In a speech to Trout Unlimited, Bruce Babbitt announced that he "would love to be the first Secretary of the Interior to tear down a really large dam." It looks like the secretary may get his wish. Congress in 1992 authorized the dismantling of two dams on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state. And the Clinton administration is now asking Congress for the $ 111 million it will take to get the job done.

If there were lots of money to go around, this would likely be a reasonable expenditure. But the National Park System is facing a funding crisis, including a backlog of needed construction maintenance estimated by the Park Service to cost $ 4 billion. Ranger-education programs were canceled this summer at parks across the country, trails are not being maintained, employee housing is falling apart, and other major problems are endemic throughout the parks.

Spending $ 111 million could make a big difference in all those areas. So why is removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams a higher priority for Babbitt? The answer tells us a lot about the thinking of the environmental movement and changing ideas of economic progress in American life.

There was a time when a dam was considered a great human achievement. Dams provided water to make the desert bloom. They provided electricity to light the cities. They became for many virtual cathedrals of progress, inspiring a religious awe by their very presence. Dams visibly demonstrated the new power of mankind to remake the world by controlling nature for human benefit.

When the artists of socialist realism came to choose a subject, a scene showing the building of a large dam was a favored motif. Woody Guthrie sang ballads about the construction in the late 1930s of Grand Coulee Dam, then the largest in the world:

Uncle Sam needs wool, Uncle Sam needs wheat

Uncle Sam needs houses 'n' stuff to eat

Uncle Sam needs water 'n' power dams

Americans began to turn against dams in the 1950s. The Bureau of Reclamation sought to build one in Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado, threatening to inundate portions of a unit of the National Park System. This sacrilege spurred to action David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club and a man who once said, "I hate all dams, large and small." Mobilizing sportsmen, wilderness enthusiasts, park advocates, and others, Brower pioneered the modern tactics of environmental activism and in the process defeated the mighty Bureau of Reclamation.

As John McPhee has written, for the environmental movement there has always been "something special about dams, something . . . disproportionately and metaphysically sinister." The building of a dam involves an act of " humiliating nature" -- and hence of outright "evil."

As dams have declined in public favor, a new type of cathedral of a new national civic faith has emerged. As defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, a wilderness is a place "untrammeled by man." The symbolism of the dam is turned on its head; a sacred site no longer represents human mastery of nature but the very absence of any human impact.

Reed Noss, editor of a well-respected environmental journal called Conservation Biology, said recently that the environmental movement must bring about a fundamental change in the "prevailing attitude of humans toward nature" in order to save the environment. Human power to change nature has become too great; the most urgent task now is to protect nature from human intrusions. Someone like Hubert Humphrey would have had a hard time understanding all this. For Humphrey, like most liberals of his time, science and economic progress were the solution to crime, family breakdown, poverty, virtually all of society's problems. Yet for many of the new environmental cadre, progress is not the solution but the problem.

In April, the membership of the Sierra Club voted by two to one to seek a ban on all timber harvesting in the national forests of the United States, which put timber harvesting in the same moral category as dams. Reflecting the real impact of such thinking, national forest harvests have fallen by 66 percent over the past decade. Yet the national forests represent 40 percent of Idaho, 21 percent of California, and 19 percent of the land area of the West as a whole. Public timber has been a main economic base for many rural economies. So much for ordinary people and ordinary jobs -- the wellspring of Humphrey-style liberalism and the subject of progressive politics for a century.

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.

When we see secretaries of the interior putting their highest priority on tearing down dams, and singers describing mankind as a planetary rapist, we know for sure that progressivism will not be revived.

Robert H. Nelson is a professor at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and a senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His latest book is Public Lands and Private Rights, and his cover story on Bruce Babbitt appeared in the June 24 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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