How Kloor gets the environmental movement wrong

Keith Kloor has stumbled on an innovative way to combat climate change: he’s sequestering carbon by stuffing as many straw environmentalists as possible into his writing. A piece Kloor published in Slate Wednesday morning purports to analyze an emerging Deep Rift in the environmental movement, that of the competing conceptions of Nature held among different environmentalists, but the piece is riddled with unsupported logical leaps, ahistoricality, and unwarranted lumping of different, often quarreling environmental tendencies into the same rhetorical trope.

And nothing prompts me to write 2,000-word essays faster than unwarranted lumping of different, often quarreling environmental tendencies into the same rhetorical trope.

Kloor’s argument is that there are two broadly defined kinds of environmentalists: the wilderness worshippers and the pragmatists. The wilderness worshippers are, of course, hippies; opposed to GMOs, sane use of fourth-generation nuclear power technologies, sensible fracking, and other such pragmatic measures because Nature Knows Best and we can only louse things up by interfering. The other side — which Kloor describes as “a new and improved environmentalism in the making” — is basically defined by not being those hippies.

Kloor summarizes the better, smarter, more stylish and less embarrassing side’s position thusly:

Modernist greens don’t dispute the ecological tumult associated with the Anthropocene. But this is the world as it is, they say, so we might as well reconcile the needs of people with the needs of nature. To this end, [controversial environmentalist Peter] Kareiva advises conservationists to craft “a new vision of a planet in which nature—forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems—exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes.”

That doesn’t seem all that unreasonable on its face, if for no other reason that that it’s currently the best case scenario. You would be extremely hard-pressed to find even the most wilderness-worshipping enviro who disagreed.

In fact, were I to have to rebut Kloor’s whole piece in one sentence, it would be this:  the U.S. non-profit The Wilderness Society, founded by the authors of the Wilderness Act of 1964, is aggressively pushing for industrial development of solar and wind energy generating capacity on intact habitat on the public lands of the American west.

Kloor does plenty of similar oversimplification throughout the piece, but to be honest he gives us fair warning that he’s going to do so. He starts his whole piece by citing Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s “The Death of Environmentalism”:

In 2005, two renegade greens tried to kill off environmentalism in broad daylight. The environmental movement, they said in a provocative essay, had grown stale and ineffectual. It was beholden to a wooly-headed, tree-hugging worldview that was as dated as lava lamps, bellbottoms and Billy Jack. This save-the-Earth brand of environmentalism, which has long idealized wilderness (as true nature) while simultaneously designating humanity as the scourge of the planet, “must die so that something new can live,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote in “The Death of Environmentalism” (PDF).

Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s rant did get a lot of attention at the time: it was basically a criticism of hidebound, foundation-funding driven Big Green groups with a bit of generationally driven hippie punching thrown in. As far as substantive criticism went,  Nordhous and Shellenberger’s piece seemed to many of us in the Green Biz at the time to be eerily reminiscent of a work from ten years prior, Mark Dowie’s  Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century.”  But Dowie’s critique compared the bloated, funding-stuffed green establishment with a burgeoning network of efficient, effective grassroots groups working on issues ranging from wildlife protection to urban toxics to environmental education in elementary schools, and he found hope in that far-flung network. Nordhaus and Shellenberger essentially cut those groups out of the picture, portraying the ten largest green groups as the whole of Environmentalism, then — rather amusingly at the time — paraded themselves around to the same foundations funding the big groups posing as an alternative.

N&S were, in essence, pretty much a few years too early for TED talks: they were slick, persuasive, and devoid of any real substance. And ever since, citing them instead of Dowie has been a really convenient field mark that the writer hasn’t done his or her homework.

Doing the homework would, however, have gotten in the way of fitting all of environmentalism into either the “hippies” or “people with a brain” camps, of course. It would have brought up the inconvenient fact that the urban ecology Kloor lauds — rightly — shares both ancestry and current personnel with the wildlands tree huggers he decries. Urban environmentalists working on things like gardening and keeping raptors alive in cities and preserving little patches of habitat surrounded by shopping malls and getting rooftop solar on WalMarts are, generally, the enviros most likely to cheer me on when I do work to protect patches of desert a hundred miles from the nearest Starbucks. To postulate a split between the camps is just sloppy-ass thinking.

Of course, doing the homework might also have prevented Kloor from quoting this terrifying bon mot approvingly:

Another way of looking at the Anthropocene is how Mark Lynas puts it in The God Species: “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens here.”

Not that we aren’t really powerful and all, but if you spend more than 15 minutes talking to an ecologist — not an environmentalist, but a scientist who works in the field of ecology — you find out that we mainly do not know how ecosystems work. Not because humans are unnatural and evil and ecosystems possess vitalistic innate wisdom, but just because they’re really complex and we haven’t been studying them for nearly long enough. We can certainly determine what happens on this planet, but much of it will not necessarily be what we wanted at the outset.

Kloor would seem to anticipate that argument:

For example, earlier this year, [Kareiva] and a co-author wrote that “ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature, frequently arguing that once an ecosystem is altered, it is gone forever.” This belief has flowed from the long-held notion (one that Marris has also forcefully challenged) of a pristine nature that exists apart from people.

