Sunday Thoughts

Last week I touched on Carl Safina essay about our moral obligation to the natural world. Since reading that piece, I’ve read Jedediah Purdy’s This Land is Our Land. In it, I find him citing Montaigne, who argued, in Purdy’s words, “that it was possible for a kind of humane and egalitarian affection to flow between people and the nonhuman world.”

Montaigne: “There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it.”

There is, Montaigne wrote, “Some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligations.”

Purdy is most instructive on the history of environmentalism. The impetus was in the beginning an elitist one. Teddy Roosevelt and Madison Grant, for instance, wanted landscapes preserved so they could hunt big game and prove their East Coast manhood. Native Americans were removed from national parks. Further down the social scale, John Muir was as genteel racist as they came.

In the 1960s and 1970s, following Silent Spring, Earth Day, and the Nixon era environmental laws, the environmental justice movement began. The generally all-white conservation groups had paid little attention to poor and generally non-white people who bore the brunt of air and water pollution, leeching landfills, lead paint, toxic run-off, and the like.

Also in the 1960s-1970s “legal liberalism” emerged. This was a law-driven agenda: use the courts to affect change, on all fronts, of course, not just for the environment. Already by the 1970s, however, the activist courts of the brief window the the 1960s were retreating back into their traditional role as defenders of wealth and power. The long reactionary counter-revolution that has resulted in a majority of Republicans/fundamentalists on the Supreme Court and Federalist Society shock troops elsewhere on the federal judiciary has only cemented the precariousness of the legal avenue.

The mobilizations of the many that culminated in Earth Day were defanged by the lawyers, and the institutions, and the middle-class and wealthy donors that funded them. A movement was reduced to membership, which is a completely different thing, one that diminishes engaged citizenship.

The process reminds me of the self-disarmament of the coalition that first elected Obama. Here were fired-up door-to-door troops, a national grassroots organization of committed and optimistic voters and organizers. But party organizations always work to suppress people power and reduce citizens to consumers; they are a threat to their position (and, notably, jobs). Instead of taking on the work at the local, state, and national level to push back against GOP authoritarianism, gerrymandering, voter suppression, etc., the so-called professionals, the allegedly smartest guys in the room, etc., sloughed off their supporters, mothballed their vaunted organizational database. The adults are now here, they seemed to say, and no, we won’t push back against the Wall Street robbers (who we went to school with), or Bush’s war criminals, or the ever more monstrous national security state, or the archaic anti-democratic system in which the millions of more Americans who vote for Democratic Senators then Republicans ones don’t matter.

With SCOTUS now in the hands of the corporate fascists for a generation or more, with the slavemasters’ Senate impossibly gerrrymandered, with Trump rampaging across the Constitution, a host of Obama-ites flocked… to work for Uber or corporate shill Pete Buttigieg, the consultant class’s standard bearer. Along with the Big O himself, they’re dedicated to defeating the only systemic-challenging candidate (Sanders) and even the mildly reformist one (Warren).

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