BookShelf: “You Can’t Fool Mother Nature: The Once and Future Triumph of Environmentalism”
By Byron Kennard
Self-Published (paperback), $16.95
Reviewed by Francesca Lyman
A longtime environmental activist finds lessons for the present in this stirring-yet-entertaining memoir by Byron Kennard, author of the 1982 book, “Nothing Can be Done, Everything is Possible,” which explored the limits and possibilities of community organizing to protect the environment.
In this latest book, Kennard changes his tune somewhat, pointing to the power of media and the arts as having a creative hand in promoting the environmental cause.
He credits Rachel Carson’s 1962 landmark book “Silent Spring” with “igniting the environmental revolution,” and claims the famous 1972 photograph of the Earth seen from outer space did more “to establish a collective worldwide environmental consciousness than any other thing.”
Of course, when Kennard began his career as a community organizer, the cultural movement that became environmentalism hadn’t come into being. Few writers tackled the topic of industrial pollution, apart from such mavericks as Carson. Environmental journalism had yet to emerge as a profession in that time of cultural ferment and social change.
Environmentalism advances even as planet’s health worsens
Back in the 1960s, Kennard worked for the Conservation Foundation, “running around the country helping form local civic groups to combat air and water pollution,” he writes. That experience led to his involvement as one of the first Earth Day organizers in 1970.
Part memoir and part manifesto, Kennard’s inspiring and even occasionally humorous book tells how there is much more than political success to celebrate in the 50 years since Earth Day, with its teach-ins, mock funerals, rallies and songs.
He believes that environmentalism has
led, in its own way, to a massive change
in worldview, a shift as important as what
happened during the Renaissance.
He believes that environmentalism has led, in its own way, to a massive change in worldview, a shift as important as what happened during the Renaissance, “because it also brought about an explosion of cultural, economic, scientific and intellectual change that shattered old ways of thinking and pushed civilization onto a higher level … The environmental revolution inaugurated by Earth Day made the world a much better place — and in a million ways both large and small.”
Kennard also contends that support for environmentalism has grown exponentially during the last five decades in numbers of followers, energy, skills (diversified over different professions) and in the quality of scientific analysis. And, as the “climate” for environmentalism has shifted, Kennard insists that the movement still holds solutions.
In the early days, Kennard recalls, both the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act passed virtually unopposed in Congress. “Overnight, our movement had acquired enormous political power,” he writes. By contrast, today’s political polarization makes progress on such grave threats as climate change virtually impossible, Kennard adds, claiming that the “prospect of a bipartisan consensus [today] is as dead as a dodo.”
Kennard points to ways in which he believes the environment “is worse off now than when I first vowed to make a difference” — Amazon rainforest destruction, freshwater tables falling and the world’s oceans deteriorating, among other downward trends.
In light of this new reality, Kennard asks: “With catastrophic climate change breathing down our necks, does environmentalism even have a chance?”
Green politics ‘by other means’
Like Mother Nature herself, environmentalism has “delivered up a bounty” during the last 50 years, he writes, citing such sub-movements as environmental education. Count among its triumphs, he writes, the adoption of environmental thinking across the professions, including education, engineering, planning and design, and science and technology.
From green roofs to “rewilding vast portions of the Earth,” Kennard suggests people employ Mother Earth’s help. She “does all the work, and she works for free, and she works fast. Let’s let her do it,” he writes.
So, no, the American public shouldn’t look to its political system to combat climate change, our largest challenge. That’s because, he writes, “the system has been hopelessly corrupted by a flood of money from fossil fuel interests — the largest, richest and most powerful industry in the history of industrialization.”
Kennard places his faith in small-scale,
incremental changes, rather than
across-the-board public policies.
Instead, Kennard places his faith in “politics by other means” — small-scale, incremental changes, rather than across-the-board public policies, including changes wrought by small business and innovations in technology.
He points to shifts in the marketplace that show consumers are embracing environmental values, such as a massive shift in meat-eating. Likewise, he believes free-market forces are killing the environmentally destructive coal industry.
He sees more hope in small-scale enterprise — new restaurants and bakeries striving to deliver fresh and locally produced food, for example.
Likewise, he sees hope in the local efforts of states, regions and cities in tackling climate change by “aiming to achieve zero-carbon buildings, 100 percent clean transportation, 100 percent renewable electricity and zero waste,” citing 17 states pledging to get 50 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2025.
Particularly noteworthy has been the impact of green, entrepreneurial businesses: “They are producing technological innovations that make solar power cheaper than coal, that make lighting systems and automobile engines vastly more efficient and that make possible the storage of huge amounts of renewable energy at a lower cost,” he writes.
Enviro entrepreneurship a basis for bipartisan action
Kennard, who founded a group called the Center for Small Business and the Environment, and served as its director until 2012, when he retired, touts small business as a key to environmental progress.
“Look at small business as a system and you’ll see how closely it resembles the workings of nature,” he writes. “Both are complex, interdependent webs that are highly efficient, adaptive, ingenious and resilient.”
A key advantage he sees in the greening of small business is that it is a conservative method of social change, but one that credentialed environmentalists and conservatives can agree upon and even become a basis for bipartisan action.
Kennard’s self-published memoir is an engaging, upbeat tale about how social change happens through grassroots leadership, and the incremental progress of small business, technology and human ingenuity — a multitude of “countless uncoordinated acts by countless uncoordinated actors” — changing the world for the better.
His story might also inspire more writers to use the lens of the environment, and their own histories in covering battles over air, water and land, to tell their own personal stories.
Francesca Lyman is managing editor of Solaripedia, in which a version of this review was originally published. A longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Lyman is the author of an early book on climate change, “The Greenhouse Trap,” with World Resources Institute (Beacon Press, 1990), and a children’s book, “Inside the Dzanga Sangha Rain Forest” (Workman Publishing, 1998). She is also a contributor to InvestigateWest in Seattle.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 46. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.