But that is a false construct that scientists and scholars have been demolishing the past few decades. Besides, there’s a growing scientific consensus that the contemporary human footprint—our cities, suburban sprawl, dams, agriculture, greenhouse gases, etc.—has so massively transformed the planet as to usher in a new geological epoch. It’s called the Anthropocene.

But he mixes things up badly here. Yes, plenty of people have effectively challenged the notion that humans are outside of nature. And altered ecosystems do indeed often retain habitat value. This isn’t a new idea. It depends on the ecosystem of course: an altered grassland where native grasses have been plowed up and fruit trees planted can possess immense remaining  habitat value, and perhaps even some that wasn’t there before the alteration. A stretch of old-growth desert shrubland where the 2,000-year-old creosotes have been bulldozed for a stripmall parking lot? Not so much. It’s all about how it’s done, but Kloor ignores those minor details. Since we are part of nature, he argues, whatever we do must therefore be good. Or at least that’s what he seems to argue. It’s the Anthropocene, after all: like Kloor said, we run things now.

Surely I don’t need to point out that there’s a difference between human activity carefully restoring a creek so that salmon can inhabit it and human activity running over desert shrubs with off-road vehicles. Kloor gives no indication in his piece that he would oppose the second, likely a minor point. But he implies wilderness types would oppose the salmon creek restoration, and that insinuation just has no basis in reality at all.

Most seriously, Kloor doesn’t hesitate at all before making the logical leap from “we as a species have affected the planet in massive ways” to “and that’s a good thing.” No explanation, not supporting evidence, no nuance. It just is, and if you don’t like it you’re not sufficiently Modernist.

The thing is, there’s a lot to criticize in the Nature Knows Best  idea. The concept of Wilderness as defined in US law, and in much environmental thought, is especially troubling, and a lot of serious environmental thinkers of repute have taken it apart pretty thoroughly, as have less serious thinkers of ill-repute like yours truly.

Kloor gets the wilderness concept problem wrong, though. The wilderness ethic doesn’t just venerate those places that are apparently untouched by human hands; it also denigrates habitat that might be indistinguishable from Official Wilderness as far as ecological value goes, but which happens to have a highway in the distance. Wilderness groups often see that latter kind of habitat as not worth saving, good only for trading to developers in legislative deals so that they can protect more Official Wilderness.

That puts groups like the Wilderness Society squarely in the pragmatic camp, and that would destroy Kloor’s thesis, so it goes unmentioned.

Kloor fucks up most seriously in his description of “innovative” “new” policies being pushed by his preferred New Environmentalists in the realm of endangered species protection:

Another important shift involves federal protection of imperiled species. Since its inception in 1973, the U.S. Endangered Species Act  has pitted environmentalists against private property owners, whose lands often provide crucial habitat for species designated as threatened or endangered. (Controversy has also raged on public lands, with the spotted owl war perhaps being the most notorious and polarizing example.) Throughout much of its history, the ESA has triggered lawsuits and much acrimony.

But in recent years, changes in philosophy and approach at the federal level have fostered an increasingly cooperative relationship between conservationists and private property owners. Several months ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced a new agreement with farmers and ranchers that requires them to “voluntarily” implement measures that will improve habitat for a variety of species. In return, landowners will receive greater financial assistance and assurances that they will not be penalized if endangered species move on to their property.

The agreement is being hailed as unprecedented by some conservationists. It follows on the heels of a similar deal between the FWS and oil and gas companies in Texas and New Mexico. Both are part of a larger trend over the past decade that has seen state and federal agencies collaborate with multiple stakeholders to forge innovative conservation plans, such as the much-lauded pact in Arizona that balances economic development with a landscape level safeguarding of biological diversity (including hundreds of vulnerable animals and plants).

What’s going on here? Has a new generation of conservationists diluted the meaning of conservation? Even worse, by cutting deals with developers, are they selling out nature?

Modernist greens say they are being pragmatic.

This is just embarrassing, really. The new agreement with farmers and ranchers is a basic “Safe Harbor” agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a practice Fish and Wildlife has been engaging in since Bill Clinton made it legal in 1999. Safe Harbor programs were enacted due to pressure from such “Modernist Greens” as Richard Pombo, wingnut member of the 104th Congress (famous for its “Contract With America”), and one of the most rabidly antienvironmental members of Congress in history. That “similar deal” in Texas and New Mexico actually went a lot further than a Safe Harbor agreement: Fish and Wildlife actually agreed not to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered in order to allow increased oil and gas drilling. And the “much lauded pact in Arizona” is a Habitat Conservation Plan, a “new” and “innovative” concept used widely since 1982.

As I said, Kloor’s argument is ahistorical. But that’s not the real point: even a former editor at Audubon can get his conservation law facts wrong. The real problem is that the projects Kloor advances as new wave pragmatism in that long quote, the compromises in enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, were only enacted with the active cooperation of some of the very same big green groups Kloor derides as out of touch, the Old Guard that Nordhaus and Shellenberger slammed.

Some of that acquiescence was out in the open; some of it was reluctant dealmaking, and some groups opposed it outright. It’s complicated, and unlike Kloor, I won’t generalize. But holding such ESA deals up as an example of a new style of environmentalism setting itself in opposition to big green groups betrays a thoroughgoing lack of familiarity with the facts on the ground.

