Reading: A Plot to Save the World | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Reading: A Plot to Save the World

Stephanie Mills reflects on the failures of the ecology movement and offers her last best hope--bioregionalism.

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In the spring of 1969 a graduating senior at Mills College in California delivered a commencement address rather sensationally entitled "The Future Is a Cruel Hoax." The speaker announced that the world was despoiled, the future bleak. The main cause of all the trouble, she said, was human overpopulation. Her response to that crisis was to promise she would never have children--clearly the only thing she could do on a personal level to address the problem. It was a stunningly effective rhetorical device.

Stephanie Mills immediately vaulted to fame on the basis of that talk. Environmentalists loved her: the feminist underpinnings of her speech put the overpopulation crisis on the front pages. Conservatives hated her: what good American woman would renounce childbearing?

Mills began a promising career on the lecture circuit. She was strident and self-righteous in an age when stridency and self-righteousness were in fashion. "The world is becoming a mangled corpse, an entity afflicted with the cancer of man," she liked to announce grimly. It was a dramatic vision, though now she says, "In my jejune depression I preferred the apocalypse to working on through the insurmountable task of living in a less-than-perfect world."

Like uncountable other graduates of the 60s, Mills has come out with a memoir, Whatever Happened to Ecology? It has its moments of stridency and self-righteousness. It has perhaps more moments of self-importance. But they are mitigated, as they were in Mills's early speeches, by the importance of her ideas. Mills--forever looking for some sort of hope to brighten her dark worldview--has lately placed what faith she has in bioregionalism, which involves using local resources as much as possible. Perhaps her book will become important as a text for this nascent movement.

What Mills ponders in Whatever Happened to Ecology? are the failures of the mainstream environmental movement she was part of for close to 20 years. After her rise to fame, she traveled the lecture circuit, had a breakdown, edited progressive environmental magazines such as Not Man Apart and CoEvolution Quarterly, and worked as a free-lance writer. She lived in San Francisco, the headquarters of the booming environmental movement, and worked with many of the movement's stars. She profiles some of them here: David Brower, onetime president of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute; Joan McIntyre, one of the early leaders in the crusade against whaling; and Dave Foreman, onetime Washington lobbyist, later one of the founders of Earth First!

These are Mills's heroes and heroines, people who managed to win some significant victories in the name of preserving bits of the natural world. But a sour note runs through her story. For all her heroes' and heroines'--and Mills's--hard work, unstinting devotion, and power to inspire, the human threat to the environment is worse than ever. Mills may have been depressed in 1969, but she caught at least some of the fervor of 60s optimism. Was it in vain? "In 1970 we couldn't have seen that we were knocking ourselves out in a possibly futile effort," she writes. "All that sound and fury, and the planet is worse."

True, we are hearing and reading more about environmental issues these days. The media are paying more attention--in large part because of the efforts of Mills and her ilk. So we hear about Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, the greenhouse effect--all of which make it clear that our concerns are hardly lessening. For no real change seems to have come about in the wake of any of these disasters. "Environmental calamity is not an adequate educational process," writes Mills. "Things change remarkably little in the aftermath."

Much of the energy of the mainstream environmental movement has gone into working at a high political level and trying to institute change from above. But this "reform" approach to environmental problems--trying to achieve change on a piecemeal basis, rushing from disaster to disaster--just doesn't seem to accomplish much if changes of life-style and attitude aren't addressed. When the Exxon Valdez cracked up, lots of people cracked up their Exxon credit cards--but how many of them gave up driving? Continuing our dependence on oil makes future spills inevitable, regardless of how many hands are wrung.

Why hasn't the reform strategy worked? For starters, consider the weight reform arguments tend to give to economics. It's become commonplace for environmentalists to argue the financial benefits of keeping a natural area pristine. One zealous biologist, for example, calculated that bird-watchers who traveled to south Texas over a ten-month period to see hook-billed kites--a hawk usually found only south of the Rio Grande--pumped some $69,000 into the local economy. Which is the sort of figure that should be made public if you're trying to get people to preserve the brushy natural habitat preferred by hook-billed kites, rather than allow the area to be plowed and planted with vegetables. And if you propose to limit agricultural jobs by limiting the sprawl of agricultural lands, it's wise to point out alternative jobs. Livelihoods are important.

But emphasizing the money issue can obscure other good reasons to preserve the kite's nesting area: the harmful agricultural pesticides that would be dumped on the field, or the aesthetic value of the bird to people, or the simple right of the bird to exist for its own sake. Most environmentalists recognize these points, but the rules of the reform game force them to emphasize economics. And who can blame them for playing along? Those who want to preserve natural lands are well-advised to use every weapon at their disposal against the heavy pressures for development.

Mills sees another difficulty in the way issues are addressed. She cites a case in a rural township near her home in Leelanau County, Michigan. A developer wanted to build a golf course in some wetlands on the banks of a scenic river, and local residents opposed his plan. The township meetings were fractious. Mills thinks the outcome of the struggle was, in a way, irrelevant. It was important to save the wetlands, but the effort to save them entailed the "same old pro-and-anti format, people forced to choose sides and seemingly no way to impress upon the culture that we must begin to think in terms of belonging to a system--that community has to be treated as a system belonging to, and dependent upon, the larger ecosystem." If the developer won this battle, then the river and the neighbors lost; but if the neighbors won, they lost in the long term because people with opposing viewpoints hadn't somehow been drawn together.

