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12:00 AM, Sep 23, 1996 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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Underlying government discussion of the fate of the two dams is an ongoing national debate over the vision of progress that emerged as the civic religion of the United States in the progressive era. Historians have described the public enthusiasm for progress early in this century as a " secular great awakening" aroused by a new "gospel of efficiency." If environmentalism today has all the character of a religion, there was also a theology of sorts at the heart of the progressive appeal. Original sin took the form of economic scarcity; human beings were driven to bad behavior by the simple material requirements of survival. American progressivism shared with Marxism, socialism, and other secular religions the conviction that the abolition of material scarcity through economic progress would mean the end of human conflict and disagreement, the arrival of heaven on earth.

E.J. Dionne, in They Only Look Dead, argues that "progressives will dominate the next political era." Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley, and other leading Democratic politicians, seeking an alternative to the discredited " liberal" label, have similarly declared that a new progressivism is the wave of the Democratic future. Yet if the fate of the dam is any indication, this is not going to happen. When the Bureau of Reclamation was created in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt regarded its dambuilding efforts as a leading accomplishment of his progressive presidency. But much as dams have been transformed from cathedrals of progress to symbols of metaphysical evil, faith in a secular salvation through economic progress has waned throughout American life. And with some reason: Great material progress this century has coincided with world wars, holocausts, Siberian prison camps, and other barbarities, much worse than in earlier times when the material state of the world was much poorer.

There can be no recovering the millennial fervor for progress of the early part of this century, and yet it has been an underlying religious zeal that has driven many of the progressive policy prescriptions that are with us still today. If the progressives preached a great expansion of government in the name of the "scientific management" of society, the scientific and technocratic elite no longer commands the moral authority to fulfill its necessary role -- the new priesthood of society -- in the progressive grand design. Instead, environmentalists hope to become the new priests.

Although the contemporary environmental movement has offered an outlet for many people turning away from economic salvation, environmentalism is much clearer about what it rejects than what it proposes. Indeed, the environmental utopia is nature untouched by human hand; carried to its full logic, there is no place here for human beings. Environmental philosophers have yet to tell us convincingly how human existence has a positive role to play in the world. Although they may not say it for public consumption, environmental activists in practice typically follow a simple rule: Fight to limit every human impact on nature to the extent that is feasible, given the political and other constraints of the moment.

The absence in environmentalism of any persuasive positive prescription for a human role on the earth has been camouflaged with much earnest talk of " sustainable development," "ecosystem management," and other bromides. In the end, these are substitutes for thought, ways of papering over the gaps in environmental thinking.

It becomes all the more awkward when one considers that many of the most ardent followers of the environmental gospel live surrounded by modern luxury, entirely dependent on all the things -- including water and electricity from dams -- that they profess to reject.

Since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden into sin, deprived of their former innocent natural selves, the relationship of man and nature has been perhaps the central question in Western religion. A half century ago Woody Guthrie saw this relationship in benevolent terms, nature serving human needs as part of a grand plan. Today's folk singers, however, have returned to another old message in Western religion, warning of a world sinning against God and nature. One of the best known, Tracy Chapman, laments that human beings are committing "This, the most heinous of crimes. This, the deadliest of sins." Fearing for the fate of the earth, she sings,


Mother of us all . . .

Some claim to have crowned her a queen with cities of concrete and steel.

But there is no glory, no honor in what results from the rape of the world.