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.


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.

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9 replies
  1. Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner says:

    I agree with Tom Butler that conservationists should not abandon their preservation efforts. But I interpret Tim Murray’s creative commentary as a frustration that we have so many silos of good environmental activism, if we could harness ALL that energy (not just the land preservationists) and focus it on changing the system, couldn’t we?

    I think Tom lists a number of reasons for people not to fight to change the system. Seems the system is too big for us to change it. Seems we are all, if you’ll pardon the expression, sucking on the system’s teets. I think that is a sad line of reasoning. I disagree strongly with Tom on throwing in the towel and just waiting for mother nature to end our binge. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting Tom’s position here. I hope so. I see the degrowth, steady state, transition, peak oil, simplicity, slow money, land conservation, wildlife preservation, climate change, sustainable population, and many other movements with good hearts fighting good fights out there. Can they not continue their work but come together to offer a grand chorus for humanity to get back on track?

    Dave Gardner
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

    Dave Gardner
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  2. wendyk
    wendyk says:

    I agree with Dave Gardner’s post :we need to recognise the efforts of the conservationists and progress to form a wider coalition,with the aim of promoting the SSE message.

    The wider public need to be educated about the threat that business as usual poses to the world and all its inhabitants : an end to the commodification of everything; an end to the laissez-faire economic ideology; a worldwide population reduction strategy and an acceptance of the need for limits in every aspect of human activity, based on a fairer and more equitable distribution of resources, and increased support for conservation campaigns.

    People will be more likely to cooperate if they feel that they will have a stake in the future ; if not, there will be increasing competition, and conflict , for diminishing resources.

    Tim’ s article mirrors the frustration which so many of us are feeling : we need to overcome the internal squabbles to form a truly effective worldwide movement,.

  3. Petar Boshevski, Skopje, Macedonia
    Petar Boshevski, Skopje, Macedonia says:

    I am one of those who are very impressed by Tim Murray’s essay, but I do not believe that hes point there is that we REALY should stop fighting for preservarion. I think that he is only metaphoricaly speaking in order to strongly stress out the desperate situation we are in with our struggle for saving the planet. Fighting for preserving some natural areas is far from enough. If we realy want to save this planet we have to overcome capitalism and replace it with a radicaly different society. It is going to be a long battle (war) with an uncertain outcome. An uncertain outcome – first of all becouse we are running out of time. We do not have time for long battles or wars: OVERPOPULATION (combined with overconsumtion and all other consequences) is the greatest of all threats, it is working fast, and with its negative effects will soon neutralise all positive we are trying to achieve and will lead to great natural and social disasters. It is a pity we are still not aware that the human population growth is the ENVIRONMENTAL PRIORITY NUMBER 1 we have to most urgently deal with. We are stil not seriously enough taking this problem and later (and that will be very soon) it will be TOO LATE, I am afraid.

  4. Madeline Weld
    Madeline Weld says:

    In responding to Tim Murray’s article, Tom Butler rightly praises conservationists for their efforts, but doesn’t acknowledge the extent to which many of them won’t touch the issue of growth. Think for example of the Sierra Club denying that immigration has a negative environmental impact in Canada. Mr. Butler is right that the conservationists would have had a heck of a time stopping the growth machine, but many of them went out of their way to deny it. The group Energy Probe even once cited that silly ”everyone could fit in Texas” bromide. Many local and national conservation and nature groups ignore population growth as it is a hot potato issue.

    Madeline Weld
    President, Population Institute of Canada

  5. Michael A. Lewis
    Michael A. Lewis says:

    First of all, I do not “fight” economic growth, I refuse to take part in it. I work part time in a non-profit organization, sharing work with more workers. I don’t demand raises, I don’t demand new equipment to do my job. I walk to and from work.

    It is not economic growth versus preservation. It is steady economy and preservation. Yes, if all environmentalists would concentrate our energies on steady state economics, we would be a formidable force.

    But we don’t, and no one else does either.

    Many environmeddlers are concentrating on last ditch efforts to save the little that remains of the wild. This is honorable and necessary work. In the process, I argue against the cancer of economic growth and point out that unlimited economic growth is inimical to a finite world. The base problem is too many people consuming too many resources. period.

    And then, this forest must be saved from the bulldozers, this last remnant of coastal prairie grasslands must be saved from paving, this species habitat must be protected from development and destruction. All this requires the energy and time of many environmental organizers, to the exclusion of everything else. If I don’t focus my mind and attention on these critical tasks, these places will be lost to development for the foreseeable future.

    So I press on, as best I can.

  6. Tim Murray
    Tim Murray says:

    Tom, since it would take a long article to address each of your well-articulated criticisms, I should be content to re-state my central question. When we are losing a war, we must step back, and ask “Why?”Is it that we are simply out-gunned, out-manned and out-spent, or is our strategy ineffective? If what we do is not enough, then in the long run it won’t do what needs to be done. “Close” only counts in horseshoes.

    It has been argued that we must save “bits” of biodiversity so that future generations may have something to work with, and that a sustainable economy can rest upon.

