Environmentalists: An Eyewitness Account from the Heart of America, by Steven D. Paulson, self-published, 2016. 347 pages, $16.
I already know what you’re thinking: No way am I going to shell out 16 bucks for nearly 350 pages of self-indulgent whining about the environment, complete with tedious accounts of public meetings, lawsuits and environmental impact statements.
At least that’s what I was thinking when I picked up “Environmentalists: An Eyewitness Account from the Heart of America,” by Steven D. Paulson, a longtime employee at the Northern Plains Resource Council.
But you are wrong. And so was I. Paulson’s book is a model of clarity and reason, with occasional flights of lyricism, passion and even humor. If I could wish one book on the desk of every one of President-Elect Donald Trump’s environmentally averse cabinet appointees, this would be the one.
It’s a peculiarly, almost randomly, constructed book, filled with bullet points, paragraph-long biographical sketches, bits of poetry, mini-essays and song lyrics. But somehow it holds together, with enough variety to make easy bedtime or bathroom reading and enough depth to accompany a long winter’s walk. Just when you fear getting bogged down in scientific minutiae, Paulson bails the reader out with an excursion into some odd corner of the subject.
Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is its tone. Although Paulson is a longtime activist with strong passions, he comes across as the most reasonable guy in the room. He doesn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good; we all make compromises, he says, and even environmentalists drive cars and eat meat. He cuts through the usual partisan blather to repeatedly drive home the point that when it comes to breathing clean air and drinking clean water, all human beings are basically on the same side.
The opening is brilliant. Chapter One condenses into a page and a half the story of Eileen Morris and Nettie Lees, two Billings asthma sufferers who became activists against air pollution. Driving home from a meeting with the Air Quality Bureau, Paulson tells us, they hit a plume of refinery stack pollution. Lees suffered an asthma attack and died the next day. Morris continues to work for cleaner air, doing it “for her old friend Nettie and for all the other people—especially kids—whose health is affected by polluted air.”
Chapter Two gives us a brief profile of the author, who informs us that he was born in South Dakota, lives in Billings and loves baseball, except for the designated hitter rule. He sums up his ideology this way: “I strongly dislike extremism of all kinds: right-wing, left-wing, religious, environmental, whatever. Barry Goldwater famously said that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Yes it is. Extremism in the defense of anything leads people to give up on reason; eventually it leads people to violence.”
In Chapter Three, Paulson gets brilliant again. He compiles a list of terrible things people have said about environmentalists, such as Ann Coulter’s “The core of environmentalism is a hatred for mankind” and Rush Limbaugh’s “With the collapse of Marxism, environmentalism has become the new refuge of socialist thinking.”
You might argue that Paulson is busily constructing a straw man, were it not that the kinds of quotes he lists show up so often on talk radio and in political debates. He responds with mini-profiles of environmental activists he has known: Wally McRae, Ellen Pfister, Ed Gulick, the Charter family, Dena Hoff, Helen Waller, Julia Page, Kathy Masis and on and on.
You likely know some of these people, by reputation if not in person. But even if you don’t, even these short profiles make it obvious that none of them sound like Marxists or haters. They are just good Americans trying to do their best to protect their health, their property, their community.
Further, Paulson points out, the idea that environmentalists are out to build a socialist paradise is not only inaccurate but dumb. Only in democratic countries that respect human rights have environmental movements taken hold. In an industrialized world, self-governance is an indispensable component of environmental health.
So why would environmentalists spend their lives fighting for principles that they don’t really believe in just so that they can bring about a totalitarian government that has no respect for the principles they have fought for? Either they are colossally stupid, or their critics are.
One of the book’s achievements is documenting just how deeply in the American heart lies love for unspoiled nature. Chapter 14 is nothing but a series of hymn lyrics and Bible verses on the wonders of nature, all the way from Genesis to Revelation. He even uses the story of Noah’s ark to make the case for conserving all animal species.
Other chapters consist solely of lyrics to what he calls “Wacko Environmentalist” songs, such as this rarely sung verse from “Home on the Range”:
“Oh I love these wild flowers in this dear land of ours
The curlew I love to hear scream,
And I love the white rocks and the antelope flocks
That graze on the mountain-tops green.”