In addressing this issue--a far more intractable one than any single environmental problem--Mills comes up with some pretty loopy, new-agey sorts of rhetoric. She talks up the need for a "paradigm shift," through which we will divest ourselves of the concept that land can be owned. She talks about "working from the soul outwards through an affinity group, or cell, a collective experience of wedding the personal and the political." She dreams of "a society based on free organic association at a scale that permits consensus decision making with maximum local autonomy, a society whose strength is in egalitarian relationships, the beauty of smallness, and an informing ecological ethic."

That doesn't mean we can or should get rid of the Sierra Club anytime soon. Mills is cognizant of the important work done by mainstream environmental groups--and of how much worse things would be if they weren't around. If we wait for some change in attitudes to come and neglect to fight pollution, save wild areas, and so on, then we can be sure there won't be a whole lot left to enjoy with our new consciousness.

For the long haul Mills recommends bioregionalism as the means to utopia. It's about as hard to imagine how living bioregionally on a personal level has an effect on a planetary level as it is to see how Mills's renunciation of motherhood could ameliorate the overpopulation crisis. Each personal effort is less than a drop in the bucket. But Mills says working on a small scale is her last best hope. "I have learned that doing unalloyed and sufficient good is an impossibility, unless that good is so specific that it may seem insignificant to the faithless and invisible to the demographers."

Mills's ideal is a system in which people grow their own food, compost their own wastes, generate their own energy, and practice some sort of local self-government. They use resources from their own area and return them in the form of wastes, sweat equity, and care. It's utopian, but at least partly doable on an individual level. Mills's personal effort in that direction began in 1984, when she fled the San Francisco urban scene in a belated version of the 60s back-to-the-land trend. She moved to Leelanau County to live with her husband-to-be, whom she'd met, prophetically enough, at something called the first North American Bioregional Congress. The two are hardly models of self-sufficiency at this stage, but at least Mills's admission of their shortcomings is endearing: the couple built their own home, but get their electricity from a nuclear power plant. When she wrote her book, their garden was still more dream than reality. They still drove a car--a Buick, for chrissake. And they own a snowblower.

Mills does profile a neighboring couple who live more bioregionally, with a greater degree of self-sufficiency. They grow some of their own food. They use a wood stove, and generate their own solar and wind power. They worry about how much groundwater they're using. And they live, according to Mills, quite comfortably. The wind and the sun run their stereo. The impetus to self-sufficiency does not mean living entirely without luxuries. But it does mean giving up the luxury of a clear conscience. It means acknowledging one's role in environmental degradation, and addressing it on a direct and personal level. If you don't like pesticides in your food, buy local organic produce. If you don't like Com Ed, get a windmill. If you don't like oil spills, don't drive.

Of course bioregionalism entails some sacrifices. Hot tubs, I suppose, are out of the question. But Mills thinks sacrifices are essential, since it is largely the developed world's high standard of living that promotes and indeed necessitates environmental degradation everywhere. A cynic might say that Mills is just suffering from a bad case of liberal guilt. "Even though by our parents' standards we live simply, to be well fed, well housed, well clothed, and well educated, and inhabiting a spacious pastoral landscape, is such an exceptional privilege that it makes me nervous," she writes. "I figure the other wall of the postwar hurricane must be due through here any time now. Despite the secondhand nature of my knowledge of life in the Third World, I am willing to believe that my diet, housing, education, and ownership of transportation all go way beyond meeting basic needs. So, consequently, I marvel at happening to be a healthy, free citizen despite increasing hunger and desperation in the world. No special merit, just the luck of the draw. As the body counts attributable to malnutrition escalate (15 million infants and children per year), to be able to purchase just about any foodstuff I want from our clean little co-op seems extravagant," she writes.

But then that's precisely what bioregionalism is all about: acknowledging your complicity in what's going on and deciding you can do something about it. Stephanie Mills the environmental activist has been talking that line all along, and now she has a chance to practice what she's been preaching.

Golf-course developers would probably rub their hands in glee if they heard about Mills's new life-style. If all those obnoxious environmental activists get tired of city life and big-time politics, and run off to their pastoral getaways to watch their gardens grow and to nurse their wounded psyches, that'll leave the field open for developers, industrialists, and polluters, right? But I can't imagine Mills retreating gently from society into a pastoral idyll. You know the type: obnoxious and persistent, just the sort of person who makes an effective activist. The sort who never retires. Indeed, involvement in local government is a big part of Mills's dream. When there are bioregionalists everywhere, she thinks, then we can be assured that decisions will be made responsibly everywhere, because every piece of land will have its committed local defenders. Utopian? Maybe. But it may also be the only dream we've got left.

Whatever Happened to Ecology? by Stephanie Mills, Sierra Club Books, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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