Which is fine, if your intent is to  do a traffic-bait divide and conquer rant. Biut those really work better if you find an actual divide to exploit. There really are divisions in the environmental movement, and they really are quite profound in places. They just aren’t anything close to what Kloor tells you they are.

Comments

  1. F [disappearing] says

    Why do I get the feeling that this conservative vision of ecology is similar to Complex Theology™?

  2. madscientist says

    You deserve a case of beer for reading through that stuff. I couldn’t even get past the first paragraph; my brain kept saying “stop right there and don’t waste any more of your time: that was obviously written by a million monkeys hammering at keyboards.”

  3. eddarrell says

    Interesting view of a bit of an inside-baseball (environmental protection politics) issue, but not particularly incisive. Other than its being published at Slate, should we worry about Kloor’s views much?

    The piece completely ignores that the views of those he labels “modernists” and “pragmatists” come wholly out of the research demanded by those he ignores in the old movement, whom he unfairly ridicules as hippies.

    For example: It’s politically correct (in some circles) today to say (1) Rachel Carson was too strident, and (2) probably wrong about DDT “since it’s (3) not carcinogenic, we now know.” Malaria fighters around the world (4) now have DDT in their arsenal again, this view holds, because (5) pragmatists in the environmental movement finally listened. “(6) Sorry about those ‘unnecessary’ malaria deaths,” some claim the pragmatists would say.

    But that view is founded on, grown in, and spreads, historical, legal and scientific error. And the progress made was based on understanding the science, history and law accurately. It’s not that pragmatists finally succeeded where the tree-huggers failed. It’s that the tree-huggers hung in there for 50 years and the world has come around to recognizing good effects, even if it can’t or won’t acknowledge the true heroes who got the work done.

    Carson was dead right about DDT. She urged the use of Integrated Vector (Pest) Management in place of DDT, but she forecasted (in 1962!) that unless DDT use were severely curtailed, it would cease to be useful to fight malaria and other diseases (because, as Carson understood, evolution works, and the bugs evolve defenses to DDT). By 1965, WHO had to end its ambitious campaign to eradicate malaria because, as Carson predicted, mosquitoes in Africa turned up resistant and immune to DDT because of abuse and overuse of the stuff in other applications. Notice, 1965 was seven years BEFORE the U.S. banned DDT use on agricultural crops, and 19 years before the last U.S. DDT manufacturer scurrilously fled to bankruptcy protection to avoid penalties under Al Gore’s SuperFund cleanup bill.

    Carson did not claim DDT causes cancer. So the basis of the argument that DDT is “safe for human use” because it doesn’t cause cancer, is an historical non-starter. Research since Carson’s death shows that DDT does indeed cause cancer, though we think its a weak carcinogen in humans. DDT was banned because it’s a deadly poison (else it wouldn’t work!), and it kills for a long time, and it is nonspecific — so it will kill an entire ecosystem before it can eradicate some insect pests. It was in 1971, and it still is

    Carson did note that DDT kills birds, in vitro, by incapacitating chicks to thrive, by outright poisoning insect-eating and predatory birds (or anything near the top of the trophic levels) and through a then-mysterious scrambling of reproductive abilities. About ten years after her death, it was discovered DDT also rendered female fowl unable to make competent eggshells, and that provided a fifth path for death for birds.

    Much of the research Carson cited formed the foundation for the science-based regulation EPA came up with in late 1971 that ended in the ban on DDT in the U.S. None of those studies has ever been seriously challenged by any later research. In fact, when Discover Magazine looked at the issue of DDT and birds and malaria in 2007, they found more than a thousand peer-review follow-up studies on DDT confirming Carson’s writings.

    Over the past decade we’ve seen a few bird species come off of the Endangered Species List. Recovery of at least four top predators should be credited squarely to the ban on crop use of DDT in the U.S, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons, osprey, and bald eagles. 40 years of non-use, coupled with habitat protection and captive breeding programs, brought these birds back. (Five years ago I sat on the lawn of Mt. Vernon and watched a bald eagle cross the Potomac to a snag 100 yards from George Washington’s porch; the director told me they’d been watching several eagles there for a couple of years. 15 years earlier, one nesting pair existed in the whole Potomac region, at a secret site; now tourists are told where to go see them. A friend wrote today he saw a bald eagle in Ft. Worth, Texas. The gains from the DDT ban are real.)

    Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia, the war on malaria continued. After the DDT advocates screwed up the malaria eradication program of WHO in the 1960s, progress against malaria continued, but slowed; in the late 1980s malaria flared up in some regions where the malaria parasites themselves had developed resistance to the most commonly-used pharmaceuticals (as Darwin would have predicted, as Carson would have predicted). After struggling to keep malaria from exploding, about 1999 malaria fighters latched on to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which couples occasional spraying of homes and other residences, even with DDT (which was never banned in Africa or Asia) — but calls for spraying only when it is very effective, and requires that no one pesticide be used to the point that it drives mosquitoes to evolve resistance, and pushes all other means to prevent disease-spreading bug bites.

