Sierra Club publications take up the cudgel with a new environmental trio

June 18, 1972

That erstwhile environmental tabby cat, the Sierra Club, has grown fangs in the last couple of years and has begun to prowl the countryside like a tiger. And, in keeping with the new mood of environmental aggressiveness, the Sierra Club's publications division has largely abandoned the sentimental celebration of flora and fauna and turned itself to sterner matters.

Sierra Club books first came to public attention with a series of extraordinarily handsome pictorial volumes carrying titles like Baja California and the Geography of Hope and Gentle Wilderness: The Sierra Nevada. The books featured photographic hosannas to the glories of nature, frequently gloppy and pseudopoetic texts and vague complaints against threats to the outdoors.

Now the picture books, more expensive to the club than their return warranted, have been put on the back burner. In their place, the club has introduced a series of specialized, topical paperbacks under the bellicose heading of "battlebooks." No more wanderings through the heather with John Muir; today it's hand-to-hand combat.

Three of the latest titles in the series are Clearcut, by Nancy Wood, Energy, by John Holdren and Philip Herrera, and Oilspill, by Wesley Marx ($2.75 each). The authors' prose is clumsy, often to the point of reader's cramp, and the indignation level tends to be a little high. But on balance the books are valuable and instructive guides to what is, indisputably, an environmental mess.

The books range from trees to energy to oil, but there are several common themes. Among them is the fact that a remarkable amount of environmental damage is caused by industrial cost cutting and shortsightedness. Also, that federal agencies are often either insensitive to environmental problems or actual handmaidens of the industries they ostensibly regulate. Each book makes the point that the costs of reducing pollution are generally borne not by the polluter but by the public, and that immoderate consumer demand for goods and services places staggering strains on our natural resources. Finally, each author agrees that no serious environmental question will yield to easy solutions.

In Oilspill, Wesley Marx characterizes as "one-eyed technology" the prevailing system under which the environment is exploited for immediate gain. The oil industry rule, he says, is "drill and extract regardless of strategic, geographic or social location." The lumber industry—with a few exceptions, which Nancy Wood graciously acknowledges—is upsetting the ecological balance of private and national forests by clear-cutting, a process in which all trees, regardless of age, are "harvested." The fuel and electric-power industries promote overuse of energy in their advertising while their facilities are increasingly hard put to meet demand.

Institutional waste is too rarely discouraged by regulatory agencies, say Holdren and Herrera in Energy. They describe the Federal Power Commission's coziness with utilities and the Atomic Energy Commission's resistance to state efforts to impose more stringent restrictions on nuclear-power plants. Oil regulation, says Marx, is similarly mild, and Nancy Wood charges the Forest Service with promoting clear-cutting in apparent violation of the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960. She concedes the service is becoming more responsive, however, as younger foresters move into decision-making positions.

Still, public money continues to pay for forest regeneration, access roads and other aids to private lumbering. The public pays for deep-channel dredging and other efforts to prevent oilspills, and often for cleaning up spills when they occur. When utilities install controls on thermal pollution or radioactive waste, the costs are passed along to the consumer through higher rates.

But to say that industry is totally to blame ignores the public's responsibility. Industry may whet and cater to the public's appetite for oil, lumber and energy, but so long as public demand continues to rise, industry is in a sense a slave to our appetite for the Good Life. That is especially true of energy, and one of the main points of the Holdren-Herrera thesis is that "needless demand" must be whittled down to size before new sources of energy can be effectively mobilized.

Another virtue of the Holdren-Herrera book is that it acknowledges the complexity of environmental questions. So do Marx and Nancy Wood, but Holdren and Herrera face it head on: "...the conflict between energy's central role in environmental degradation and its necessity for material prosperity must ultimately be resolved." Too often the environmental hard-liners promote the fantasy that a return to Eden is possible; Holdren and Herrera understand that it is not, that our only reasonable hope is for a workable compromise. The affluent society must abandon the idea it can go whole hog back to nature.

Still, for those who depend on the outdoors for sport and recreation, compromise is at best half a loaf. Oilspills traumatically affect marine life and the coastal landscape; clear-cutting ravages scenic forests, and the resulting siltation clogs streams and spawning beds; thermal pollution can have devastating effects on fish in inland lakes and waterways.

Perhaps the term battlebooks is precisely the right one for these clarion volumes.

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