of ultimate American blasphemy. As “job creators” (a.k.a. the wealthy) are often aligned with those who would convert nature into money, and as one must worship “job creators” and pay them tribute, to oppose them is unthinkable. 

Putting our two words together, then, in the moniker “radical environmentalist” is an insult. And it also hints at an absurdity. What sense does it make to practice violence in the service of peace or favor animals (especially evil ones like wolves) over humans?

Perhaps there are such modern-day John Muirs with bazookas and grenades. I have never met them. Some individuals claiming association with the nebulous Earth Liberation Front may take pride in their radical vision, and may, in fact, vandalize property.

But consistently pairing “radical” and “environmentalist” in referring to bird watchers and growers of community gardens is as ridiculous as consistently pairing “fascist” and “conservative” when referring to pro-life activists, the Chamber of Commerce or Rep. Dennis Rehberg.  

Widespread use of a term like “radical environmentalist” must trip off the lips of so many because they want to excoriate rather than debate. Instead of refuting the complexities of climate change science, denying the clear reality of mass extinction, and justifying the well-researched health problems associated with industrial processes, they have decided it would be easier to demonize the opposition. 

Unlike the portrait of environmentalists as a radicals, the people (mostly Westerners) I have met who would gladly label themselves “tree huggers” work through legal channels, political movements, scientific research and education to make the case that culture and nature are not separate and that in conserving nature we, not so paradoxically at all, help humanity.

Perhaps industrialists and CEOs, whom we now revere as “job creators,” are the true radicals. What have their largely unregulated activities brought? A deep recession, growing pollution, and an increasing gap between rich and poor.

For example, tar sands extraction, beloved of industrialists as a job-creating machine, is set to scour out a swath of land at least the size of Florida and will, according to a Cornell study, result in few high-paying jobs and perhaps even in job loss.

Better, say the industrialists, to rip into Canada, though, than into some “foreign” nation where they don’t even like us. Multinational corporate “entities” who profit from such devastation — are not they the true radicals?

Last winter, I walked in Two Moon Park along the Yellowstone River. Months after oil from the broken pipeline upstream had been “cleaned up” or “dispersed,” beautiful petroleum rainbows shone as the sun hit plates of ice accumulating near the shore. The river had been violated and was still being violated.

I could, I suppose, dismiss such pollution if I believed mild instances of destruction were the price we pay for good jobs, excellent and useful goods, and education that will someday help us find a non-lethal way to make our living on the earth. But we’re not even getting those anymore.

Montana Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups take a variety of non-radical, law-abiding approaches to stop this country from becoming a net exporter of natural resources at the expense of our land and people. Not everyone has to agree with everything they do (I don’t), but mindless insults cheapen the industrialist cause without answering the true issues. To call someone a “radical environmentalist” (or simply to imply that all environmentalists are wild-eyed fanatics) may, in fact, promote a radical industrialist agenda.

At any rate, I prefer the old-fashioned term “conservationist.”


Cara Chamberlain teaches English at Rocky Mountain College.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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