    Largely without DDT (though DDT is not banned), malaria infections fell from peak DDT-use years of 1959 and 1960, from 500 million infections per year, to fewer than 250 million infections today — that’s a decrease of 50%. Phenomenal when we consider the population of the world has doubled in the same time. Deaths dropped from 4 million annually in those peak-DDT-use years to fewer than 800,000 per year today — a decrease of more than 75%. Progress continues, with IPM; bednets now do better, and more cheaply, what DDT used to do but largely cannot anymore — stop the bites. Better medicines, and better educated health care workers, clean up the disease among humans so mosquitoes can’t find a well of infection to draw from.

    Notice that at no point was progress made contrary to the “tree-hugger” model, but instead was made at every point because of the tree-hugger model. No compromises enabled the recovery of the bald eagle, but strict enforcement of the environmental laws. No compromises with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped beat malaria, but finally applying what Rachel Carson actually wrote.

    Now along comes Kloor to say that Carson and her de facto acolytes block progress, and people who argue for compromise instead have the lighted path to the future?

    Let’s review:

    1. Carson was not too strident; in fact the President’s Science Advisory Committee’s report, “Use of Pesticides,” in 1963 called for more immediate and more draconian action than Carson did.
    2. Carson was not wrong about DDT; it is still a deadly poison, and it still kills ecosystems; however, as Carson urged, careful use can provide benefits in a few cases.
    3. Human carcinogenicity was not an issue in DDT’s being banned in the U.S. in 1972, and it’s being only a weak carcinogen now does not rescue DDT from the scientifically-justified ban; we now know DDT is even more insidious, since it acts as an endocrine disruptor in nature, scrambling reproductive organs of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, and probably birds, too.
    4. Malaria fighters always had DDT in their arsenal; no reason to use DDT where it won’t work, nor where it’s harms outweigh its benefits (as the National Academy of Sciences said, in 1970, in a call to get rid of the stuff).
    5. If there were any pragmatists in this story, they abandoned malaria-affected areas of the world years ago and have not returned; they did nothing to help save the birds; to claim they listened is to suggest they did something and can do more. Not sure that’s a case that can be made.
    6. There were not deaths to malaria “unnecessary” due to a ban on DDT which never occurred in Africa or Asia, while DDT was plentiful and cheap to anyone who wanted to use it (still pretty much the case today). We can’t claim great disease exacerbation when the disease actually was abated so greatly over the period of time in discussion — not and claim to be honest.

    It was the hard-core, wilderness-loving, science-following environmentalists who were responsible for every lick of progress on that issue.

    Is DDT unique as an issue? I don’t think so. And I think a fair history of the environmental movement from 1975 to today would point out that it was hard-core, save-the-planet-because-it’s-the-only-home-humans-have types who pulled things out. Do we have great canyons to hike in Colorado and Utah? Yeah, but keeping Exxon from digging up huge portions of those states for a now-failed oil-shale extraction scheme should get some of the credit. Is there wildlife in cities? Sure, but only because we had wilderness areas to protect those species in their darkest hours, and we may need those places again. Do we have other needs for wilderness? Only if we need clean air, clean water, huge sinks for CO2 emissions, and places to dream about so we stay sane and focused, and American (Frederick Jackson Turner was correct enough — Americans are more noble, more creative, wiser and more productive, if we have a frontier and a wild).

    Isn’t it required that we compromise on standards to get energy independence, and economic prosperity? Don’t look now, but oil and natural gas production, and exploration, are at highs, under our “tough environmental laws.” If we look around the world, we see that future prosperity is best protected by such laws, even if they sometimes seem to slow some industrial process or other.

    New generation of conservationist? Possible only because of the old generation, the Pinchots, Roosevelts (esp. the two presidents), the Lincolns and Grants, the Muirs, the Leopolds, the Bob Marshalls, the Udalls, the Morans, the Douglases (Marjory Stoneman and Justice, both), the Rockefellers, the Nelsons, the Muskies, the Gores, the Powells, and thousands of others who were then ridiculed for being unpragmatic, and whose methods often required that they not “compromise.” We can’t talk about protecting wilderness today unless the Sierra Club was there to actually do it, earlier. We can’t talk about private efforts, or public-private partnerships, without standing on the ground already protected by the Nature Conservancy. We can’t talk about saving the birds without relying on the history of the Audubon Society. We can’t talk sensibly about protecting humans from cancer or poisons without touching every rhetorical string Rachel Carson plucked.

    Get the science right. Keep your history accurate. Read the fine print on the law, and on the pesticide label. Conservation isn’t for the birds, bees, bears, trout and flowers — it’s for humans. That’s news to Kloor? Maybe that’s why his view is skewed.

    Progress is made by unreasonable and stubborn people sometimes? No, Martin Luther King, Jr., said — those are the only people who make progress.

    We aren’t going to build a future conservation movement by giving away what has been conserved to now.

  4. chrislawson says

    eddarrell: “Get the science right. Keep your history accurate.”

    Ahahahahahaha! Have you been watching the current version of conservatism?

  5. Anri says

    Most seriously, Kloor doesn’t hesitate at all before making the logical leap from “we as a species have affected the planet in massive ways” to “and that’s a good thing.” No explanation, not supporting evidence, no nuance. It just is, and if you don’t like it you’re not sufficiently Modernist.

