Church of Al Gore

By Keith Kloor | March 2, 2009 5:40 pm

In 1995, William Cronon published an earthshaking essay titled “The Trouble with Wilderness.”

In a nutshell, Cronon argues that wilderness is wholly a human creation, not an exemplar of primordial nature.  Cronon knew his claim would be received as “heretical” to

many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet–indeed, a passion–of the environmental movement, especially in the United States.

And, boy was he right. Leading environmentalists of the day, from Dave Foreman to Terry Tempest Williams, pounced. Without rehashing the furor, suffice to say that Cronon was widely vilified as an egghead academic who probably wouldn’t recognize an old-growth redwood tree if it fell on him.

Not since Murray Bookchin challenged the self-loathing Deep Ecologists had environmentalists been compelled to eat one of their own. For Cronon, a prominent environmental historian, is actually quite a passionate nature writer. One of the highlights of my editoral tenture at Audubon Magazine was convincing him to write this essay in the issue following 9/11. Like everyone else at the time, we magazine editors experienced an existential crisis in the days and weeks afterward, which translated into: what the hell does it matter what we do?

So we devised a special section for the 2001 Nov/Dec issue, called, Why Nature Still Matters, and I lobbied for Cronon to write the introductory essay. He turned in a a gem.

Before I explain why Cronon’s shabby treatment in the mid-1990s is reminiscent of the hazing Andy Revkin is enduring today, let me say that most of Cronon’s critics missed the main point of his essay, which was to show that wilderness was a false idol for environmentalists,  an outdated religion that should no longer serve as a main tenet of contemporary environmentalism:

In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature””in all of these ways, wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century.

In vain, Cronon also tried to inure himself from the attacks he surely must have anticipated:

By now I hope it is clear that my criticism in this essay is not directed at wild nature per se, or even at efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land, but rather at the specific habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction called wilderness. It is not the things we label as wilderness that are the problem””for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world do deserve protection””but rather what we ourselves mean when we use the label.

I encourage anyone who wants to think deeply about this to read his essay in its entirety, or better yet, check out the book where it appears with other essays by scholars exploring the meaning of nature in other socio/cultural contexts.

Now, criticism against Cronon took two tracks: he was offending the Church of Wilderness, and that was just sacrilegious. Secondly, he was providing succor and ammunition to the enemy–anti-environmentalists in Congress who during the Gingrich years were quite determined to roll back environmental protections. (This gang has proved to be pikers compared to wrecking crew under George W. Bush.) That was also unforgivable.

After Cronon’s essay was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, some astute readers immediately recognized how tempting it would be for conservative Republicans to hijack Cronon’s essay. Alas, as David Foreman chronicles here, attempts to pervert Cronon’s thesis were made by the likes of Helen Chenowith.

I have never talked to Bill Cronon about this episode during his career, but I have heard secondhand that he was disturbed and hurt by the efforts of Greens to caricature him as some kind of Ivory Tower anti-environmentalist.

So what does this have to do with Andy Revkin, and to a lesser extent, Roger Pielke Jr?

Consider that a similar vitriolic campaign by climate advocates is now being waged against both invidividuals. See Joe Romm latest screech here, calling on Revkin to apologize to Al Gore for this article. As Romm says,

I have written multiple emails to Andy in an effort to get him to clear Gore’s name in print, and he refuses. If he won’t, I feel that someone must for the record and the search engines.

Romm has also made a point, in multiple posts during the past week, of calling on Andy to apologize to Al Gore. I have ridiculed this childish tactic here.

The same offense, on Gore’s behalf, has been amply registered by Michael Tobis, most recently here, where the bulk of the vile is aimed at Roger Pielke Jr., For those of you new to the controversy, check out this excellent dissection of Tobis and Romm by Tom Yulsman, and this broader overview of the whole ruckus at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

As best as I can tell, the frothing by the likes of Romm and Tobis is now being sustained by some pathological desire to get Andy Revkin to cry uncle.  Thus the endless calls for Revkin to apologize to Gore. I didn’t really understand what was motivating this until I thought back to Cronon’s ordeal.

It’s the Church of Al Gore. Revkin and Pielke Jr. have committed blasphemy by somehow besmirching Al Gore’s good name. Cronon did the same with wilderness and environmentalists were outraged, largely, I believe, because he struck a nerve.

To climate advocates, Gore serves as a similar and singular oracle. He is the man, the one person who has done more than anyone to elevate climate change as a leading issue in the world. As such, he is revered and ready for sainthood. If you are perceived to sully his reputation–especially on matters related to climate change–you are sullying the Church of Gore.