Paulson’s own prose occasionally scales to mountain-tops: “We owe the next generation,” he writes, “the chance to experience the grandeur of our nation, the kind of grandeur that our ancestors walked through in their lives. We owe them a few places where the great American continent is left intact, where there is quiet, where we can drink from streams, where we can challenge ourselves, and space where we can—as the first real American poet Walt Whitman said—‘stretch around on the wonderful beauty.’”
While Americans hear a great deal about the onerous burden of federal regulations, Paulson points out that the burden falls on environmentalists, too. Suppose a mine is polluting a river that runs by your property. What can you do?
You could ask nicely. But if that fails, the remaining options are all difficult. Legislation requires a sponsor, a bill draft, committee hearings in both houses and the governor’s signature. For anybody who isn’t a full-time lobbyist, just keeping track of a bill and making trips to Helena to monitor and testify can be daunting.
Even if a bill is passed, regulatory agencies have to write rules to give the law teeth. That takes time and expertise, and regulations often don’t match what the law intended.
And even after all of that, the rules must still be enforced, sometimes by agencies that are understaffed or untrained or just don’t care. A study found that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement actions fell from 224 in 2002 to just 87 in 2011.
When the legislative and executive branches fail, and the river remains polluted, no option remains except a lawsuit, which is expensive, slow and uncertain, especially when going up against corporations that buy lawyers by the barrel.
But as Paulson notes, what’s the alternative?
“We need science so that our decisions are based on something besides who is the most powerful or who has the most money,” Paulson writes. “We need a body of law that’s based on legitimate and consistent processes. Most of all, we need a fair referee.”
Even within the environmental movement, Paulson says, disagreements arise. He devotes 12 pages to an online dispute about the tactics of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which argues for such extreme positions as opposing all meat consumption and recreational fishing. The tactics may draw attention to PETA’s more reasonable positions—does anybody want to argue that animals should be treated unethically? But other environmentalists fear that PETA paints the entire movement as irresponsible and unreasonable.
All of these complexities inform the pages Paulson fills with examples, beginning with national and international disasters such as mercury poisoning in Japan, a toxic leak in Bhopal, India, and contamination at Love Canal.
He goes into greater detail on problems closer to home. These topics have received widespread press coverage—I have written stories about several of them—but even the best informed among us are likely to learn something.
He traces knowledge about the health hazards at a vermiculite mine in Libby back to at least 1956. He covers the history of the proposed Tongue River Railroad from 1977 to 2016, focusing on the direct impacts the railroad would have on the ranchers and farmers who live along the river.
He looks at coal mining in the Bull Mountains from the standpoint of the Charter family, who not only have fought to protect their land but waged a brave fight against mandatory beef checkoff fees, which they said forced them to pay for marketing practices they opposed.
He examines the Pegasus Gold heap leach gold mine, which used cyanide to extract as little as one ounce of gold from 69 tons of rock, from the standpoint of taxpayers, who were left with a huge cleanup bill when the company’s bond failed to cover the costs of reclamation.
Along the way, Paulson reports, environmental issues have become increasingly partisan and contentious. The Montana Environmental Policy Act passed in 1971 with only one dissenting vote. But attempts to defang the act in recent years have come from Republicans.
Some of Paulson’s stories have happy endings. The Stillwater Mining Co. reached a Good Neighbor Agreement on its palladium mine in the Stillwater Valley. NPRC converted an old building into its headquarters that is both environmentally friendly and inexpensive.
Unfortunately, not everything in this book works that well. Considering its scattered structure, an index would have been helpful. The PETA discussion drags on painfully—it’s bad enough reading poorly spelled and ungrammatical comments online; in print, it’s sheer agony. The book does have 16 pages of footnotes but could use more. A chapter on how environmental groups are funded is distressingly vague. His passion betrays his reasonable tone in a few places.
But this is an immensely valuable book. Paulson writes about complex and contentious issues in a style elegant and clear-eyed enough to arouse envy in those of us who do this sort of thing for a living. Paulson himself puts it best: “I know that there are some people who advocate for a ‘big brother’ sort of government, or a ‘nanny state.’ I’m not one of them, and I don’t personally know anyone who is.
“But I believe government is a tool that Americans can use to realize many of our values. Profit-making corporations are tools for making money. That’s fine, for what it is. But it’s not everything, and it’s certainly not the end-purpose of America. As a nation, we are about much more than making money.”
“Environmentalists: An Eyewitness Account from the Heart of America” is available at Amazon.com and CreateSpace.com or go to www.stevendpaulson.com.