    It’s Libertarian environmentalism: if those spotted owls had wanted to survive, they should have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and created a post-industrial society that could compete with humans…

  6. mildlymagnificent says

    This is just Kloor being Kloor.

    When he thinks he’s writing about science he always, without fail, every single time, manages to turn it into a journalistic cliche. He said, she said. You said, they said. Which is one reason why he couldn’t admit of any complexities in those various environmental attitudes. If he tries to include more than the standard two caricatures of opponents, he has no thinking or writing skills to cope.

    I gave up going to his blog or reading him anywhere else a couple of years ago. He also has fantasies of himself as the Spock like ‘dispassionate’ observer. He’s disdainful and dismissive of those with scientific expertise and anyone introducing a point of view other than the two he just happens to have chosen for the piece he’s written. The fact that it’s nearly always the same piece with two opposing (sometimes made up) views whatever the putative topic is seems not to worry him at all. He thinks he’s upholding the highest standards of journalism. What he’d do with a genuine investigative reporting assignment is a horror too awful to contemplate.

  7. StevoR says

    They are people with deep green bona fides, such as the award-winning U.K. environmental writer Mark Lynas, whose book ‘The God Species’ champions nuclear power and genetically modified crops as essential for a sustainable planet.

    Slight tangent but, FWIW, Lynas ‘Six Degrees : Our Future on a Hotter Planet’ (FSC,Harper, 2008) book on the consequences of Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) as I prefer to more accurately call it is a bloody scary and informative read which I’d highly recommend.

  8. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Oh look! Reactionaries are so cute when they contend that they are the true progressives!

    Every time I read Kloor, I can’t help but think, “This is what happens when you send stupid to college. Rather than drinking deep at the font of knowledge, they just gargle and spit it out.”

    Kloor’s pieces always remind me of a term paper written in a hurry the night before it is due. He can’t even be bothered to research the viewpoints of those he opposes. You want to know how you can tell you are dealing with a straw man here? Twenty percent of his first page is taken up with a photo of E. O Wilson, while the only quote by him is nine words long? WTF? Christ, I’m surprised he didn’t submit his piece in a frigging plastic cover so he’d get a better grade!

    Kloor is a product of the decline of classical education–in which rhetoric has been replaced by Journalism 101 and logic and math are ommitted altogether. And Kloor just assumes his audiencewill be a dumb as he is–that pisses me off, actually. He’s certainly assuming none of them have actually read Wilson! As he is wrong in my case, I find myself saying, “Hmm. Who to choose? Keith Kloor or Ed Wilson? Kloor? Wilson?
    Kloor? Wilson?…[Thump of the balance pan hitting the floor] Wilson!”

    The thing is that Kloor might be funny if his fuzzy thinking didn’t have such serious consequences or extend into the tiny, little minds of policy makers. Unfortunately, it is folks like Keith who will ensure that the Anthropocene will be a very distinct, but ultimately very thin layer in the geologic strata.

  9. Senamika Insidas says

    Science / engineering question: How feasible is carbon sequestration in amounts that really matter?

  10. says

    Speaking of Rachel Carson, there’s a new biography.

    Not that we aren’t really powerful and all, but if you spend more than 15 minutes talking to an ecologist — not an environmentalist, but a scientist who works in the field of ecology — you find out that we mainly do not know how ecosystems work. Not because humans are unnatural and evil and ecosystems possess vitalistic innate wisdom, but just because they’re really complex and we haven’t been studying them for nearly long enough. We can certainly determine what happens on this planet, but much of it will not necessarily be what we wanted at the outset.

    Yes. Believing “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens here” is just as wrong as, and much more dangerous than, merely believing we’re simply separate from nature. It takes the stupidly arrogant belief in human control and independence to truly delusional levels.

    Recognizing ourselves as part of nature means understanding that our well-being relies on many other species and what harms them is extremely likely to bite us, too.

  11. afeman says

    For a while Kloor’s blog was fairly active with climate scientists and bloggers, and I posed the question to Michael Tobis, who blogs about climate journalism and communication, why exactly are we paying attention to this guy? (This was before he became a regular at Slate and now Discover.) MT said something to the effect that KK was a distillation of the problem. KK since wore out MT’s patience (an accomplishment in itself) with his defense of another journalist’s DDT stupidity, but I’ve since gotten what MT was talking about: KK is the purest expression of Jay Rosen’s thesis about the ideology of journalism — Broderism, valorizing savviness, the view from nowhere, dismissal of strong viewpoints, etc. He maps so well to JR’s work that I’m convinced that KK is either an elaborate sock puppet of JR’s, or a tulpa manifested by JR’s unconscious. (j/k)

    Once at his blog KK was asked what he thought of JR’s work (they’re both at NYU), and the entirety of his reply was, oh yes, he’d had lunch with him. Like that was his trump card.

    No doubt he has a bright future in journalism.

  12. eoleen says

    There is just one little problem with global warming NOT being anthropogenic in origin…

    There is no doubt about GW. If it is NOT anthropogenic in nature, then we are REALLY in deep doo-doo…

    If we are causing it then there is still a chance – albeit a slim one – to reverse things.

    If we are NOT causing it then there is damn-all we can do about it and we are not only up the creek without a paddle but also without a boat, the ability to swim, etc. etc. etc.

