Jeffrey St. Clair's The Politics of Nature

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

March 29, 2004   


Jeffrey St. Clair, Been Brown So Long it Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature, Common Courage Press, 2004; ISBN: 1-56751-258-5 - 406 pages.

Comprised of over fifty-six articles, Jeffrey St. Clair's Been Brown So Long it Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature amounts to a virtual handbook for radical environmentalists. St. Clair has been covering this beat for a number of years now, both in the pages of Counterpunch that he co-edits with Alexander Cockburn and in other venues.

Included in the Dedication are "the vanishing grizzlies of the Kootenai country," a logical choice for a book so passionately committed to the preservation of the animal and plant life that once covered the nation's vast expanse. Although Lewis and Clark were obviously committed to the economic system that would prove inimical to such life, it is instructive to consult their journals to see how rich and varied this ecosystem once was:

"We saw vast quantities of buffalo, elk, deer -- principally of the long-tail kind-antelope or goats, beaver, geese, ducks, brant, and some swan. Near the entrance of the river mentioned in the 10th course 2 Of this day, we saw an unusual number of porcupines, from which we determined to call the river after that animal, and accordingly denominated it Porcupine River. This stream discharges itself into the Missouri on the starboard side, 2,000 miles above the mouth of the latter. It is a beautiful bold, running stream, 40 yards wide at its entrance. The water is transparent, it being the first of this description that I have yet seen discharge itself into the Missouri."
--Meriwether Lewis, May 3, 1805

Many of St. Clair's articles are devoted to the preservation of such wildlife, including the buffalo referred to above. These beasts, which are the icon of all that has been lost with the wholesale commodification of nature in the United States, were given this name by the Europeans who viewed them as relatives of the Asian water buffalo. In their prime, they numbered as many as fifty million and were ideally suited to the ecology of the Great Plains and the needs of the indigenous population.

In "The New Bison Killers," he calls attention to a senseless slaughter that was permitted in the aftermath of a suit won by the State of Montana and a bizarre survivalist cult led by Elizabeth Claire Prophet, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Queen Guinevere and Marie Antoinette. Her "Church Universal and Triumphant" maintains a huge arsenal and cattle ranch near Yellowstone Park, one of the few places in the USA where bison are permitted to roam free.

The suit claimed that bison wandering beyond park territory were carrying the bacteria brucellosis, which can cause calves to abort. When St. Clair wrote this article four years ago, nearly 1000 bison had been shot that year to prevent the disease from spreading. However, not only does a small percentage of the bison carry the disease, there has never been a single documented case of brucellosis transmission to cattle from bison. The bitter irony is that bison originally became exposed to the disease by European cattle introduced into their natural habitat in the 19th century.

The main reason bison were (and are) being killed is that they were knocking down fences of cattle ranchers, including those of Elizabeth Claire Prophet. This was the inevitable consequence of increased travel beyond the park's boundaries. It appears that paths carved out by increased snowmobile traffic made it easier for the bison to intrude on ranchland. Of course, the park authorities would never dream of putting limits on snowmobiles since rich outsiders who owned vacation homes, including Hollywood shlock-film star Stephen Seagal, would resent such restrictions.

The people with the most invested in the bison both economically and spiritually are the Lakotas, who park officials tried to bribe into silence with free bison meat. Lakota elder Rosalee Little Thunder told the authorities where to get off:

"Certainly people are facing hard times and any food is appreciated. But our hunger does not justify the Yellowstone buffalo slaughter. The buffalo is far more important to the natural world than what the wildlife officials and the cattle ranchers are willing to see. The Lakota Nation has suffered great harm from humanitarian gestures in the past. Now we need not be fed the flesh of our own children."

If there is a tendency to see such assaults on nature as incidental (or even necessary) to the good life enjoyed by the American consumer, St. Clair makes a convincing case that "an injury to one is an injury to all." Although the Industrial Workers of the World slogan referred to working class radicals, it can also be applied to homo sapiens and the wildlife that surrounds and sustains them. Alternatively, we must heed Engels's warning in The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man that: "we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature -- but that we with flesh, blood and brain belong to nature and exist in its midst."

Perhaps there is no more powerful confirmation of this observation than in the cancer epidemic of the late twentieth century, which is explained to an extent by chemical "advances" in food production. In "Eve, Don't Touch that Apple: Pesticides, Politics and Acceptable Death," St. Clair notes that cancer killed 3 out of 100 people in 1900. Today, the number is 11 times higher.

On August 1, 1996, Clinton signed the Food Quality Protection Act that had been voted for unanimously by House Democrats. In the Senate, there was only one vote against it. In St. Clair's view, this misnamed act will only help to drive the cancer rate higher. Acclaiming the act as a rejection of "extremism on both sides," Clinton assured parents that now "the fruits, grains and vegetables children eat are safe."

What was not taken note of at the time, especially in the major media friendly to Clinton, is that this legislation entailed overturning the Delaney Clause that banned carcinogenic additives in food for decades, something that the industry regarded as inimical to profit. New post-Delaney standards for chemical additives like pesticides would now be set by the EPA, which has been rendered more and more ineffective in recent decades. This government agency would rely on industry input to regulate additives, which is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, as Malcolm X put it. St. Clair cites a report stating that by an average child's first birthday, it has been exposed to more than 8 carcinogenic pesticides in amounts that would exceed the previous standards set for a lifetime of exposure.

