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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Environmentalism's Bad Rap

From the Long Now List:

Kareiva began by recalling the environmental
"golden decade" of 1965-75, set in motion by 
the scientist Rachel Carson. In quick succession 
Congress created the Clean Air Act, the Clean 
Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act---
which passed the Senate unanimously.

Green influence has been dwindling ever 

since. A series of polls in the US asked how 
many agreed with the statement, "Most 
environmentalists are extremists, not 
reasonable people." In 1996, 32% agreed. 
In 2004, 43% agreed. Now it's over 50% who 
think environmentalists are unreasonable.

Kareiva noted that as the world is urbanizing, 

ever fewer people grow up in contact with nature
---current college freshman have less than a 
tenth of the childhood experience of nature as 
previous generations. And there's a demographic 
shift toward multiethnicity, with whites already a 
minority in California and soon to be a minority in 
the whole country. Asked to describe a typical 
environmentalist, current grade school students 
say it's a girl, white, with money, preachy about 
recycling, nice but uptight, not sought as a friend.

In general, environmentalist have earned the 

reputation of being "misanthropic, anti-technology, 
anti-growth, dogmatic, purist, zealous, exclusive 

Kareiva gave several examples of how that reputation 

was earned. In Green rhetoric, everything in nature 
is described as "fragile!"---rivers, forests, the whole 
planet. It's manifestly untrue. America's eastern 
forest lost two of its most dominant species---the 
american chestnut and the passenger pigeon---and 
never faltered. Bikini Atoll was vaporized in an 
H-bomb test that boiled the ocean. When National 
Geographic sent a research team there recently, they 
found 25% more coral than was ever there before. The 
Deepwater Horizon oil disaster last year caused 
dramatically less harm to salt marshes and fisheries 
than expected, apparently because ocean bacteria ate 
most of the 5 million barrels of oil.

The problem with the fragility illusion is that it 

encourages a misplaced purism, leaving no room 
for compromise or negotiation, and it leads to "fortress 
conservation"---the idea that the only way to protect 
"fragile" ecosystems is to exclude all people. In Uganda, 
when a national park was established to protect 
biodiversity, 5,000 families were forced out of the 
area. After a change in government, those families 
returned in anger. To make sure they were never 
forced out again, they slaughtered all the local wildlife. 
In the 1980s, Kareiva was a witness in Seattle for 
protecting old growth forest (and spotted owls). At 
the courtroom loggers carried signs reading: "You 
care about owls more than my children." That jarred him.

When genetically engineered crops (GMOs) came 

along, environmentalists responded with "knee-jerk 
anti-technology religiosity," Kareiva said. How to 
feed the world was not a consideration. Lessening 
the overwhelming impact of agriculture on natural 
systems was not a consideration. Instead, the 
usual apocalyptic fears were deployed in the usual 
TOMORROW! When Kareiva was working on protecting 
salmon, he saw the same kind of language employed 
in a 1999 New York Times full-page ad about dams 
in the Snake River: TIMELINE TO EXTINCTION! He 
knew it wasn't true. Salmon are a weedy species, and 
the re-engineered dams were letting the fish through.

The Nature Conservancy---where Kareiva is chief 

scientist working with the organization's 600 scientists, 
4,000 staff, and one million members in 37 countries---
promotes a realistic approach to conservation. Instead 
of demonizing corporations, they collaborate actively 
with them. They've decided to do the same with farmers, 
starting an agriculture initiative within the Conservancy. 
For the growing cities they emphasize the economic 
value of conservation in terms of valuable clean water 
and air. They started a program taking inner-city kids 
out to their field conservation projects not to play but 
to work on research and restoration. An astonishing 
30% of those kids go on to major in science.

Kareiva sees conservation in this century as a profoundly 

social, cooperative undertaking that has to include 
everyone. New social networking tools can be in the 
thick of it. For instance, people could use their smartphones
to photograph (and geotag, timestamp, and broadcast) the 
northernmost occurrence of bird species, and the aggregate 
data could be graphed in real time, showing the increasing 
effects of global warming on the natural world. When everyone 
makes science like that, everyone owns it. They've invested.

--Stewart Brand

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