  13. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Senamika: “Science / engineering question: How feasible is carbon sequestration in amounts that really matter?”

    We don’t really know. The thing is that it’s not just sucking it out of the air–difficult enough, but feasible, since CO2 freezes at a relatively high temp for a gas–you also have to store it safely. A big leak is not just a problem for climate change. Google Lake Nyos.

  14. eddarrell says

    Ahahahahahaha! Have you been watching the current version of conservatism?

    Closely? Only since 1960.

    Each of those tasks is a struggle, every day, in our hometowns, in our states, in our national capital. You’re right — it’s a struggle, and an important one.

    Which is a big part of why Kloor is in error.

    Someday I oughtta tell the (maybe amusing but inconsequential) story about my meetings with Clarence Thomas, on the Sagebrush Rebellion issue.

  15. eddarrell says

    Science / engineering question: How feasible is carbon sequestration in amounts that really matter?

    Astonishingly feasible. Nature’s done it for millions of years — our current problems stem from taking it out of sequestration at an astonishing rate, and harming the sequestration methods provides for free when we are not ignoring them completely.

    Wilson himself wrote a piece many months back blue-skying the idea of sequestration in microbially-active soils, a method he suggests could work very well and by itself provide significant sequestration. He’s an old Boy Scout, and the Boy Scout doesn’t die: He’s talking about soil and water conservation.

    I was a bit confused by Kloor’s use of Wilson — is he claiming Wilson as a pragmatist or tree-hugger? Either way, the one line quoted doesn’t offer much of a claim of support, but Wilson provides a key example of why one needs to pay attention to getting the science right, remembering history, and as others so ably point out, paying big attention to ecology as a binding science in pollution control. Wilson started out his piece on use of soil microbes with a comment about how warming effects could be manageable, and a lot of anti-science yahoos (Anthony Watts) jumped on board to claim Wilson as a fellow traveler in denial circles. There was nothing in Wilson’s piece denying warming, nothing at all.

  16. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Ed,
    Kloor is using Wilson as a whipping boy because of the latter’s ideas on Deep Ecology. Kloor and so many of the other reactionaries don’t get it that Wilson is not opposing the idea of man in nature so much as he is lamenting the idea of man out of balance with nature. Yet another thing Kloor doesn’t get. Should we be keeping a list?

  17. badgersdaughter says

    Another way of looking at the Anthropocene is how Mark Lynas puts it in The God Species: “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens here.”

    Great news! I’ll take that cure for cancer now, please.

  18. mudpuddles says

    Nice piece Chris.

    Anyone who hasn’t done so and is interested in this topic should read the original article by Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier that inspired Kloot, and then read the substantial critiques (e.g. here and here. I am acquainted with Kareiva professionally and have a lot of respect for much of his recent work, but I think many of the deep flaws in the article – that Kloot failed to see – are easily shown up and suggest a very narrow and simplistic view of ecology, which surprises me because I know Kareiva is broad-minded and not ignorant of ecological complexities.

    Anyway, one major flaw is that Kareiva et al (and Kloot) rely on vastly over simplified versions of ecological history. For example, they give the extinction of the passenger pigeon as one example of how / when the loss of a species has had no discernible impact on ecosystems. But what is their impact assessment based on? Common sense, for a start, tells us that (at an abundance of several billion birds) any population which eats that much or produces that much poop or provides such a massively abundant food resource to other species has a major ecological influence in its own right. Removing that species removes their contribution to the ecosystems(s) they affected. Also, they didn’t all just disappear at once, they were exterminated over a period of 200+ years, arguably with the most significant decline in the last 100 years of their existence coinciding with a period when impacts on ecosystems as a result of industrial, agricultural and cultural changes were also significant. e.g. the pigeon was a woodland bird, and the loss of the woodlands it depended upon was part of the reason for their decline, so how can we determine that the extinction of the pigeon did not affect their woodland ecosystems when those ecosystems were already disappearing? Kareiva et al do not acknowledge the fact that we simply don’t know what the full impacts of the loss of the pigeon might have been at a system-wide scale.

    Similar rebuttals can be made against the other examples they cite, including the American chestnut, Steller’s sea cow and the dodo. Kareiva & co claim that these and countless other extinctions have occurred apparently “with no catastrophic or even measurable effects”. But all of these examples, and the vast majority of recorded extinctions due to human influence have been of species at or near a certain ecological apex. They are like the upper levels of a building that disappear if the lower support structures they depend upon (in these cases habitat, food or shelter species, and even parasites and predators) are removed. They act like sentinels that say “ecological sustainability? you’re doing it wrong”.

