I finally got around to reading John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid. If you have not read it yet, proceed without delay. McPhee is a favorite, from way back when I first read his geology-centered books, such as Assembling California. I like his style. He’s one of those guys who can reveal complexity and power through understatement. I don’t always understand what he was talking about once the book ends, but that low-key way of his invites you to go back and read it a second or third time.
Archdruid centers on legendary environmentalist and troublemaker David Brower. The neat thing about it is that you learn about him through reflection, because he’s paired up with someone who’s his opponent in an environmental battle. He behaves a little bit differently in each case, and with McPhee there to observe and report you can understand how he would have navigated the uncharted waters between the early days, where there really was no national or global environmental movement, and his later days when there had been some notable gains and losses, and many organizations with competing agendas.
But the really neat thing about it was the time period when the book was written. 1971. If you were an endangered species then, you were out of luck because the Endangered Species Act was still a few years away. Most of the federal protections for wildlife, air, water and habitat that we have today were not yet it place. It was up to guys like Brower to hoist the red flag, explain what was happening, raise some money, and organize like-minded people to protect resources. He was really good at that.
Forty-five years later, it’s interesting to read what he and others of that time were concerned about, knowing how it all played out. In 1971, the Brown Pelican and California Condor appeared to be doomed. They’re still here. The Pelican is doing pretty good; the Condor still needs a lot of help. The three essays in Archdruid chronicle environmental battles to stop an open-pit copper mine in a wilderness area, development on a barrier island on the Georgia coast, and the creation of a dam in the Grand Canyon. The mine project never happened, the barrier island is now a National Seashore, and the dam wasn’t built. That copper mine project remained a battleground until 2010. And to replace the power from the defeated dam, a giant coal-fired power plant was built and has been operating for 40 years.
The main worry of Brower and others in 1971 was overpopulation. The alarming Population Bomb was published a few years before, and described some pretty dire scenarios for the coming years. The author Paul Ehrlich famously said that “all causes are lost causes” without limiting population growth. One of the people in 1971 suggested that the world population would double to an incredible 7 billion people by the year 2000. Not quite: only 6.1 billion of us by then, although we’re well past 7 billion now. The way things were going, you can see how they might have been concerned. But in the next few years, a whole bunch of federal environmental protections went into place, including the Endangered Species Act mentioned above, enhancements to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This was back when our government worked the way it’s supposed to, and the Democrats in Congress and President Nixon got it done.
Finally, what stood out to me when reading this from my place in the future was what they didn’t worry about. Climate change. If only I could fast-forward to 2061 to see what we fixed, and what we didn’t.