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What if we stopped fighting for preservation?

Tim Murray’s essay “What If We Stopped Fighting for Preservation and Fought Economic Growth Instead?” is provocative for sure. Murray is a compelling writer, and I admire his unflinching focus on the root causes of ecological collapse including human overpopulation, consumerism, mass migration, and the religion of endless growth. He’ll get no argument from me about these factors as systemic drivers of biodiversity loss, and I share his frustration that many reform-minded environmentalists and large NGOs often are unwilling to acknowledge the fundamental contradiction between wild nature’s flourishing and the intrinsic logic of a techno-industrial growth society based on corporate capitalism. Certainly conservationists of all persuasions should be more vocal about challenging the growth machine that is chewing up wild nature.

But for Murray to turn his wrath on protected areas, and suggest that preserving places for wildlife and wild processes to thrive unmolested is futile or even counterproductive as a conservation strategy, is a dangerously misguided idea. I hope it will be rejected by everyone who cares about the health of the biosphere.

Let’s consider his points:

Murray contends that “Each time environmentalists rally to defend an endangered habitat, and finally win the battle to designate it as a park …the economic growth machine turns to surrounding lands and exploits them ever more intensively, causing more species loss than ever before, putting even more lands under threat.” Here Murray is casting blame in the wrong direction—the parks and preserves secured by activism—and not toward the growth machine itself. By his logic, if there were no protected areas anywhere, no parks or preserves or wilderness areas of any kind, the growth machine would treat the entire landscape with less rapaciousness and the overall status of the Earth would be better. I know of no evidence to support this opinion and much to refute it. The ecosystems showing the most health, beauty, and integrity left on the planet correlate well with designated protected areas.

It is a little startling to hear a conservationist like Murray echo a talking point of the pro-exploitation forces who regularly oppose protected area designations. Timber industry boosters in my home state, for instance, have fought new wilderness areas on public land by claiming that “locking up the land” here meant they’d then have to go cut trees elsewhere in the world where regulatory oversight is even weaker than on US national forests. Should conservationists bow to that perverse threat, or work ever harder to mount a defense to industrial resource extraction everywhere it is proposed?

Murray says that two acres in Canada are developed for every acre conserved. I don’t know enough about that country’s development patterns to argue with his numbers but if that ratio of new protected areas to developed land is correct, the destruction to preservation equation in Canada is far preferable than the status quo in most parts of the world. It may be bad, but could be and would be a whole lot worse without tenacious activists working to establish protected areas. Absent those legal safeguards, the growth machine would chew up every acre.

That protected areas alone are not sufficient to halt the extinction crisis does not mean they are unnecessary. Protected areas are crucial, the best available tool for slowing the extinction crisis in the short term until its root causes (human overpopulation, technology, worldview, and growth-based economic organization) can be changed. Murray essentially argues that environmental action is a zero sum game, that conservationists can’t address symptoms and systemic drivers concurrently, so quit treating symptoms. When a heart attack victim gets to the hospital, the doctors don’t say, “this fat bloke eats poorly and doesn’t exercise; it would be silly for us waste any time saving him. Let’s direct all our energy to childhood nutrition and physical exercise programs.” As in a medical crisis, the first job in nature conservation sometimes is to treat the symptoms.

Historically, conservationists who have worked to save parks and wilderness areas have often highlighted the threats to nature inherent in the growth economy. When Robert Marshall put out his call in the 1930s for a new organization of “spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness,” he said that such people were “the one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth.” The genesis of The Wilderness Society came as an explicit reaction to the growth machine. Every wilderness area, park, or nature preserve established today, places where natural processes rather than humans will direct the ebb and flow of life, are tangible examples of resistance to the ideology of limitless growth spread by the dominant culture.

What about Murray’s contention that environmentalists “are like a fire brigade that never rests, running about, exhausted, trying to extinguish one brush fire after another, year after year, decade after decade, winning battles but losing the war”? Are we losing the war? Sure. It is indisputable that the overall trajectory for wild nature is toward destruction, but winning some battles (saving specific wild habitats) is certainly better than losing every battle by choosing to quit fighting. To extend Murray’s metaphor, he would have the fire brigade simply abandon the fire fighting business. Or, to be fair, redirect its energies to the root causes of fire, namely oxygen, fuel, and heat.

But what if the fire brigade has only marginal capacity to affect those underlying factors? Or, more immediately, what if it is your house that may burn up tomorrow? Would the caribou of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain care about our high-minded strategic shift if conservationists gave up defending that landscape from the oil and gas industry? We could name a thousand other places where wild habitat and the creatures who call it home would be immediately extinguished if conservationists stopped “fighting brush fires,” as Murray suggests. On the day we make that decision, the conflagration burning up the earth’s wild beauty will flare ever hotter, and the people who benefit from the inferno will grow even richer and more powerful.