Clearly that won’t be tolerated in some quarters.

  • Steve Bloom

    I was aware of the Bookchin tiff, but the Cronon one was news to me. It’s an interesting episode, but I think times have changed considerably. Has he done an update?

    This sentence kind of jumped out at me: “Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal.” I grew up in a small town in farm country in the ’60s (not on a farm, but close relatives had them), and that characterization doesn’t register even slightly. I can sure see how the wise-users of the mid-’90s would have gone to town with it, though (but it’s amusing to imagine the late Helen C. attempting to wade through Cronon’s literary/academic prose).

    Cronon’s discussion of what people get out of the wilderness experience needed a comparison with what people get out of the Club Med experience or the Sonoma County B+B experience. Failing to do so may have caused him to miss the unique elememts of the former.

    Approaching it from another direction, to what extent is the yearning for wilderness distinct from a broader nostalgia for the less-civilized past? Simon Schama in volume III of his “History of Britain” documented the presence of an extensive movement along those lines in late 18th-century Britain. It can be characterized as a search for the “authentic Britain,” and as I recall lacked a sacred element.

    The last point I’ll make is that the early emphasis on the ESA had to do with its availability as the best legal tool for the job, and that the subsequnt shift (still underway) to considering biological diversity had an awful lot to do with the pace of development of the relevant science. It’s instructive in this regard to note the fate of the recent Republican attempt to use the salt marsh harvester mouse to attack the recovery funding bill.

    I’ll have to take your word for how Cronon was treated, but I don’t think your “Church of Gore” frothing is well-supported.

    • Keith

      Steve,

      As I said, I’m not really interested in rehashing the particulars of the Cronon/wilderness debate. Maybe another time.

      As for my Church of Gore thesis, one of the supporting points I should have expanded on is this notion that any criticism of Gore is ammunition for the climate change deniers. Well, Roger Pielke Jr., in his startling exchange with Michael Tobis, says that Tobis’ inflammatory rhetoric is more ammo than anything Pielke could say.

      So what do I get in my inbox this morning, but a mass emailing by Mike Morano calling attention to Tobis’ over-the-top language. Case closed.

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    Funny. I’m a great fan of Cronon’s.

    I don’t think you have me right though. For what that’s worth.

  • Steve Bloom

    Did he cherry-pick Michael’s “over-the-top” language to the exclusion of, e.g., yours?

    Snark aside, as a fairly long-time participant in this debate I am unfamiliar with the notion you describe. Reasonable people, Michael and myself included, can and have discussed Gore’s errors right out in the open. He has made minor errors, and with a constantly evolving presentation of 400 or so slides is certain to make them again. The problem is with people like RP Jr. and Tierney (and Andy Revkin in this one instance) taking them out of context amd blowing them up out of all proportion.

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  • oso loco

    I call it the Church of AGW with Gore as the high priest. Tobis’ rant just confirms previous experience with those who will not tolerate any dissent from the dogma. They may claim “science” as the basis of their faith, but in truth, they lack any concept of what science is or should be. The following quote is one of the better definitions of science:

    Scientific theories can never be proved true beyond reasonable doubt: they can only be falsified. What we think of as scientific facts or convincing theories are just those insights that nobody has yet either convincingly falsified by observational evidence or supplanted with a more beautiful, robust, and imaginative idea.

    I am suspicious of any ontological system that claims to deliver unchallengeable truths. The extent to which scientists claim to have delivered such certainty is the extent to which they have perverted the real purpose of science, which is above all a rigorous but open-minded and dynamic system of inquiry.
    From ““ “Hunting Down the Universe” by Michael Hawkins

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Talk about incoherence, if you are not interested in rehashing Cronon, why did you spend half the post setting the story up to bash Michael with? The answer is pretty simple, you were real interested until Steve showed that Cronon was imposing his own ivory tower vision on reality.

    What is really journalistically interesting is how Pielke’s over the top attack on Gore Feb 15 set this whole thing off and how the story got passed around until Andy Revkin bit. Since Roger has a long history of getting things wrong so he will look right, you would think journalists would have caught on by now. See for example this post by Roger, which by itself almost killed Nature’s Climate Feedback before it really got started. In his typical style he isolated one fact, got it wrong and then dug in (follow the link to Deltoid for details).

    In this case he insists that there is no evidence that climate change is increasing disaster losses in spite of his having agreed that it is the case in 2005, insisting that there is no peer reviewed research indicating this, although there is, more prospective than retrospective, true, but still some retrospective although not conclusive and ignoring the conclusions of the insurance industry.