    Kloot’s article and its sources also fundamentally overlook the notion of ecological complexity – ecosystems are never as simple as they are painted. The way forward is presented as “Protecting nature that is dynamic and resilient, that is in our midst rather than far away, and that sustains human communities”. Really??? The idea that man and nature can co-exist in balance everywhere is nice but grossly naive. One word: disease. We know without a shadow of a doubt that changes to natural systems can result in significant changes in the ecology of pests and disease organisms, and subsequently can impact on human health. In many places, the last thing that you should strive for is a wider integration of people and nature. Look at Lyme disease, rabies, SARS, bacterial meningitis, Ebola, Marburg, highly pathogenic avian influenza, brucellosis, leptospirosis, cryptosporidiosis…. the list of diseases that have emerged in recent decades as new or increasing threats due to human impacts on ecosystems and interaction with wildlife is comprehensive and growing. The ProMED infectious disease alert system contains reports in just that past calendar month of over 20 new outbreaks of socially or economically important diseases that at some point of their epidemiology are associated with wildlife or ecosystem change.(3) We also know that resilience in ecosystems depends on biodiversity, but very often (indeed, almost always) we do not know what species we can afford to lose, or to what extent we can change a system, before resilience is suddenly lost. Sometimes the changes lead to unexpected consequences, including lethal disease outbreaks that cannot easily be predicted (you can’t protect against a pathogen if you don’t that it exists). It is interesting to note that there are indications that the passenger pigeon’s demise may be linked to an increased prevalence of Lyme disease in the US since the mid 20th century.

    Its a shame that such an important debate – on the future of conservation, and where we need to focus our efforts – has been muddied by such simplistic, mis-leading and ahistorical muck.

  19. eddarrell says

    Salty Current, William Souder’s book on Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore, does indeed look promising — he seems a sane guy, and though I’ve not got the book, everything I’ve read from Souder and about the book indicates he’s on the right track.

    Mudpuddles, I assume you’re aware that Lyme disease’s recent spread has been tracked back directly to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, no?

  20. mudpuddles says

    Hi eddarrell #23,

    Yes, I mention that in my comment. But that is only one aspect of Lyme disease’s spread – other aspects include (inter alia) loss of broader vertebrate diversity, including reduction in abundance of other bird fauna and possibly of certain mammals and reptiles, and encroachment of habitation on woodland systems. Again, mixing people with nature not always a good idea..

  21. says

    Someday I oughtta tell the (maybe amusing but inconsequential) story about my meetings with Clarence Thomas, on the Sagebrush Rebellion issue

    I’d find that interesting, Ed. Thanks for the great DDT comment.

  22. w00dview says

    I wonder is Kloor aware of the fact that even the pragmatic environmentalists are often decried by wingnuts as “radical environmentalists”? To wingnuts, it seems having the tiniest bit of concern for the natural world marks you out as a tree hugger. Great article Chris, lots of folks seem to be uneasy in admitting that the hippies have got it right on a number of issues.

    Eddarrell @ 18:
    I can’t believe Watts is trying to paint Wilson as someone on his side. What a sleazeball. I’m sure Wilson would find Watt’s ilk abhorrent.

  23. vaiyt says

    Kloor doesn’t hesitate at all before making the logical leap from “we as a species have affected the planet in massive ways” to “and that’s a good thing.”

    For all he criticizes the attitude of nature-worshipping of “tree-huggers”, he’s doing the same. “We can’t do wrong with nature because we’re part of nature!”.

    By all means let’s keep shitting up our environment until we’re choking on our own shit. It’s just natural.

  24. madscientist says

    @Senamika#12: About carbon sequestration, that really depends on where you live; whether there is significant potential for geological storage or not depends entirely on the accident of your local geology. Looking at Europe for example, the most promising storage sites seems to be in the North Sea; France as an example has a lot of potential storage sites on land but most of those sites are already used for other purposes, so for practical purposes there is no onshore CO2 storage for France. As for how much of a cut would result if CO2 storage were in full swing – even the optimists say something like 20% (and there are many reasons why it realistically can’t ever be much higher – for example, fuel consumption in vehicles).

  25. unclefrogy says

    in one sense he is correct that we have the choice. We can do nothing or next to nothing or we can make the effort to find out how this system we find ourselves in actually works and try to work within it to optimize it and see that it survives and thrives in such a way that we can also survive and thrive. He is profoundly wrong if he really thinks that nature is no longer in control. His attitude sounds like a variation on the conservatives we make reality. Reality and nature does not have a vested interest in humans at all. Reality is not a belief.
    How can any adult educated human be so self deluded and oblivious to actual events?

    uncle frogy

  26. mildlymagnificent says

    Carbon sequestration?

    We should look at doing natural things at an accelerated rate, though the concept of a sequestration rate matching the hyperspeed release of sequestered carbon is a bit mind boggling. (3 million years of oil each and every year – and that’s not counting coal.)

    Biological. If we look at soil destruction, deforestation and soil sealing (roads and other infrastructure) we can pretty well match that, with a lot of effort, creating terra preta soils, no dig farming allied to increased rather than decreased soil retention of biological materials as well as forest extension rather than contraction.

    Geological. We can blow up mountain tops or gigantic holes in the ground to get at fossils to burn them. So we’ve obviously got the technology to blow up mountain tops and gigantic holes in the ground to expose rocks that absorb CO2. Olivine and similar stuff – and there is plenty of it. I’ve seen one suggestion that there are plenty of abandoned mines/quarries where the desired rock/ore has run out and the new exposed surface is ‘worthless’ olivine.

