Why were environmentalists so hysterical over an innocuous piece of legislation about three California forests that few people had ever heard of? And, if the bill was really "twice as bad as the salvage sale rider," as one environmental lobbyist claimed, why were environmentalists unable to do anything about it? The answers lie in the recent history of the movement.
The environmental movement's strength has always come from its diversity. While a few national organizations get most of the headlines, the real work has always been done by thousands of grassroots environmental groups all across the country. Those groups were always willing to try new tactics to protect the part of the planet they cared about, and successful tactics spread through the movement like wildfire.
Diversity strengthens both ecosystem and movements. But in the past few years, several events have greatly diminished the environmental movement's diversity.
Ironically, the most important such event was the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency. In the previous twelve years, major environmental groups built memberships and raised money by playing on liberal fears of a Republican White House. With an environmentalist Democrat in the White House, that tool vanished and memberships in many groups plummeted.
A new kind of environmental group rose to fill the power vacuum. This type of group demonized not Republicans but other environmental groups. Instead of tolerating diversity, environmental groups and activists now had to pass a series of environmental correctness tests: Those who were not radical enough were eliminated.
The process began shortly before Clinton took office. At a forest activists conference in Oregon, the radicals demanded ever more prescriptive micromanagement. "Fire the chief," they insisted; "ban national forest timber cutting." Those inclined to be more moderate were shouted down.
Since then, the movement has cast out many of its leading lights:
Since radicals dominated what was left of the movement, the strategies focused on radical aims. This further discouraged people with more reasonable ideas and insulated the radical groups from feedback from more their moderate members.
Radicals are important in any society. They remind us that the status quo is not always perfect, and that even those who want moderate changes may be too complacent. But a movement completely dominated by radicals quickly becomes marginalized and ignored by the powers that be--just as Congress ignored environmental radicals in the Quincy Library debate.
What will save the environmental movement from itself? Eventually, the failure of the radicals will inspire some groups to return to a more moderate course. The danger is that the demand for environmental correctness may hinder such a change for so long that serious environmental problems go uncorrected simply because the movement is too inflexible to address them.
Members of the public who really want to protect the environment should avoid supporting environmental groups that thrive mainly by attacking other environmentalists. Environmental activists must be more tolerant of new ideas and programs. Only through such tolerance and the development of new solutions can the movement regain the strength it once had.