    Now he has picked you up as another club. Welcome

    • keith

      Eli, I felt obligated to summarize the Cronon/wilderness controversy in the set-up because I suspected that many readers of this blog would be unfamiliar with the episode. Steve confirmed my hunch in one of his earlier comments.

      To be honest, I’m pretty new to the level of animus felt for Pielke, Jr. by so many enviros. I find it a bit astonishing since he’s on the record as voting for Obama, believing that climate change is for real and that some means of both adaptation and mitigation should be employed to counter it. I have a feeling that the perception of him by folks such as yourself doesn’t match the actual person.

      I’m not sure what you mean by the last sentence–am I wielding a club on his behalf or am I member of some club of his? Either way, weird.

  • http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com Bart Verheggen

    Your characterization of the critique on Revkin as an expression of “the church of Al Gore” is completely unfair.

    The issue that got Tobis mad was that Revkin implicated that Al Gore (who gets the big picture more or less right) and George Will (who doesn’t get the big picture right at all) are on equal footing in the media-debate. Such a comparison, especially by a highly regarded reporter, goes a long way in furthering misunderstanding of climate change.

    Tobis never suggested that Gore should not be criticized, so characterizing him this way is incorrect and not helpful for the debate. Indeed, it aids the misunderstanding of the issues and gives extra food to a widely held mistrust of climate scientists.

    One could argue that Tobis and Romm used too strong language in their anger, but the same could be said of Pielke in his characterization of Al Gore (at least when one recognizes the importance of the big picture).

    This whole argument seems focussed too much on the use of language, and too little on the substance.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/ Tim Lambert

    Some of us have had previous dealings with RPJr. For example, here (read the exchanges with Pielke Jr down to comment 50). Or this.

  • Roger Pielke, Jr.

    Eli, Tim-

    Geez I publish five books, hundreds of papers and commentaries, thousands of blog posts and all you guys have to complain about is this? Seriously?

    Tim, have you figured out how to adjust economic data for inflation yet? ;-)

  • http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/ Tim Lambert

    Roger, it’s a shame you don’t understand the difference between providing a couple of easily accessible examples of something and giving an exhaustive list.  You are well aware that there is much more.

    And please explain what you mean by “have you figured out how to adjust economic data for inflation yet?”

    If this is intended as a reference to something you think I wrote, I have no idea what you are referring to.

  • Roger Pielke Jr.

    Tim-

    You’ve shown some evidence that you disagree with me on some things that reasonable people can disagree about.   Some people will find my arguments more compelling, others yours.

    So what?

  • Thom

    Keith, you’re just clueless. 

    Roger, you have not published hundreds of articles.  You’re resume is rife with opinion pieces.  Your peer-reviewed articles often appear in journals with impact factors that are neglible.  Even much of your stuff in Nature is just opinion.

    Your blog is little more than a venue for you to launch attacks on your intellectual betters who are spending their time doing actual research.  And, of course, to get Roger Pielke Jr. some press attention.  Always the need to get Roger some press time.

    You’ve got a better rep with journalists looking for money quotes than with actual scientists.  Some reporters have already figured this out. 

    • keith

      Thom,

      Hellava counter argument you make there. Why even bother with a comment if you’re not going to engage the post.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/ Tim Lambert

    Roger, the reason why so many people hold you in low regard is that you are unreasonable, as my examples demonstrated.

    And you’ve just provided us with another example: you insinuate that I don’t know how to adjust economic data for inflation, but when challenged you don’t support your claim but try to change the subject instead.

  • Thom

    Keith: Why even bother with a comment if you’re not going to engage the post.

    Um….Gee, Keith.  Ya’ got me there.  How do you engage with “Church of Al Gore”?  This is you trying out your snark…..and it’s a really rough draft.  Get over yourself.

    The only thing to engage with is Roger’s constant evasions.  Beginning with his inflated publication list.

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  • http://anneminard.com Anne Minard

    Keith Kloor, I think you have something here. No fair for the environmental camp to allege blind dogma among global warming skeptics if we’re not willing to face this tendency in ourselves. Some of your critics here doth protest too much.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Keith you are not making sense.  The Cronon wilderness controversy was not the subject of the post. It makes no sense except as a set up that you attempted to use to bash Gore and Tobis. It took more than 50% of the space.   Cronon’s conclusions are at least questionable, as Steve Bloom showed, and if they are, so is your extention of that story to Gore. 

  • klaus
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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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