Environmentalists Speak with Forked Tongue

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In the Arena, by Rich Jefferson: Environmentalists Speak with Forked Tongue

Ancient peoples had myths, but so do we.

In his book, Wild in Woods: The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage, Robert Whelan analyzes a significant myth that plays a large role in the mythology of the environmental movement.

You can see the myth in action in stories such as Disney’s Pocahontas, where the tree-hugging Indians are contrasted with environmentally insensitive and rapacious English settlers.

For hundreds of years, poets and artists have rhapsodized about a fictional time before “the base laws of servitude began, when wild in woods the noble savage ran.”

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This kind of environmental propaganda can be refuted with the facts, and Whelan’s short, highly readable book provides the facts about the mythical eco-savage.

Not surprisingly, the eco-savage never existed. But he is an extremely potent propaganda weapon. Propagandists know that repeating a big enough lie often enough will make it credible. The prescription here is: repeat until true.

There is solid evidence for this. Consider the true pedigree of Chief Seattle’s celebrated speech.

Undoubtedly you’ve heard or seen Chief Seattle quoted from his 1854 speech: “I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo, which we kill only in order to stay alive.”

But buffalo were not native to Washington state’s Puget Sound, where the Chief happened to live. Transcontinental railroads did not arrive in the Pacific Northwest for at least a decade after the date of his alleged speech. In fact, the quote is not the Chief’s. It “is completely bogus,” says Whelan.

Ted Perry, a television scriptwriter for a documentary produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission, wrote the Chief’s famous lines. The program was broadcast in 1972.

Whelan writes that “Perry claims that he had made it clear, in his original script, that he was creating a modern version of what Chief Seattle actually said, but that the program was altered. (The speech) acquired a life of its own. (It) was turned into one of the most successful environmental books for children, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle, by Susan Jeffers. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. When Perry wrote to the publisher pointing out that he was the author of the words quoted, he received a letter from their lawyers denying that there had been any infringement of copyright. No correction was made to the text of the book.”

So much for the preachments of the noble eco-savage.

As for the tragic story of the buffalo, research shows that bison hunting by American Indian hunters was often their own version of the market hunting practiced by the white man in the late 1800s.

Sites where Indians drove buffalo over precipices to their deaths were found to contain the remains of as many as 300,000 animals. In fact, there was such a high concentration of animal bones at these sites that they were mined later for phosphorous for fertilizer.

As Whelan documents, “large amounts of meat were left to rot and herds of animals were decimated, and sometimes driven to local extinction,” or breeding stock would be so destroyed that the local herd would become insignificant to its ecosystem.

Other aboriginal peoples have been found to prefer killing a female of the hunted species, especially the pregnant ones. The females have higher fat content, their skins were softer and unblemished from fighting, and fetuses were delicacies. Pregnancy also makes the females slower, and easier to harvest.

That’s not the enlightened wildlife management one would expect from sensitive eco-savages. Today we know that the number of females harvested is a key to managing wildlife populations. This, apparently, would be news to the noble eco-savage.

As for the smart use of trees, forget about it. Bolivia’s Yuqui Indians are prime candidates for mythical eco-savage status. But wait. Formerly divided into masters and slaves, the Yuqui got past the slavery issue with help from Europeans. But because it was the slaves’ job to climb trees to pick the fruit for the master, the Yuqui refused to climb trees to harvest fruit. Only slaves climb trees, they reasoned. So the Yuqui cut down the trees in order to get the fruit. Regrettably, some species have become locally extinct, which means the Indians have to walk farther to find fruit trees to cut down.

The book is full of such examples. But the popular mind and the popular news media have bought into the myth of the sensitive, environmentally adjusted eco-savage.

It’s enough to make you wonder what else in the green environmental agenda needs to be demythologized.

Wild in Woods: The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage, by Robert Whelan, is published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, Westminster, London, www.iea.org.uk or e-mail iea@iea.org.uk.