Full Steam Ahead
by Mike Roselle
The Man is turning sixty today. That is getting mighty old for a Lowbagger. As my old Paw Paw used to say, “If I knew I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself”. Yet I enter into my geezerdom surprisingly healthy, which I suppose I owe to not drinking and doing lots of drugs until I was 15 years old. By now most of my Lowbagger friends have either settled down to have children and mortgages or are hiding from the law. Some have been institutionalized, and are running large nonprofit corporations. Some have passed into the spirit world and are writing books about it. It’s hard to keep up with everybody.
I have spent these last forty years trying to keep humans from destroying the Earth. It seemed like a career path that offered job security and respectability. But I was in Wyoming and it offered neither. The mayor of Jackson told me once that there should be a hunting season on environmentalists, with no bag limit. In most small towns in America, once you’ve come out as an advocate for ecological sanity you cannot get a job as a dogcatcher. You have to go to San Francisco. Or, if you work hard and really know your stuff you can go to Washington DC. Once I worked in San Francisco for a large organization best known for saving whales and they transferred me to Washington. The first day I was in my office I picked up the phone and it was someone from the San Francisco office complaining that “You people in Washington just don’t understand!” Then I went to a meeting and was told, “Mike, you just don’t understand Washington.” When I moved to West Virginia eight years ago I was told that I did not understand West Virginia. Who the fuck does?
I decided that it’s not possible to understand anything and probably not necessary. You go with your gut. The conventional wisdom will almost always be a wet blanket smothering any creative impulse. In Washington DC there is a person in every office whose job it is to tell the rubes who arrive from the hinterlands that no matter what they want to do, it can’t be done. I had that job and I hated it.
In 1978 Howie Wolke and I were told by the experts we could not keep oil and gas development out of the Gros Ventre wilderness. In 1982 I was told you could not stop the Bald Mountain Road. The next year we were told we could not save the Sally Bell Grove, the last old growth Redwoods on the California Coast. Twenty years ago we were told that we could not stop the Cove Mallard timber sale in central Idaho. “Mike, this ain’t Oregon.” I could list many other examples. I decided long ago that the secret to success is betting that these people were wrong. Of course today none of these people will admit that they were wrong. Quite the opposite. They normally take credit for the victory.
If there is one thing I have learned in my forty years of campaigning, it is that any large institution will place it’s own interests ahead of any campaign. The larger and older the organization, the more this is true. Now I am as surprised as anyone of the fact that a few of the organizations I helped to start are now considered to be part of Big Green. And these organizations are now telling me that I just don’t understand, that it can’t be done, and all of the things that I have been hearing from the experts since I first met a real live big city professional environmentalist back in 1975. Only now they will occasionally bring up my advanced age, my white privilege or worst of all, my lack of social networking skills instead of my young age, inexperience, and lack of any social skills.
If I had any advice to give it would be this: The only purpose of an environmental organization is to launch and win campaigns. This can only be done through confrontation. These confrontations must shed light on the larger truth, and should never obscure the truth. While it is tempting to tell people what they want to hear, it is more important to tell them things they don’t want to hear. All of our struggles are asymmetrical so it doesn’t matter how small or large an organization is, their most potent weapon is still the truth. The problem of course is the truth just isn’t what it used to be. Back in 1983 when Randy Hayes and I were traveling the country in my VW bus organizing the Rainforest Action Groups we would say in our presentations that we had until the year 2000 to turn this ship around or humanity was doomed. This is one case where I wish we were wrong because we missed the deadline and the ship is still steaming ahead in the wrong direction.
The other advice I’d offer is to always remember the one and only reason we are here on this planet. To love and respect one another and to enjoy each other’s company. This includes your opponents. It is much easier to defeat the opposition if you try to understand and respect them. At some point they may be your allies. The thing that has kept me healthy and happy has been the camaraderie of friends and the promise of another battle. We don’t win them all, but when we do we get to celebrate. Even sailors on a doomed ship can find reason to celebrate.