    But my point is that those “bits” which you and others have so valiantly fought to save are not safe. Not in the face of a rampaging monster with an ever-growing appetite. I came by this conclusion the hard way by doing what you have done for decades. Like four biologists in my circle, all veteran warriors for preservation, I have upon reflection reluctantly decided to re-deploy my energies toward building a constituency for a SSE large enough to effectively lobby for fundamental change.

    The task is daunting, and I am not optimistic. But while the prospects for a SSE are uncertain, it is a certainty that conservation is at best, a holding action. My injunction is not to quit fighting, but to carry the fight to a broader front. Petar’s assessment was right. I don’t want to stop fighting for preservation, I am just trying to ask, out loud, if we have been fighting for it in the most effective way. Sometimes it is necessary to rattle the cage to provoke discussion. It seems that I have done that.

    I have not, as you said, turned my wrath upon the natural treasures that I love, but upon those in the environmental movement who have invested their time in their defence without going on the offensive against the economic process which threatens it. Had they budgeted some time toward that endeavour thirty years ago, wide grassroot support for a SSE would perhaps now be manifest, and its design fleshed out. I read Ezra Mishan’s “The Costs of Economic Growth” in my first semester as an undergrad in 1968 and wondered why conservationists and hikers in my circle did not run with his message. These ideas have been on the shelf for decades, and until lately, have largely gathered dust. That, for me, was criminal negligence. We should have been working on this project long ago.

    I hope that if my argument, if not persuasive, has at least given them pause to re-evaluate their efforts in the context of a bigger picture. I want to thank Dave, Wendy, Madeline and most particularly Petar for their contributions. But most of all I want to thank you, Tom, for taking the time to consider my off-the-cuff rant in such detail. I am flattered to warrant the attention of a conservationist of your stature. I hope your work endures and my fears prove wrong. The best of luck in your endeavours.

  7. Mark R.
    Mark R. says:

    Has anyone here read Ray Anderson´s book, Mid-Course Correction? How about economist Michael Conroy´s Branded: the Certification Revolution and Jared Diamond´s (formerly WWF) Collapse? Or seen Michael Moore´s last film, Capitalism: A Love Story?
    I joined Sierra Club years ago when I had just graduated college and in New York. I have hiked the White Mountains of Vermont a bit and Mt. Kenya in Kenya once. I love conservation, but recognize my own priority to join with those reorganizing activity in the producer consumer acitivity chain. In the cases of these books, and many other cases that we could identify in one form or another, we can find important examples of those actively working in sectors with economic activity and practices in a manner directed towards sustainability and with approaches highly conformable if not perfectly so with non-growth / steady state approaches.
    I would suggest that active environmental campaigns only need slight adjustments to include elements of non-growth ecological economics. Many other consumers and producer employers and employees can be reached by others in less focussed positions, such as Green America accomplishes, and as the PIRG´s accomplished when starting their own businesses, Green Century Mutual Funds and Earthtones Communications, for example.
    I´ve left New York where I grew up and got my masters, and am currently based in Brazil where I´ve made contact with an underserved community that has made strides in what is called the solidarity economy. The community association formed a local bank and local currency, then inspired some members to contact a chemist and create a recipe for their own detergent.
    If we can open our vision somewhat, we can find additional tactical channels along which to direct our strategic objectives. Good luck to you, each and everyone. All the best, and as they say in Brazil, a big hug.

  8. Mark R.
    Mark R. says:

    To round out my comment on the Palmeiras community detergent, even if it is not yet biodegradable, it is addressing a fundamental issue in the producer consumer sociological chain in a manner that they have been able to initiate themselves. They are thus also achieving a level of economic activity which will bring them into contact with those with environmental sensitivities.
    I suggest a similar dynamic exists from, say, Ray Anderson CEO´s Interface Carpet to the National Wildlife Fed. A client of Interface sent a letter which set off a chain reaction in Anderson´s case. Other companies like Herman Miller, and various clients of McDonagh Braungart Design Chemistry are getting Cradle to Cradle Certification. Big Brazilian hug to all.

  9. Frosty Wooldridge
    Frosty Wooldridge says:

    Tim Murray hits a “Ruthian Blast” every time he puts his mighty quill to paper. Butler may want to consider that the Sierra Club proves useless and impotent. Same with the Nature Conservancy! All of them won’t touch the ‘core’ reason for habitat loss for some arcane reason. Follow the money! With US ‘ecological footprint’ at 19.4 acres per added human and Canada probably near the same impact via immigration, the animals don’t stand a chance. The USA expects to add 100 million and Canada 10 million within 24 years. That’s at least 1.94 billion acres destroyed and habitat that no longer supports wildlife. Butler might ‘see’ he’s shooting blanks while Murray runs the bases of reality. We need to get this population issue to the forefront of the media, leaders and people. Either we succeed, or Mother Nature, in the 9th inning will clean our clocks! Frosty Wooldridge, http://www.frostywooldridge.com , author: America on the Brink: The Next Added 100 Million Americans.


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