Bringing the Battle to the Suburbs

Proving that organized environmentalism is often as much about economics as it is ecology, and as much about social control as it is saving species, a Seattle paper recently; reported that anti-logging groups,, having succeeded beyond their dreams in driving lumbermen from the forests, are now choosing targets of protest much closer to the lives of average Americans. They’re making “Big Box” mega-stores the newest battleground in their guerrilla war to reverse the Industrial Revolution.

San Francisco’s Rainforest Action Network first used the tactic last year against the hardware chain Home Depot, organizing parking lot protests decrying the company’s selling of wood from old growth forests. At one event, an activist dressed as a black bear chained himself to rafters above the store, assailing the bewildered home-improvers below with a bullhorn. “The forest-activist movement had been targeting logging companies for years, but all we were doing was shoving the logging companies around from one watershed to another,” one organizer told the paper. “So we looked at where [lumber] was being sold, and Home Depot was the cream that rose to the top.”

No sooner had Home Depot knuckled under, pulling the wood in question from its shelves, than the Network and allied groups began looking around for other targets of opportunity on the retail end of resource use. Office supply giant Staples was the next best choice, given the huge amount of paper products it sells, so protests were organized at Staples stores in Montana and Washington State as activists demanded that the chain greatly boost its sales of, recycled paper products.

Hoping to skirt a PR disaster, officials at Staples met with protesters and pledged to do more, pointing out that the chain already sells 1,000 different recycled products, the vast majority of which were paper-based. But one leader from Montana’s Native Forest Network, for whom consumer’ preferences and profit-and-loss are alien notions, judged the company’s response inadequate. “The recycled content in their paper, really, to be blunt, is pitiful: he told the paper.

So who’s next on the list? The potential targets are endless, given that virtually every product many stores stock has its origins in a forest, on the land, beneath the ground or under the sea — a fact that makes Earth-exploiters of us all in the eyes of some environmentalists.

It is certainly not the first time protests or boycotts have been aimed at retail- ers; readers old enough to have gone grocery shopping in the 1970s may recall having been chastised for buying “non-union grapes” by activists trying to organize migrant farm workers behind C esar Chavez. But the news account suggests the new tack, probably inspired by World ‘Made Organization protests that rocked Seattle a year ago, may well be the wave of the protesting future. By taking their protests “retail” and bringing the battle to the burbs, Greens not only hope to save the planet one roll of paper towels at a time; they also know that moving them into suburban settings greatly increase the opportunities for media coverage.

While it seems for now to be paying dividends, the tactic also invites eventual backlash by placing mega store protesters on a collision course with a potentially even greater force — the average American’s appetite for consumer goods and choices and fondness for a style of living that is incompatible with the radical environmentalist’s worldview. Most Americans may not mind environmentalists chaining themselves to logging trucks or monkey-wrenching bulldozers, so long as they’re doing it off the beaten path somewhere. But they may take a ‘dimmer view when they’re throwing themselves in front of onrushing shopping carts, causing logjams in the express line, or presuming to limit or dictate personal choices and lifestyles.

Yet that, at its heart, is where the logic of environmental extremism eventually leads—back home, into the cities and the suburbs, to where the consumption of and demand for resource-based materials and products is greatest. If the new tactic succeeds and spreads, urbanites and suburbanites for whom the resource wars have been abstractions, fought out over issues that often seem remote, may for the first time find themselves in the firing line. And it is then that they’ll begin to see, in a naked light, the dictatorial economic designs lurking behind Green extremism.