The War Against Nature


It’s humanity’s longest war. It’s the War Against Nature. Some say it began when the first plow broke the soil on humanity’s first farm. But however you reckon its beginnings, here in the 21st century, that war is reaching a critical stage.

You see, humanity is an integral part of nature and when we make war on nature we make war on ourselves. Our weapons of mass destruction come from the very industrialization of death itself. When we level the forests, poison the air and water, exterminate whole species and change the very climate of the planet, we become the collateral damage.

On a planet populated with billions of humans, how do we declare peace in this War Against Nature and thus declare peace with ourselves? Many people have taken up this challenge. Among them were two 20th century American rebels: The Woman Scientist and The Union Man.

The Woman Scientist

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.” —Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist with the soul of a poet and the intellect of a philospher. In her observations of wildlife she became increasingly aware of how DDT, Malathion, Dieldrin and other deadly chemicals were ravaging the environment and killing the creatures that she both studied and loved. She was also convinced that over time, they would kill human beings, who after all, are only creatures of nature themselves.

She searched for someone to research this chemical mayhem. She found no one willing to take on that responsibility. The task was immense. The chemical industry was powerful. After all, didn’t the chemical industry present these chemicals as our friends, protecting our food sources and warding off insect-borne diseases? Scientists feared for their careers if they spoke out. It was the Cold War period and activists were labeled communists, with dire consequences for themselves and their families. Even signing a simple petition was an act of courage. Although she was not inclined toward political crusades, she thought that a well written book could awaken public concern and lead to a movement for change. This was not an easy decision for her. The tidepools of Maine and the bird habitats of the eastern forests and meadows beckoned.

Eventually she realized that there was only person in the USA with the right qualifications for the job and her name was Rachel Carson . She had written the best selling book The Sea Around Us, later made into an Academy Award winning film by future SF schlockmeister Irwin Allen. This book had appealed to people from all walks of life and showed that there were working class Americans as enthralled with science and nature as anyone. The Sea Around Us was accompanied by Under the Sea Wind and The Edge of the Sea. Carson had honed her writing and editorial skills while producing pamphlets for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She published articles to Readers Digest and Ladies Home Journal. She knew that science was about wonder and imagination and she communicated that with grace and skill.

She was also one helluva research scientist with all of the careful powers of observation and reflection that work requires. Despite massive and well financed attacks from the corporate world, Silent Spring became a best selling book whose message even reached into the White House of John F. Kennedy. She appeared on talk shows and gave lectures around the nation to acclamation from the general public and stinging rebukes from the chemical industry and its many powerful allies. But Rachel Carson, who had lived through the Roosevelt Era and the New Deal, had a basic faith in the American peoples’ ability to do the right thing once presented with actual facts of the case. Silent Spring made her the midwife of the modern environmental movement and the inspiration for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Union Man

“There is a dawn approaching that is indicating and shouting to us that it’s our moment. But we’ve got to seize that moment and use what we know so well—how to organize and, fundamentally, how to fight!”— Tony Mazzocchi

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had a profound effect on the tough streetwise Tony Mazzocchi, a man who had originally dropped out of school in the 9th grade, lied about his age, enlisted in the US Army he so could fight in WWII, was in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate Buchenwald concentration camp. After WWII the NY born Mazzocchi worked in a variety of industrial plants.

Mazzocchi was an independent-minded socialist who went into union organizing when he got a job at Helena Rubinstein in Queens NY in 1950. This was at the height of the Cold War Red Scare when socialists and communists were being ruthlessly driven out of the labor movement. Mazzocchi not only survived as a union leader, he thrived. As detailed by Steve Early in his review of the Les Leopold’s Tony Mazzocchi biography:

As Local 149 shop steward, organizer and eventually president, Mazzocchi tripled the local’s size. He built a strong cadre of shop floor leaders, started a book club and a credit union and sponsored a vast array of activities that combined to create a remarkable new spirit at work. “…in stark contrast with much of the labor movement in the 1950’s, Local 149 championed the rising civil rights movement–even though its membership was 95% white”

Mazzocchi later went on to advocate for an end to the dangerous nuclear arms race and for workers in the weapons industry to retool and build buses and transit cars instead. Like Rachel Carson who worked independently from the science establishment, Tony Mazzocchi did not march to the beat of the regular AFL-CIO drum.

When he read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Mazzocchi was a high union official and a leader of thousands of chemical workers. If the chemical industry was waging genocide on America’s most beloved songbirds, what was it doing to the union members that Mazzocchi represented? Carson offered few answers.

Her book rarely mentioned the chemical workers who handled this stuff on a daily basis. This is not suggest that Carson was some kind of snobby upper class elitist. She was born into modest circumstances and delighted in sharing her love of nature with the general public. But although she could spot a a rare bird with the best of them, she was still unable to see the chemical workers who were also directly exposed to deadly poisons.

Fortunately Tony Mazzocchi was a damned good organizer, and not just of chemical workers. He soon had his own posse of scientists and eager young students doing the kind of research he needed to defend his members from their own employers. He organized union members to have meet-ups with legislators and cultivated journalists, showering them solid research and press releases. This mixture of science and very human stories was built upon the foundations already laid by Rachel Carson. It was very persuasive.

Based upon that massive organizing effort, Mazzoccchi led a push to establish the Occupation Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). On December 29, 1970, President Nixon signed the law that created OSHA. Not bad for a blue collar guy who had originally dropped out of the 9th grade.

