Ray Ring's editorial on the Libby asbestos tragedy ("Failing the Libby Test," 5/5/05) raised the "provocative" point that environmentalists share responsibility for American refusal to protect environmental rights of communities. True, America is not protecting community rights for the working poor -- but neither is it adequately protecting natural resources. We continue our unrequited consumption of the world's resources without the least collective guilt.
Criticizing environmental activists for lacking sensitivity to community dislocation and elevated health risks is hardly new -- the environmental justice movement issued this challenge to green activists two decades ago. As a college professor of environmental sociology, I teach students to consider community values and roles while they defend environmental protection. But as someone who was an environmental activist in Lincoln County in 1985-94, I must defend grassroots environmentalism against Ring's charges. The important question is whether scientific information can mediate and resolve cultural conflicts over the environment. Maybe Ring's point should be that rural communities need to accept scientific findings and find a way to deal with them, and that within that process of self-examination, environmentalists should facilitate that process by uniting with communities and victims suffering from corporate decision-making. More important, Americans need to reconsider their political economy whose consumption standards invoke poverty, pollution, and lousy working conditions across the globe.
My 1995 study of the "cultural divide" in Lincoln County, an inquiry questioning the role of science itself in natural resource conflicts, covered public debates in which Libby community culture invalidated science that demonstrated the need for the community and government agencies to change logging and mining practices. My paper explained the concept of moral exclusion -- labeling opposition groups as morally deviant to delegitimize and exclude their views from public expression. Neither side of the cultural divide is free from blame where moral exclusion is concerned. But Libby's community and logging activists defended corporate industries by using "science" itself as a negative label. The transformation of science into a "cultural" attack on community values supported a general atmosphere of denial that allowed the community, mineworkers and environmentalists to disregard the evidence that asbestos was killing community members without regard to political viewpoint. I was, and remain, part of that social tragedy.
Whether environmentalists could better support community stability and exposed public health risks from asbestos is a worthwhile question. Because Libby-area residents were aware of growing asbestosis by 1985, I regret not joining the anti-Grace campaign earlier. Instead, I worked a timber-inventory summer contract with the Forest Service in the forests surrounding the mine, breathing asbestos fibers with each step through the brush -- I, too, needed to pay my bills. Frankly, I was more concerned with community hostility. An environmental activist's house was burned to the ground; loggers blocked a roadway and threatened violence as we descended from work in the mountains; neighbors exchanged vicious stares in local restaurants; the Forest Service pressured biologists, recreation and landscape planners to leave their jobs while promoting those who falsified Yaak environmental documents. To defend labor, the local Cabinet Resource Group -- of which I was a member -- attended the Workman's Compensation Organizing Committee in support of resolving compensation differentials with loggers in Idaho; showed up at the May 1988 rally against the Yaak EIS prepared to speak on how salvage logging, fewer clear-cuts, small sales, and an end to log exports were important issues of joint interest; worked with the United Mine Workers in their efforts to organize the ASARCO silver mine, linked with the mill workers union to formulate a Kootenai wilderness bill that guaranteed no net loss of jobs; and attended community development meetings to seek remedies for rural poverty. Did we always follow through on these issues to pursue unity with the community? No, but we might ask why.
Environmentalists never gloated over the sickness that hovers over Libby, nor did we seek the closures of mines or mills. We wanted responsible forestry to preside over the health of our forests; we wanted responsible mining that monitored water quality of fish habitat, prevented toxic dumps, and paid decent wages; we opposed dams so our fish could spawn in traditional headwaters. We refused to budge when the evidence predicted ecological carnage unless we stood our ground. I wish we had realized the depth of the asbestos health crisis and made the issue central to our work. Maybe we were too busy circling the wagons -- but we lived, and live, that tragedy along with our neighbors.
Today, tourists visit Kootenai Falls Park, protected as the Columbia River's only remaining waterfall, a powerful testament to nature's awesome beauty and the arduous human struggle to protect it. A signboard on the path lists the organizations that took credit for its protection. In spite of its years leading the effort for protection of Kootenai Falls, CRG is not mentioned -- living like a ghost, unseen, unheard. Mr. Ring, if you want a "provocative" question, you might ask, "Where are the environmentalists in the management of our lands after the years of work and scientific study they have brought to the public's attention?"
Be careful what you wish for. Take care lest you turn America into a world with nothing left to defend. I live with the legacy that my carefully constructed study has finally reached the media in an article that attacks my very life as an environmental activist. You may have to live with the much sadder legacy of participating in the transformation of my country into a society without any values for the environment.