It's Chase who's lost in the dark wood

  • Front cover of "In A Dark Wood"


In a Dark Wood: The Fight Over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology, by Alston Chase, Houghton Mifflin, $29.95.

Review by Alan Pistorius

Alston Chase's new book sets out to chronicle the continuing fight between the timber industry and environmentalists over old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest and to determine why, in his view, modern environmentalism has gone terribly wrong.

Some readers will skim the analysis in favor of the dramatic episodes of you-are-there history, which Chase presents as a titanic struggle between the loggers - simple, uneducated people who work with constant danger, live in tightly knit communities, and go to church on Sunday - and activists, an unlikely alliance of Earth First!ers, hippie dropouts who divide their time between monkey-wrenching and "lubricating their brains with Pacifica beer," and their absentee Eastern-city supporters, who put "Earth First! bumper stickers ... on (their) BMWs, Jaguars, and Mercedeses."

But for Chase the history, portrayed as a combination morality play and Unsolved Mysteries (Who bombed Earth First!er Judi Bari?) is of secondary importance. A philosophy professor turned journalist, Chase believes he knows why environmentalism has gone dangerously astray, and the answer is surprisingly specific. The movement has embraced two bad ideas propounded by biologists: ecosystem and biocentrism.

The ecosystem is the apparently innocent product of ecology's demonstration of the interconnectedness of organisms. But when we talk about the "health" of an ecosystem, and when we say that biodiversity maintains ecosystem "stability," Chase argues, we are attributing goals or purpose (health, stability) to nature. To do that, however, is to commit the teleological fallacy, to ignore the central fact that nature is random, and to flout the value-neutrality of science. The ecosystem, derived from "ancient philosophical ideas ... and masquerading as science," merely repackages outmoded "fuzzy, pantheistic, and animist notions of the unity and spirituality of nature." Chase says this is dangerous because it is infinitely expandable, inviting ever-increasing preservation demands, and because Homo sapiens soon becomes the disrupter of otherwise self-regulating ecosystems.

Biocentrism is even more ominous in Chase's view. He says it holds that all organisms are of equal value. This notion not only leads to unfortunate legislation like the Endangered Species Act, it also threatens our civil liberties. To say that humans are no better than snail darters or "boring beetles' is tantamount to saying "that people have no special rights," which is an invitation to government to control our behavior by "social engineering or by force" in the interests of ecosystem health.

Chase is dead serious about this threat; his subtitle includes "rising tyranny," and he furnishes a cautionary tale from recent European history. The term "ecology," it seems, was coined by the German Ernst Haeckel, who became a kind of posthumous house biologist to the Nazi Party. His source, historian Anna Branwell, can't decide "whether "the existence of ecological arguments so similar to today's in the Third Reich (is) ... significant or just an embarrassing accident." "

Chase's biology displays some embarrassing lapses. Among his endangered species are "gnatcatcher" and "salamander" (which aren't species), and "cave bat" and "wildcat" (which don't exist). He informs us that "all seven species of woodpecker that live in the Northwest excavate holes only in deadwood." (A dozen woodpecker species occur in the Northwest; some prefer to nest in deadwood, some in live.) Chase describes gopher snakes as "small mammals," and categorizes amphibians as invertebrates!

In a Dark Wood will inevitably exacerbate the polarization of environmental attitudes in this country. Environmentalists will be angered, the anti-regulatory, environment-indifferent majority in Congress delighted, at Chase's claims that mainstream conservation organizations are deliberately smearing the mom-and-pop wise-use movement, that there is no evidence for an impending extinction crisis, and that the fight over timber and owls in the Northwest has been a "class war" between the "forces of humanism and (the forces of) biocentrism." (The timber industry is "humanist" by virtue of the fact that environmentalists are "anti-human.")

Careful readers of all persuasions, however, will be brought up short by Chase's episodes of breathtaking illogic. Having berated Earth First!ers and other activists for stopping the concerted harvesting of the remaining large tracts of old-growth forest through ecotage and lawsuits, Chase then pooh-poohs preservationist doom-saying about disappearing old-growth by pointing out how much is left.

In fact, he says, there's about as much old-growth now as there ever was. The proof? "Nearly 200,000 acres of old growth remained, covering almost the entire 2 million acres they had occupied a century earlier." There is no misprint here. Somehow, in Chase's world, 200,000 acres can cover 2 million acres. This is creative silvicultural and geographical accounting indeed.

Environmentalists, Chase concludes, have long claimed that the "earth ... is fragile," that "(s)ocieties die when they decimate the environment on which they depend ... But (they) had things backwards. Civilizations, not nature, are fragile flowers, and when they disappear, they are gone forever. By contrast, the earth eventually recovers from abuse." But wait a second. If the earth recovers from abuse, it must recover toward health, toward biodiversity. If so, nature has a goal, a condition toward which it strives. But this is that old holistic, teleological clap-trap, and patently unscientific. It can't be, can it, that the earth is nothing but that bad idea, "ecosystem," writ large?

Writer and naturalist Alan Pistorius lives near the logged-over Green Mountains in central Vermont.

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