Not only are consumers at risk. Those who work for wages, often at a pittance, to produce the food they eat are at risk as well. Nowhere is this more evident than in the beef industry, which was only made possible after the destruction of the bison and their stewards, the Plains Indians.

"Inside Big Meat" is a hair-raising account of what goes on inside the IBP Inc. slaughterhouse in Pasco, Washington. To start with, meat is contaminated with cattle excrement because workers lack sufficient time to wash their hands. Knives and conveyor belts are also contaminated with pus because management will not give workers ample time to cut out infected tissue. In the general haste to speed up production, animals are often not stunned properly before being sent down the production line, mooing frantically while being skinned and cut up alive.

Speed-up is the name of the game in the slaughterhouses that are integral to one of the few industries still expanding in the USA. For example, there are more people employed in poultry processing plants than in steel manufacturing, according to economist Michael Yates. Hiring mostly minority workers (often without green cards) or recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, safety conditions are non-existent. Forced to keep up with a killing pace, the workers are not even permitted time to go to the bathroom. Urinating in one's pants is often the cost of keeping a job.

IBP Inc. was a 13 billion dollar a year company when St. Clair wrote his article in 2000. It has since merged with Tyson in Arkansas and the new combined company has revenues of more than $23 billion. It is doubtful that a change in ownership has made any significant difference to the working people it employs or to the consumers who purchase its dubious products.

Tyson was one of President Clinton's main benefactors. He was all too anxious to return favors to this sleazy outfit. When Tyson executive Archie Schaffer III was convicted for violating a 1907 law against influence-peddling (he had arranged for former USDA Secretary Mike Espy to attend a lavish Tyson birthday party in Arkansas in 1993), he was granted a pardon by Clinton in the waning days of his presidency. Of course, in keeping with the ethos of his administration, he refused at the same time to pardon Leonard Peltier.

This sort of corporate-political incest is subject to bitter scrutiny throughout St. Clair's book. Although George W. Bush has rightfully been characterized by many on the left as a symbol of this kind of collusion, it is to St. Clair's credit that the Democrats receive equal treatment.

Despite having a vice president who cast himself as Greenish, the record of the Clinton administration on environmental questions is completely shameful. In case after case, we see lobbyists from corporate polluters gaining easy access to Democratic Party legislators who find one way or another to line their pockets at the public's expense.

Some of the worst cases involve mining companies, whose open-pit exploitation of Montana, Wyoming and other western states have left the land and water polluted with toxic waste, including arsenic.

In "Ransoming Yellowstone," we learn of a typical Clinton administration deal with corporate polluters, where high-minded verbiage is used to conceal sleazy profiteering. The main difference with the current crew in the White House, it would seem, is that it sees no need to prettify its invasive policies with lofty phrase-making.

In 1997, Clinton supposedly came to the rescue of Yellowstone Park, a frequent victim as we have seen of narrow-minded "development." Noranda, a Canadian company, would no longer mine for gold, silver and copper on the northeast boundary of the park in exchange for the right to mine on other federal lands. Clinton piously announced to the media that "We've all come to an agreement that Yellowstone is more precious than gold."

That agreement would certainly not be an impediment to future predation by outfits like Noranda. In agreeing to abandon the area around Yellowstone, it received what amounted to ransom payments from the government. It not only got $65 million in federal property suitable for mining in other locations; it was promised immunity from civil and criminal prosecution up to $135 million for work begun on the Yellowstone site. In a move that reflected the malleability of inside-the-beltway Green organizations, the Sierra Club agreed to forsake any legal action against Noranda as well.

When Senator Dale Bumpers put forward a mining reform bill that would force companies like Noranda to clean up their act, Clinton backed out from supporting it at the last minute. He said that he supported reform but did not want to "drive companies out of business."

As the 2004 elections draw near, it is important to note that resistance to the two-party shell game is being mounted by Ralph Nader, who ran as a Green in 2000 and who hopefully will receive their backing again this year. Environmentalism is perhaps the one issue that can serve as a litmus test for progressive politics in the 21st century. By taking a clear stand in favor of socially beneficial policies that respect both nature and humanity, candidates will also tend to take the right positions on war and peace, jobs, racism and other key questions.

In yeoman service to the Green movement and to alternative progressive politics in general, Jeffrey St. Clair (and Counterpunch co-editor Alexander Cockburn) is in the finest journalistic traditions of this country going back to John Reed and I.F. Stone. St. Clair's latest book belongs on the shelf of anybody trying to understand the impasse traditional politics has reached in this country, particularly on the question of the environment. As such, it is must reading.

Jeffrey St. Clair, Been Brown So Long it Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature, Common Courage Press, 2004; ISBN: 1-56751-258-5 - 406 pages.

The book can be ordered on-line directly from Common Courage Press at, http://www.commoncouragepress.com/index.cfm?action=book&bookid=258.

It can also be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
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References and Resources

Journal of Lewis and Clark

Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

Book Reviews on Swans


Louis Proyect on Swans (with bio).

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Published March 29, 2004
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