What should we make of Murray’s central point, that if environmentalists and conservationists would “stop investing time and effort in fighting for park preservation, and instead direct that energy into stopping economic growth,” then the growth machine would have been halted in its tracks and a wonderful steady state utopia would be at hand? Murray confidently claims: “If the same energy that has been put into battles to save the environment piecemeal had been put into lobbying for a steady state economy, development pressure everywhere would have ceased, and habitat would be safe everywhere.”

Of course there is no way to prove or disprove this opinion but even a cursory examination of the idea suggests it is wildly implausible. How much “energy” could be generated to lobby for a steady state economy, and how effective might these land conservationists-turned-lobbyists really be? What form, precisely, might this steady state economy take that they are to lobby for? As that is just now a ripe area of discussion among progressive economists, with no consensus view, how could the environmental movement have been lobbying for it in past decades? (Those decades when, if Murray is right, we’ve been wasting our time saving parks.)

In the present socio-political landscape, it is industrial growth based on corporate capitalism that generates the surplus affluence which makes charitable giving possible; every large NGO depends on philanthropy derived from the growth economy. The idea that all large conservation and environmental groups could be convinced to directly, publicly, and effectively oppose the growth economy is fanciful. But for argument’s sake, let’s say every habitat preservation group from local land trusts to The Nature Conservancy got on board with Murray’s agenda, every wildlife advocacy group from Patagonia to Ottawa signs up too. These organizations, in total comprising the conservation movement, have not even been able to reform industrial growth civilization, only stave off its worst abuses. What gives Murray such confidence that if they just tried, they could abolish it entirely?

Moreover, assuming this new mass of environmental organizations became a unified growth monster-fighting coalition, what are the specific mechanisms for them to direct their energy into killing the beast? What are the practical levers of engagement and influence that the coalition could wield to counter the existing global model of economic organization? There are relatively few, and if one of the most important means of resistance—direct work to preserve and defend wild habitat—has been abandoned, then the ability of activists to fight the growth monster is greatly hampered.

Even if every self-identified environmentalist joined Murray’s “lobbying” campaign (he doesn’t say who that lobbying effort would target) it would do little to slow down the techno-industrial growth economy. The tiny fraction of the population worldwide that would fit in this camp has so little leverage politically and economically that it would be insignificant. The growth economy will fail (it is already faltering) of its own terrible weight, brittleness, and complexity, regardless of active opposition or active support. It will fail because it must, as an economy based on unlimited expansion on a finite planet is a practical impossibility.

It is well and good for anti-growth agitators to agitate, for anti-globalization forces to organize, for creative thinkers to develop visions and models for a steady state economy—and for environmentalists to support those efforts. But the relatively small number of dedicated conservationists active in the world—particularly those who have a biocentric worldview and will work hard for wilderness and wildlife—are most effective using their time and energy to save particular places. Real habitat, real creatures, as much and as fast as possible, so that when the big unraveling comes there will be the seedbed of recovery for wildness to begin the long dance of evolutionary flowering again after this dark episode of human-caused extinction.

Can these protected areas remain secure during a time of economic and political collapse, should that come to pass? That will be difficult for sure, but again, nature is likely to fare better during civilizational collapse if big, wild, interconnected systems of conservation lands (at least some of which are far away from population centers) are already established and enjoy a historic legacy of public support.

Over the past 150 years, a relatively small number of visionary conservationists have preserved many thousands of protected areas around the globe. Those places, and the intellectual foundations of the conservation movement built by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Arne Naess, and others are what makes this kind of dialogue about strategy possible. Without them, we’d not even have the philosophical, legal, and tactical tools to oppose the growth machine. Without the parks and wilderness areas earlier conservationists protected, we’d not have a broad base of cultural appreciation for wildlands and wildlife. The wilderness movement, in asserting that some places should be self-willed, unyoked from human dominion, free to exist for their own sakes, offers the best hope to counter the growth economy’s underlying philosophy that the world is a commodity for human use and profit.

What if we stopped fighting for preservation? In the short term, that would consign many wild places and creatures to destruction. It may seem a Sisyphean labor to Murray, but wilderness conservation and defense is work that matters, and hopefully, endures. Abandoning it would be bad strategy, and an ethical breach with our fellow members of the biotic community.

***

Writer and wilderness advocate Tom Butler is the former editor of the journal Wild Earth. His books include Wild Earth: Wild Ideas for a World Out of Balance, Wildlands Philanthropy, and Plundering Appalachia. He currently serves as the editorial projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology and the president of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, a regional land trust.

Editorial Notes: The Daly News blog seems to be heating up these days, and this topic is certainly keeping the fire going! Apparently there is more reaction to come next week. -KS

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