A Legacy of Resistance

Rachel Carson died on April 14, 1964. She and Tony Mazzocchi never met. While writing this, I kept fantasizing that breast cancer had not taken Carson from us at the age of 56. Would she have walked with Tony Mazzocchi next to those dreamlike Maine tidepools? What would she have said to him? Would Tony Mazzocchi have invited Rachel Carson to tour an oil refinery and meet the hard-hatted workers within? Some of whom were admirers of her work? What would they have talked about over coffee in the break room?

We’ll never know. But the alliance between environmentalists and labor is a reality today. The Battle of Seattle in 1999 is as good a place as any to mark its birth. Today terms like clean tech, blue-green alliance, green technology and sustainable manufacturing are well known. Many of today’s environmentalists don hard hats as they go to work installing solar panels and wind turbines. There are loggers who talk about sustainable forestry and miners opposed to mountaintop removal. Organic farmers sell their wares in suburban farmers’ markets and in hardscrabble neighborhoods wounded by de-industrialization, racism and poverty. Although some of the aforementioned are few in number, they could represent a beginning. There are still bitter conflicts between workers who fear losing jobs and enviros who fear for the future of the planet. Yet the promise of green technology holds out some promise for both groups to find common ground.

It’s the spirit of Rachel Carson and Tony Mazzocchi united into a new movement spearheaded by young people with vision and determination. This new alliance of guerrilla peacemakers is our best hope for ending The War Against Nature. But like any guerilla movement which relies on its own limited resources when facing a powerful well financed enemy, it is a protracted struggle with many ambiguities and contradictions.

“If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition.”— Bernice Johnson Reagon

Take the EPA and OSHA for example. These were supposed to be tough regulatory agencies, the new sheriffs in town who would to face down the bad guys, run them out, lock them up or send them to Boot Hill if necessary. It didn’t quite turn out that way. When President Nixon signed both of those bills into law he knew that while it was a major concession to environmentalists and blue collar workers, it was also a trap. As poet and sage Bob Dylan taught us,” Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” And lemme tell ya, in Washington DC it cusses pretty damned loud.

Although Nixon possessed neither wisdom nor statesmanship, his guttersnipe politics did reveal a cagey cunning that served him well. Nixon understood how easy it was to jerk the chain of these agencies by restricting their funding, filling their upper levels with timeservers and outright polluters, rewriting their rules into a labyrinth of confusion and watching as armies of well funded corporate lawyers marched against the small legal departments of unions and non-profits.

Increasingly the big enviro groups like the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society became unwieldy bureaucracies themselves with little genuine input from their own members. They preferred legal battles in an increasingly hostile court system, lobbying in an increasingly antagonistic Washington and negotiating directly with corporate polluters. This approach might have worked better if they had been negotiating from a position of strength, but during the Reagan-Bush years, that was a fantasy.

When President Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 and initiated an all-out war on organized labor it had some unexpected effects on The War Against Nature. Tony Mazzocchi’s dream of workers acting as the eyes and ears of a labor-enviro alliance became increasingly problematic. As unions went down in defeat, there were simply fewer eyes and ears out there. As unions were forced into defensive battles for survival, workers’ health and safety became harder and harder to focus on. Corporations could violate laws more and more egregiously, confident that their labor and environmental opposition could not fight that many battles all at once.

As manufacturing was shut down or moved overseas, high paying union jobs disappeared along with the dues money they generated. Union resources shrank. Some enviros welcomed the shutdown of aging polluting factories. That was understandable. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Chesapeake Bay and on the Great Lakes and aging industry did awful things to those glorious bodies of water. But why didn’t we invest in cleaner more modern manufacturing instead of simply destroying it or shipping it out to pollute the Third World? With an increasingly weakened labor movement, more and more money flowed to the top of our economy giving corporate polluters more resources with which to slay the dreaded beast of a clean and safe environment.

These realities caused some people to rethink strategy. Perhaps we needed more grassroots organizations that worked from the bottom up so they would not become isolated from their own members and supporters: like the community groups which sprung up around environmental racism. Is it a coincidence that people of color are the ones must likely to live near toxic waste dumps and deadly chemical leaks?

Perhaps we needed more direct action and civil disobedience like Redwood Summer, Greenpeace, Earth First and Sea Shepherd. What social movement in the USA was successful without a little lawbreaking? Make that a lot of law breaking. Maybe we needed to demand greater accountability from Big Environment who claimed to represent us in Washington and in various state capitals? So there were investigations of links between top enviro officials and polluting companies. People asked if taking money for known polluters was the best way for environmental organizations to advance legislative and regulatory agendas.

Maybe we needed to go global because the War Against Nature knows no artificial human borders? So enviros and labor activists made links across national boundaries and attended social forums with others from dozens of nations. Unions make alliances with likeminded workers around the planet and explore joint actions to target especially vicious corporations.

Perhaps it was time to take the struggle directly to the global ruling class? Now the IMF, the World Bank, the G-20, the WTO and others can no longer meet except behind barbed wire and phalanxes of heavily armored riot police. Maybe the global climate crisis was so dangerous that we needed to make it a pressing issue so that no rational person could ignore it or deny it? So massive publicity initiatives, organizing campaigns and global demonstrations were launched so that billions would know that the fate of the polar bear was intimately related to the fate of humanity itself.

The future is unwritten so we don’t know if all of this this a new beginning or the beginning of the end. The revolutionary students and workers of 1968 Paris said, “Be realistic. Demand the impossible!” The revolutionary students and workers of the 21st century say,”Another world is possible!” And perhaps it is, because who the hell really knows what’s possible or impossible? History is full of surprises.

Beyond the science that both Rachel Carson and Tony Mazzocchi shared with us is the vital notion that only the power of the people that can ultimately end The War Against Nature. Perhaps instead of making war on nature, we should look at it with clear eyes and open hearts.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” — Rachel Carson

Se se puede.

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