The odd thing was how closely my father's values resembled those of his enemies. The breakthrough environmental legislation of that era, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act, had attracted the support of President Nixon and both parties in Congress precisely because it made sense to old-fashioned Protestants, like my parents, who abhorred waste and made sacrifices for their kids' future and respected God's works and believed in taking responsibility for their messes. But the social ferment that gave rise to the first Earth Day, in 1970 , unleashed a host of other energies—the incivility of the so-and-sos, the pleasurable self-realizations of Mr. German, the cult of individuality—that were inimical to the old religion and ultimately won out.

Certainly I, as a self-realizing individual in the nineties, was having trouble with my parents' logic of unselfishness. Deprive myself of an available pleasure why? Take shorter and colder showers why? Keep having anguished phone conversations with my estranged wife on the subject of our failure to have children why? Struggle to read Henry James's last three novels why? Stay mindful of the Amazon rain forest why? New York City, which I returned to for good in 1994, was becoming a very pleasant place to live again. The nearby Catskills and Adirondacks were better protected than the Rockies and Cascades. Central Park, under recultivation by deep-pocketed locals, was looking greener every spring, and the other people out walking in it didn't enrage me: this was a city; there were supposed to be other people. On a May night in 1996, I walked across the park's newly restored, deep-pile lawns to a party where I saw a beautiful and very young woman standing awkwardly in a corner, behind a floor lamp that she twice nearly knocked over, and I felt so liberated that I could no longer remember one single reason not to introduce myself to her and, in due course, start asking her out.

The old religion was finished. Without its cultural support, the environmental movement's own cult of wilderness was never going to galvanize mass audiences. John Muir, writing from San Francisco at a time when you could travel to Yosemite without hardship and still have the valley to yourself for spiritual refreshment, founded a religion that required a large parcel of empty backcountry for every worshipper. Even in 1880, there weren't enough parcels like this to go around. Indeed, for the next eighty years, until Rachel Carson and David Brower sounded their populist alarms, the preserving of wild nature was generally assumed to be the province of elites. The organization that Muir formed to defend his beloved Sierras was a Club, not an Alliance. Henry David Thoreau, whose feelings for pine trees were romantic, if not downright sexual, called the workers who felled them "vermin." For Edward Abbey, who was the rare green writer with the courage of his misanthropy, the appeal of southeastern Utah was, frankly, that its desert was inhospitable to the great herd of Americans who were incapable of understanding and respecting the natural world. Bill McKibben, Harvard graduate, followed up his apocalyptic The End of Nature (in which he contrasted his own deep reverence for nature with the shallow-minded "hobby" that nature is for most outdoorspeople) with a book about cable TV 's inferiority to the timeless pleasures of country living. To Verlyn Klinkenborg, the professional trivialist whose job is to remind New York Times readers that spring follows winter and summer follows spring, and who sincerely loves snowdrifts and baling twine, the rest of humanity is a distant blob notable for its "venality" and "ignorance."

And so, once the EPA had cleaned up the country's most glaring messes, once sea otters and peregrine falcons had rebounded from near extinction, once Americans had had a disagreeable taste of European-style regulation, the environmental movement began to look like just another special interest hiding in the skirts of the Democratic Party. It consisted of well-heeled nature enthusiasts, tree-spiking misanthropes, nerdy defenders of unfashionable values (thrift, foresight), invokers of politically unfungible abstractions (the welfare of our great-grandchildren), issuers of shrill warnings about invisible risks (global warming) and exaggerated hazards (asbestos in public buildings), tiresome scolds about consumerism, reliers on facts and policies in an age of image, a constituency loudly proud of its refusal to compromise with others.
"My Bird Problem" excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. © 2006


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