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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 47, New Delhi, November 7, 2020

Book Review: Kramer on Woodhouse, ’The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism’

Sunday 8 November 2020

Keith Makoto Woodhouse. The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 392 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-16588-4

Reviewed by Anna Kramer (University of Colorado)
Published on H-Environment (August, 2020)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

One of our central tasks as historians is to take our subjects seriously, and Keith Makoto Woodhouse does just that in The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, successfully wrestling with the ideas and methods of radical environmentalists in the United States in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Focusing primarily on the radical environmental group Earth First!, Woodhouse asserts that these ecocentrists, who have long been caricatured or dismissed, were deeper and more sophisticated thinkers than historians have given them credit for being. In doing so, The Ecocentrists calls our attention to the critical ways radicals influenced the broader environmental movement while also standing apart from mainstream environmental politics in their critique of liberal ideals. Woodhouse provides a compelling and detailed study of the ever-shifting relationships between the various environmental groups and between radical environmentalists and other social and political movements.

Founded in 1980 by a group of disillusioned staffers of major environmental organizations, Earth First! marked the emergence of a radical strain of environmentalism that extended beyond and criticized, but in important ways still worked alongside, mainstream environmental groups. The three hallmarks of radical environmentalism, Woodhouse argues, were a philosophy of ecocentrism, which “placed nonhuman nature on an equal moral footing with people” (p. 96); a focus on wilderness preservation as a primary goal; and the adoption of direct action methods over, though without completely abandoning, conventional political processes. By following radicals’ debates within Earth First! and with external critics over ecocentrism and its problematic flattening of humanity, Woodhouse deepens our understanding of their ecocentric ideas, and he is also careful to explain how radical environmentalists held broader and more nuanced understandings of wilderness than the caricatures of them would suggest. Woodhouse argues that while historians have “considered radicals’ views to be marginal or overly simplistic,” radicals were not just the extreme extensions of mainstream environmental ideas (p. 5). Distinguishing between mainstream and radical environmentalism permits us to understand the radicals’ critiques of liberalism and mainstream environmentalism’s place within liberal thought.

Radical environmentalism emerged out of mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club and particularly in reaction to these organizations’ shifts in strategy and philosophy. The first two chapters of The Ecocentrists follow the Sierra Club’s evolution from regional conservation organization to national environmental political force. The Sierra Club and other major environmental groups professionalized during the 1970s and embraced the politics of compromise and conventional means of reform in response to the passage of environmental protection laws and the development of the environmental regulatory state. Meanwhile, “crisis environmentalists” saw an impending environmental catastrophe that could not be averted through liberal democratic reforms. Population was of particular concern for many crisis environmentalists, yet their anxiety over population and their proposals for population stabilization revealed some of the troubles with thinking holistically about humanity and its impacts on the environment, in the ways they ignored human inequalities and differential human impacts on the environment. Mainstream and crisis environmentalists shaped the development of radical environmentalists, whose ecocentrism, Woodhouse contends, set them apart and made them radical.

Studying radical environmentalism and the strains of crisis thinking that preceded it allows Woodhouse to highlight not only the divides within the environmental movement but also those between environmentalism, liberalism, and the New Left. Radical environmentalists advanced critiques first expressed by crisis environmentalists of liberalism’s fundamental assumptions about individualism, humanism, growth, and even human freedom, but environmentalists and the New Left were more often at odds than allies. Woodhouse first examines the relationship in the 1960s between the new “ecology” movement (environmentalism) and the New Left, which at first ignored and then disparaged environmentalism as something that distracted from the pressing social and political issues of the decade. These two movements only began to draw closer together, Woodhouse argues, after the 1969 conflict at People’s Park in Berkeley, California. Intellectuals like Murray Bookchin also endeavored to bring environmental concerns into the New Left fold through the framework of “social ecology,” which articulated environmental degradation as a product of social inequality. Bookchin reappears several chapters later to publicly condemn Earth First!’s ecocentrism, its dark view of humanity, and its neglect of social justice, as well as the xenophobic, racist, and misanthropic views ecocentrists could, and at times did, espouse.

While it has been easy to criticize and dismiss the holistic and extreme thinking of radical environmentalists, they engaged with some unexpected ideologies in addition to grappling with internal critiques. Earth First!ers experimented with free-market and libertarian solutions to such issues as overgrazing on western rangelands. While anarchists offered an intellectual and political structure for radical environmentalists, their views diverged on the subject of human freedom. Woodhouse attends mostly to critiques from anarchists, the New Left, and internal critics, such as Judi Bari, who argued against the controversial method of tree spiking and sought to make Earth First! a movement for social change as well as environmentalism. While one might argue, as Woodhouse suggests, that plenty has already been said about external criticisms of ecocentrism, one wonders how the story of radical environmentalists might be deepened further if told alongside the history of the environmental justice movement, which developed roughly in parallel to radical environmentalism. While radical ecocentrists focused intensely on the protection of the more-than-human world, mostly without considering the role of human injustices, environmental justice activists called attention to the environmental dimensions of inequality, expanding the boundaries of a nature worth protecting beyond even the ecocentrists’ most complicated vision of wilderness.

Ecocentrism, Woodhouse concludes, was “Earth First!’s great strength and weakness” (p. 232). While Woodhouse depicts how ecocentrism often ignored human inequalities and differential impacts, sometimes veering into misanthropy, The Ecocentrists endeavors to call our attention to the power and clarity of radicals’ ideas and their questioning of the fundamental tenets of the modern industrial world and the liberal politics that shaped it. In light of the cultural turn in environmental history, the destabilization of the nature-culture binary, and the unsettling questions raised by hybridity, Woodhouse argues that “environmentalism must be a view from somewhere” (p. xiii): much of environmentalism’s strength has come from having some stable and clear notion of nature. But squaring the appealing lucidity of radicals’ vision with their dim views of humanity remains a challenge. Woodhouse gently encourages us to learn from ecocentric environmentalism’s “call for humility, precaution, and the inclusion of nonhuman interests in human decision-making” (p. 288). The Ecocentrists is a well-crafted expansion of our understanding of the environmental movement, and it reminds us that, while there are no easy answers to our current moment of environmental crisis, we are not the first to have wrestled with the difficult questions about human freedom and our relationships with the more-than-human world.

(Courtesy: H-Environment)


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