The other day, after visiting the Camp Fire near Paradise, California, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke figured out who was to blame for the worst wildfire in California history, which has burned more than 105,000 acres, destroyed 12,600 homes, and killed at least 81 people (as of Wednesday morning, there are still more than 1,000 people unaccounted for). “I will lay this on the foot of environmental radicals who prevented us from managing the forests,” Zinke told Brietbart. “This is absolutely on them.”
This is of course bullshit. California is burning because industrialized nations of the world continue to dump CO2 into the atmosphere and the climate is getting warmer. In California, snow is melting earlier, wind patterns are changing, and forests and grasslands drying up (the average fire season is 84 days longer than it was in the 1970s). Just as important, more people are living in combustible places. Since the 1990s, 60% of new homes in California, Washington, and Oregon have been built in zones that high risk for wildfires. The result: more fires, more people and more homes at risk.
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But let’s play with Zinke’s assertion for a moment. Who exactly are the “environmental radicals” and “radical environmentalists” (he used both terms) he might be talking about? From the way Zinke growls utter distain when he says these phrases – it’s worth listening to the interview just to hear it – you would think that, in the weeks prior to the fire, crazed hordes of treehuggers had barricaded all the entrances to the rolling hills around Paradise, stopping the well-intentioned forest rangers from trimming up the trees, cleaning up the brush, and keeping the people safe.
Of course, there were no treehuggers stopping the Forest Service from managing the land (in fact, Butte County voted for Trump). By “environmental radicals,” Zinke was likely referring to well-schooled lawyers from organizations like The Wilderness Society who have raised questions about the wholesale the clear-cutting of forests by the timber industry. But those lawsuits have been few and far between. Federal records compiled by the Center for Biological Diversity show that about 7 percent of the vegetation management projects on Forest Service lands in California and Hawaii between 2009 and 2017 were challenged in court.
And not that logging would have prevented the Camp Fire anyway. The area around Paradise had burned in 2008 and much of the overgrowth had already been cleared away. “The Butte fire area was heavily post-fire logged nearly a decade ago,” Chad Hanson, a research ecologist with the Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. In fact, what caused the fire to spread so fast was the high winds and the density of homes and commercial structures, which allowed the fire to leapfrog from tinderbox to tinderbox.
But let’s give Zinke some credit. His comment does raise a provocative question: who exactly are the radical environmentalists of our time? After all, the scale of the risks the civilized world faces from climate change make the earlier environmental causes like litter and burning rivers seen almost trivial by comparison. But can you point to a single environmental or climate activist that would be considered “radical”? Who is the Mother Jones — or even the Edward Abbey — of the climate fight? Writer and activist Bill McKibben? The pipeline protestors at Standing Rock? Brave souls in Appalachia like the late Judy Bonds who laid down in front of bulldozers to stop mountains from being blown up for coal? Tim DeCristopher went to jail for protesting oil and gas auction in 2008. A handful of academics like Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, are raising important questions about social justice and the destructive nature of capitalism. The call for a Green New Deal, led by the Sunrise Movement and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is inspiring and ambitious and may grow into a powerful force in the coming years.
To call any of these people “environmental radicals,” however, is a stretch. In fact, given the scale of the risks we face from climate change, it’s much easier to argue that today’s climate activists are not radical enough. In addition to rethinking how we live in wildfire zones, the most important outcome of these tragic California fires may be rebuilding the climate movement with a sense of urgency and purpose that is commensurate with the dangers we face.
Or, to put it another way, maybe it’s time to school Zinke in what radical environmentalism really means.