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Remembering History

Comment to Tim Murray and Tom Butler

by Lisi Krall

It is worthwhile to recall history as we ponder Tim Murray’s proposition that we direct our “energy into stopping economic growth” rather than saving “the environment piecemeal” through conservation efforts.  It’s enlightening to go back to Thomas Jefferson just to gain some perspective on what happened when the market economy was fertilized with the industrial revolution.  Thomas Jefferson, writing in preindustrial America, thought one of the attributes of our nation that would enable us to “become happy and prosperous people” was the fact that we possessed “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation.”  Do the math, because it gives you some perspective on Jefferson’s world.  Apparently Jefferson thought we had a big enough unsettled country for agricultural expansion to take place for 20,000 years.   Clearly, Jefferson didn’t anticipate what was coming.  The pace and reach of economic expansion were beyond anything he could have imagined as he looked westward from Monticello at the turn of the 19th century.  Yet little more than a century after Jefferson wrote these words the country had become an industrial giant and most of the land had been given over to private ownership.

It was this pace of economic expansion coupled with a mostly wild country that gave rise to the conservation movement in the United States.  It quickly became abundantly clear that in the wake of our great economic experiment, nothing would be sacred and there was much to lose. In the United States, the conservation movement literally grew out of the rapacious speed and reach of 19th and 20th century capitalism and in this sense was very organic.  The preservation arm of the conservation movement became manifest in a wilderness ethos.  The wilderness ethos spoke to something foreboding about our so- called economic progress, the fact that we clearly had the capacity to put an end to the magic and pulse of a mostly untrammeled country in no short order.  The conservation movement, especially the preservation branch of that movement, helped us to think more critically about the meaning of progress and the place of humans on the earth.  Preservation was a cultural response to the most egregious impulses of capitalism.   It was a cultural meditation and institutional grappling with what a healthy human ecology should look like and when it was necessary to stop so-called economic progress for the sake of something more important.  It led John Collier to comment:

The profit-motive finds no use in Wilderness; and Wilderness can perish utterly in its remote silences, without bringing the profit-seeking temple down in ruin on men’s heads. Wilderness therefore, as a symbol of all in the human aspiration and caring which holds itself out from the profit-pursuing imperative, can safely be crushed down.  One after another of the absolutism of profit-pursuit has been somewhat tamed, somewhat restrained, during the century behind us.  There remains Wilderness, as a fact and an aspiration: Wilderness, which by its very definition says to the money-profit motive: You shall not enter here.

We might ask ourselves whether we would have the same impulse to stop economic growth were it not for all the preservation and conservation that has heretofore taken place.

I don’t think there’s any question that the form the preservation movement has taken has been historically conditioned.  Preservation has functioned on the basis of setting aside wild places and otherwise leaving the economic engine of capitalism in place. No one would disagree with the fact that we’ve reached a different historical moment where those involved in preservation and conservation need to be more vocal about ending an economic arrangement based on growth.  In fact, the limits to this historically specific preservation strategy have been understood for quite some time.  In the mid 20th century Aldo Leopold makes a “plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.”  Clearly he understood the limitations of this approach.  Yet it is one thing to acknowledge this and another to claim, as Murray does, that if our energy “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.”  Tom Butler is right, “there is no way to prove or disprove this opinion,” but I would offer that history tells us that preservation has made a remarkable difference, not only in the integrity of that which has been preserved, but also in extending a cultural ‘habit of thought’ and cultivating a wilderness ethos.

Tim Murray is correct in his sense that if we can’t stop the growth machine we are going to lose the war.  But as Tom Butler points out, what we preserve can at least provide “the seedbed of recovery for wildness to begin the long dance of evolutionary flowering again after this dark episode of human-caused extinction.”  And ending our efforts to preserve and conserve would be, as Butler also tells us, “an ethical breach with our fellow members of the biotic community.”   We stand a much better chance of winning the war by our preservation and conservation efforts, by retaining something of the pulse of the wild places on earth.  In the shadow of these places we continue to cultivate an awareness of limits and can at least measure the extent of our loss.  In a world where the when-to- stop rule is vague, these are not insignificant contributions to changing our path.

I would also add that we seem to have made little headway in our economic discourse on the issue of ending growth.  I doubt very seriously this has had anything to do with the time and energy spent on conservation and preservation. In fact, it’s likely that the efforts at preservation and conservation have had a more profound influence on our thinking about the limits to economic expansion than anything else has.  Rather than target our frustration about the lack of movement on the no-growth front at the conservation movement, we might do better to analyze why so little progress has distilled from our no-growth rhetoric.

I have no doubt the historical moment has arrived where the preservation movement needs to speak out more explicitly about the problem of economic growth in an effort to save what is wild.  But it is equally important that those who speak out against economic growth bring the loss of the wild and the need for a healthy human ecology to a central and pivotal focus in their discussions of scale.  No-growth discussions about optimal scale don’t elaborate on how much of what is wild should remain wild, instead, these discussions deal in the vague world of costs and benefits and promoting development without growth. These discussions evaluate whether we’ve gone beyond an optimal scale when “the cost to all of us of displacing the Earth’s ecosystems begin to exceed the value of the extra wealth produced” or when the benefits of growth are overshadowed by the costs. Without greater clarity on the true meaning of development and optimal scale we no-growth advocates might succeed in orchestrating a perfectly domesticated steady-state world, where we are all half crazy for want of a diverse and magical external world to resonate with our genome and our psyche.

Lisi Krall is a professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland, a member of CASSE’s executive board, and the author of Proving Up: Domesticating Land in U.S. History.

What if We Stopped Fighting For Preservation?

A Response to Murray

by Tom Butler

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.

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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.