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Sleeping with the Enemy

It’s strange to see a subject you know a lot about treated by another journalist. “Green is Good,” T.D. Max’s story mostly about The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the May 12 New Yorker, starts out covering TNC’s current strategy to partner with big polluters to get them to mitigate in the interest of their own bottom lines. But a big part of Max’s narrative focuses on the philosophical kerfuffle TNC scientist Peter Kareiva set off a couple of years ago when with Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz he published “Conservation in the Anthropocene” in Breakthrough Journal. In sum, Kareiva et al. said that conservation strategies to protect parks and other discrete areas is essentially misguided. They trace the idea that wilderness is a special place to Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey among other writers; crowing that Thoreau’s mother did his laundry and that Abbey was actually lonely out in the desert, they claim the very foundation of a special wilderness idea to be dishonest. They go on to say that things are not really so bad. Even the polar bear might have a bright future, because seals might be driven northward by climate change and so into the polar bear’s jaws, and because the polar bear can always interbreed with brown bears to save some scrap of its genetic lineage. Finally, they resolve that conservation should not be focused on species or landscape protection but instead on “economic development for all.” The idea is that nature belongs to everyone; what’s left should be purposed to help the poor and underserved get a better life.

Yup. There’s a ton wrong with every single thing they say. Kareiva et al. employ an ad hoc, scattershot attack. They glide over ecological realities and it seems willfully misread great writers. To the idea that we should give the last remnants of intact nature to poor people – can we just think about that for a second? As climate change and continued ecological degradation make clean air, clean water, and beautiful landscapes scarce, do we really think that the wealthy people who have the best access to such are going to voluntarily share it somehow with the underserved? The reality we see on the ground is that even right this minute, those of us in the so-called First World are having something of a sanguine response to climate change, because it’s quite clear that the biggest and worst impacts are going to continue to be felt by the Global South. Those are other people over there, so what if they suffer? If we were inclined to be fair and generous with the rest of the world, we would be doing much more to stop climate change now.

So why does Max spill valuable New Yorker ink on the subject? There are so many bigger fish to fry. TNC’s experiment with Dow Chemical, for example. Max might have dug into the history of Big Green attempts to make peace with the devil. “We can’t beat them so we’ve got to join them” is not a new idea in conservation. Sociologist Douglas Bevington’s 2009 book The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear, researches and analyzes deals made between large conservation outfits and industry in this spirit of “partnership.” Bevington’s data makes it clear that big industry plays around with earnest conservationists in a proverbial cat and mouse in which the mouse is always eaten in the end. Big Green ends up giving away more protection than it secures. By contrast, small nonprofits that challenge industry have continuously racked up legislative protection for nature. Bevington singles out the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which basically sues the states and federal government to protect species on the Endangered Species List. CBD has been nearly 100 percent successful in preventing species from going extinct. TNC has protected 119 million acres – this is fantastic, this is great – but CBD has protected 233 million acres designated as special habitat when species are listed as threatened or endangered.

Max seems to fall into a false dichotomy set up by publicity-seekers like Kareiva in which passionate, long-time advocates for nature are painted as self-deluded wilderness-hoarders. Why doesn’t Max look into the spotty and haphazard ecology upon which Kareiva bases his bromides? It just disappoints me that Max paints Michael Soule, whom I profiled in depth in my book, The Spine of the Continent, as some kind of Old Testament crank, still railing on behalf of nature after all these years. Soule is one of the foremost scientists who have defined conservation biology as we understand it today (Kareiva also made valuable contributions to this science). Max says Soule is working on a book about “human wickedness and its impact on nature.” It’s worth clarifying that Soule’s project is an investigation into the “seven deadly sins” and how they prevent us from seeing what we are doing to nature. Ever the evolutionary biologist, Soule is constructing a phylogeny that combines religious, cultural, and physiological traits. Soule may periodically take a sonorous tone, but he is motivated by anguish and compassion, not just for one species, Homo sapiens, but for all species. As he has said on more than one occasion, “it’s all one system.” The context for his work, for TNC’s and CBD’s work, for all our work, is the current vastly accelerated rate of species extinctions brought on by the activities of just one of nature’s denizens, us. That Soule persists in reminding us that there are other fates involved here is heroic and worthy.

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