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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Voices in the Wilderness BY JOHN SUVAL American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau Edited by Bill McKibben Library of America 900 pages, $40 IThe other day, I stumbled on a pair of headlines whose proximity to one another spoke volumes: “Palin: U.S. troops sent to Iraq on a ‘task that is from God,” and “Ice shelf the size of Manhattan breaks off.” It was a rude reminder that even as the Earth heats up and the planet’s living systems unravel, a virulent strain of the body politic is keen to perpetuate oil war in the Lord’s name. Tellingly, these same folks propound a strikingly shortsighted “alternative” energy solution: “Drill here! Drill now!” The good news is that the United States has a rich tradition of resistance to unholy plunder. As the anthology American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau makes abundantly clear, each generation since the mid-19th century has produced visionary dissidents who have sounded the alarms of a planet in peril. Such truth-telling has made environmentalism the buzzkill of consumer culture, but also spawned important reforms. The bad news is that despite prescient observations and clear-eyed prescriptions, often rendered in heart-wrenchingly lovely prose, the lions of the environmental movementMuir, Leopold, Carson, et alhave been unable to halt the runaway train of American excess. The captains of “progress” have had singular success branding the prophets of doom as “whack jobs” while keeping the land safe for big box stores and genuflecting oil pumps. Meanwhile, toxins poison the water and air, wildlife species decline, and temperatures rise. American Earth comprises some 100 writings sure-handedly selected and introduced by editor Bill McKibben. Individual entries take a variety of forms, from book excerpts, essays, and speeches to straightforward reportage, memoir, and even poetry. Organized chronologically, they offer a vivid view of the state of the natural world through the years, and of the evolution of environmental thinking and activism. From the get-go, as multiple authors reveal, Europeans set upon the New World like a swarm of locusts. In his seminal essay “On the Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis:’ historian Lynn White Jr. locates the source of the problem in a Judeo-Christian cosmology that sets man and nature at odds, giving the former dominion over the latter and the license to subdue it. Environmental historian William Cronon sees religious tradition as a philosophical backstop to pure, unadulterated greed. “Hopes for great windfall profits had fueled New World enterprises ever since the triumphs of Cortes, and were reinforced by traditions as old as the Garden of Eden,” he writes in Changes in the Land, his book exploring New England Indians’ relationship to the environment. Once the deluge of dominion had commenced, it seems nothing could turn 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 19, 2008