That time Treehugger jumped the shark

[Editor’s note: As should be clear from the very first sentence, the following post was originally written well over a year ago. I can offer no explanation for my delinquency in publishing it other than I have been delinquent in publishing just about everything around here.]

I wrote a post last week complaining about an extremely misleading headline over at Treehugger. But upon further reflection, I don’t know what about the #fail it discussed exercised me so. After all, I’ve been aware that Treehugger jumped the shark for quite some time.

My suspicions were aroused back in September, when I came across an unusual “Photo of the Day”. Treehugger has long periodically posted photographs culled from reader contributions. The pictures — how do I say this without sounding like a snob? — typically portray attractive subjects, but the photographer’s execution can sometimes leave quite a bit of room for improvement.

When I call the subjects “attractive”, I mean that the photographs almost always depict beautiful natural scenes and objects. For the sake of context, the three posts prior to the one that threw me for a loop were titled “Water lily on the Powwow River“, “Young wood stork in mid-flap“, and “A great gathering of water birds“. No, the work of man does not often grace these photographs.

Which is why I was so surprised to see the photo dated September 14, 2014. It was titled innocuously enough — “Twisted canyon filled with emerald water” — but it was clear from the photograph that the phenomenon in question was not so innocent. Twisted canyons are generally carved by flowing water, not the stagnant liquid depicted therein. And the banding along the canyon walls made it clear that water levels have varied significantly in the past. In short, the headline was obviously accurate, but omitted the most important detail: it depicts a “Twisted canyon filled with emerald water” because some people stopped it up like a bathtub.

Treehugger canyon

Of course, I was curious to figure out where the formation in question is located. Luckily, it was right there in the caption: “This unusual landform is found in Glen Canyon, Utah. It’s part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which was established in 1972 and stretches into Arizona.” Moreover, Treehugger helpfully linked to the photograph on Flickr, which linked me in turn to a map that clarified — in case I had any doubt — the body of emerald water in question is a branch of the notorious Lake Powell [click to enlarge]:

Lake Powell flickr treehugger

In other words, this is not just any old river flooded by any old dam. This is Glen Canyon, a name synonymous with one of the most ignominious defeats the American environmental movement has ever suffered. In Cadillac Desert, his epic account of water use in the American West,  Marc Reisner describes how John Wesley Powell, who surveyed Glen Canyon in 1869, settled on its name:

For several days, they floated on a brisk but serene river through a canyon such as no one had seen. Instead of the pitiless angular black-burned walls of Cataract Canyon, they were now enveloped by rounded pink-and-salmon-colored sandstone, undulating ahead of them in soft contours. There were huge arched chasms, arcadian glens hung with maidenhair ferns, zebra-striped walls, opalescent green fractures irrigated by secret springs. Groping for a name that would properly convey their sense of both awe and relief, Powell decided on Glen Canyon.

But less than a century after Glen Canyon was Columbused, the Bureau of Reclamation completed the Glen Canyon Dam, backing up water for 186 miles, destroying the river’s ecology, flooding the canyons, and creating Lake Powell, pictured and mapped above.

There are many ways to carry on after a devastating loss. Some environmentalists have spent the half-century since the dam’s construction fantasizing and even plotting its eventual destruction, perhaps none so gleefully as the novelist Edward Abbey, who wrote that Glen Canyon was “a portion of earth’s original paradise.” More to the point, he penned The Monkey Wrench Gang, about a band of environmentalists who aim to create a “precision earthquake” to remove the “temporary plug” known as The Glen Canyon Dam. (To my delight, the protagonists of his novel are ultimately defended in court by a young graduate of the Yale Law School.)

Others have turned Glen Canyon into something of a cross between a rallying cry and an object lesson for the environmental movement. Former Sierra Club President David Brower, perhaps more familiar to you as the archdruid, later confessed that “Glen Canyon died in 1963, and I was partly responsible for its needless death. So were you. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure.” Brower would have the greens learn from their experiences so as not to repeat them.  (This is a more Jewish — if not more satisfying — approach, which is how we get unfinished houses, broken wedding glasses, & #neverforget.)

There is, of course, another alternative apparently adopted here by Treehugger: simple acceptance. Unfortunately, I’d say that’s the worst possible environmental response. Shifting baselines — the incremental lowering of standards due to the passage of time and ever-worsening conditions that obscure quite how far expectations have fallen — represent a tremendous obstacle to adequately addressing modern environmental challenges. I’d argue that it’s the responsibility of the green outlets like Treehugger to call attention to shifting baselines so the rest of us can’t be quite so complacent.

And in the case of Glen Canyon, that organization dropped the ball. The photographer who spots a pretty canyon doesn’t necessarily need to know how it came to have been filled with water. But it should be Treehugger’s job to tell him. The fact that it simply published his photo without comment — and later feted it as one of “The 17 most popular reader photos of 2014” — begs an obvious question: If Treehugger falls down on the job, does it make a sound?

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