The Green Insurgents

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 6, 2012 6:53 PM


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There's been numerous waves of apostasy breaking over environmentalism in the last decade or so. Stewart Brand, a countercultural icon, is perhaps the most famous example. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus crashed down on the green movement in the mid-2000s, forcing it to swallow a hard, introspective reckoning (which, unsurprisingly, it didn't appreciate). More recently, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas, two prominent UK journalists--each with impeccable environmentalist credentials--have taken to forcefully advocating for nuclear power, which has incurred the wrath of European greens. Now comes Peter Kareiva, a highly reputable ecologist, who has a prominent position with a mainstream environmental organization, and he is basically calling on the entire green establishment to abandon some of its most cherished credos and take a different approach to wildlife and land conservation. For the full sweep of the Kareiva story, you have to start with Paul Voosen's excellent profile in Greenwire. Then swing on over to Andy Revkin at Dot Earth for some highlights of this heretical talk by Kareiva.

Judging by the reaction of readers in the Dot Earth thread, and that of some of Kareiva's colleagues quoted in the Greenwire piece, I think it's safe to say that the Ecological Society of America got it right with this tweet:

Peter Kareiva, making waves with his vision of "conservation in the Anthropocene," in the Breakthrough Journal.

That would be this essay, which lays out his vision (and criticism of outdated environmental ideology), including this passage:

Conservation's binaries -- growth or nature, prosperity or biodiversity -- have marginalized it in a world that will soon add at least two billion more people. In the developing world, efforts to constrain growth and protect forests from agriculture are unfair, if not unethical, when directed at the 2.5 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day and the one billion who are chronically hungry. By pitting people against nature, conservationists actually create an atmosphere in which people see nature as the enemy. If people don't believe conservation is in their own best interests, then it will never be a societal priority. Conservation must demonstrate how the fates of nature and of people are deeply intertwined -- and then offer new strategies for promoting the health and prosperity of both.

To the Breakthrough Institute's credit, it has elicited and published rebuttals to the Kareiva essay. One is from Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. Suckling takes offense to just about everything Kareiva says, which should be no surprise, given the well known aims and tactics of the Center for Biological Diversity. If you're not familiar with either Suckling or his organization, then this long and revealing New Yorker 1999 article by Nicholas Lemann is a must-read. It's called, "No People Allowed." Here's an excerpt, quoting one of Suckling's work colleagues:

The center's enemies aren't wrong to perceive it as a threat. It acts on behalf of plants and animals (it is now campaigning for the reintroduction of jaguars and grizzly bears), but if it keeps winning the immediate impact will be on people. Settlements would be reduced, structures would be taken down, jobs would be lost. "We will have to inflict severe economic pain," Robin Silver told me.

Coincidentally, I wrote a feature article in 1999 that discussed an infamous case the Center for Biological Diversity had been involved in. My story appeared in The Sciences, which is now (sadly) defunct. I had gone that year to southern Arizona to report on the controversial case of the Ferugginous pygmy owl being listed as a federally endangered species. I wrote:

From a scientific point of view, the listing of the owl was an iffy call--so much so that even some wildlife biologists have questioned it. The bird is one of four subspecies of the pygmy owl, which ranges all the way from Arizona to Argentina. The cactus ferugginous pygmy owl inhabits the northern part of that territory, and though is is scarce in Arizona, it is doing just fine in southern Texas and much of Mexico. Since Arizona lies at one edge of the subspecies' habitat, it's really no surprise that the bird's numbers are lower there.

As I recounted in my story, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition in 1993 with the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to have the bird listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA):

The case dragged on for years, as the FWS mined the small amounts of existing data to try and determine whether the listing was warranted. Each step of the way, the center, which is based in Tucson, sued and pushed and sued and pushed, until finally in 1997 the owl made the federal list...Many people--even respected environmentalists--suspect that the center chose the owl not because of the bird's own plight but because its wide-ranging habitat made a convenient tool for arresting development on a large scale in the Sonoran Desert.

For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of the ESA, once a species is listed as endangered, the next step is to designate "critical habitat" for the species. That often conflicts with all manner of development or other activity deemed harmful to the "critical habitat." In the case of the pygmy owl, since one of the initial surveys found nesting birds in the vicinity of a new high school under construction, that was the end of that--temporarily. You can imagine the uproar. That's what brought me there at the time. I should also mention that Arizona was in the midst of a building boom in the late 1990s, which the owl's endangered listing threatened to upend. And that was the whole point. But at what cost? In my article, one conservationist lamented the tradeoff:

The bird is being used "as a blunt instrument to hit developers over the head," says Kenn Kaufman, a leading bird expert based in Tucson. Sure Kaufman says, it would be nice to preserve the few pygmy owls left in Arizona, "but it would also be nice if we didn't have a huge proportion of the population hating birds and nature because of the listing."

As it turns out, the ruckus over the pygmy owl (which was quite locally divisive) eventually spurred a regional conservation plan that reconciled the needs of multiple species, the desert ecosystem and development. It wasn't easy. It required the dedication of federal and local officials, and grassroots environmentalists, but it happened. Still, anyone who has followed the fierce battles over endangered species in the last few decades (think snail darter and spotted owl, for example) likely knows about the blowback to environmentalism that resulted. Kareiva's Breakthrough essay is more a general critique of the precepts that led environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity to adopt practices that pitted it against ranchers, developers, and landowners. In many respects, the pitched battles over the Endangered Species Act--the way the ESA became a proxy for something larger--serve as a cautionary lesson for climate change activists, which they seemed to have ignored. So what might be a more fruitful approach that doesn't prompt people to hate endangered species and nature? Kareiva sketches that out in his Breakthrough essay:

Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development -- development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind. And it will utilize the right kinds of technology to enhance the health and well-being of both human and nonhuman natures. Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature's benefits into their operations and cultures. Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity's sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Nature could be a garden -- not a carefully manicured and rigid one, but a tangle of species and wildness amidst lands used for food production, mineral extraction, and urban life.

Is that something that greens can get behind? Time will tell.

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