    Natural geological sequestration relies on tectonic movement pushing up mountain tops to continually expose new rock – which eventually finds its way through various systems into the sea. We’re perfectly capable of finding the exact rocks needed, converting them to gravels and dusts and either allowing them to disperse or deliberately spreading them on surfaces or seeding them into waters or the atmosphere to match what would have happened over centuries or millennia. It would be worth it to see if releasing material like this on ocean side or landward side of coral reefs might be preferable to counteract locally the general acidification of the oceans. Or allowing a mountain top quarry to grind rocks patiently around the clock to allow the prevailing winds to carry the absorbing materials for thousands of kilometres in the atmosphere would be cheaper. An old fashioned windmill rather than a power generating turbine could keep such a process going almost indefinitely.

  27. stephenmurphy says

    Excellent piece Chris – just sent the link for this onto my 1st year environment class wherein we also took apart S+N’s blithe puffery along similar lines but you’ve really focused it well – and with your critique of Kloor’s hackery, it is a real one-two punch. Dowie’s book was quite good as you suggest above – far more scholarly and frankly quite accurate in its theme of how the (at that time) next 10 years was going to play out in the environmental fields (indeed S&N is easily thrashed in 1st year but Dowie’s book is very good for a senior 4th year seminar). Kloor misapprehends the whole Anthropocene and novel ecosystems approaches – as does Peter K. really. As a restoration ecologist myself, one does not abandon the ideal of restoring systems or reducing damage but does recognize the regime shifts make restoring to historical fidelity unlikely. So one then accepts a new system with the ecosystem functions and organisms that are close to the old and usually resilient to the changing systems. None of that means give up and embrace the damage.

    Well done!

  28. StevoR says

    @1. magistramarla :

    From the linked wiki article :

    In 2006, Gray predicted a cooling trend by 2009-2010.

    A prediction which reality has since utterly refuted of course :

    I) 2010 was the hottest year on record tying with 2005. See NASA’s news release here :

    http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2010-warmest-year.html

    II) 2011 was the hottest La Nina (cool cycle) year on record. See :

    http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/news/5415/2011-was-hottest-la-ni%C3%B1a-year-record

    among many other places.

    III) 2012 saw the lowest Arctic sea ice extent ever recorded. See :

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2012/08/an-update-on-the-arctic-sea-ice/

    Plus plenty of other places too.

    I would think and hope that shows how much credibility this William Gray guy has? Have you shown your conservative friend this and has Gray got any explanation for how badly wrong he’s got that?

  29. StevoR says

    @11. a_ray_in_dilbert_space :

    Unfortunately, it is folks like Keith who will ensure that the Anthropocene will be a very distinct, but ultimately very thin layer in the geologic strata.

    Not so much an “Anthropocene era” as the Anthropocene Mass Extinction event boundary layer a bit like the line of fossilised iridium-enriched soot that marks the K-T boundary?

    @27. vaiyt :

    By all means let’s keep shitting up our environment until we’re choking on our own shit. It’s just natural.

    Yeah, ’bout that, um, let’s not.

    @30. mildlymagnificent :

    I’ve seen one suggestion that there are plenty of abandoned mines/quarries where the desired rock/ore has run out and the new exposed surface is ‘worthless’ olivine.

    “Worthless” eh? I could be mistaken but isn’t olivine a semi-precious stone related to or including a type of gemstone? (Peridote?) Loved the look of olivine back in my old high school geology class – brilliant verdant green within black basalt.

    As for the biological, one of the things I’ve got into lately -wellour wholefamily has incl. me – has been the million trees program and reforestation. One of themost satisfying things in my life and good fun and excercise too. WE virtually double dthe number of one endangered shrub – allocasurina robusta in one vent this (Aussie) winter.

  30. mildlymagnificent says

    Yeah, I know it’s pretty. I seriously considered buying one a few years ago. But it’s “worthless” in the major industrial process sense – limestone and various road making rocks are more ‘valuable’. I’d think we could make a big change in some areas just by making nearby olivine sources (or its chemical equivalents) the number one choice of gravels for roadsides or landscaping or footpaths along with large chunks for retaining walls and seawalls and harbours to enhance direct exposure to rainwater and seawater. Putting it beneath sealed road surfaces would rather defeat the purpose even if it is structurally suitable but it would be ideal for unsealed roads even if it needed additional structural strength by mixing with other rock.

  31. says

    I think Big Green is becoming more pragmatic. Where the trouble lies is with the grassroots. They more often than not oppose renewable energy projects and insist on impact statement after impact statement. They accuse Big Green of selling out. They oppose the implementation of the renewable energy they support. I call them biodiversity birdbrains. Energy, renewable or not, will have an impact on the environment. There is no such thing as an energy source that is 100% environmentally neutral. To think otherwise is living in fantasyland

  32. says

    Yeah, screw those other non-human organisms, right berniemooney? And imagine requiring renewable energy developers to obey the law? We’re clearly crackheads.

  33. says

    Huh? Obey what law? You want renewable energy but think there is not going to be any environmental impact at all? I’m in favor of solar, et al. I think people like you are hindrance to renewable energy because you have this fantasy mindset. You’re not a crackhead, you’re an Alexandre (Dumas).

  34. David Marjanović says

    Similar rebuttals can be made against the other examples they cite, including the American chestnut, Steller’s sea cow and the dodo. Kareiva & co claim that these and countless other extinctions have occurred apparently “with no catastrophic or even measurable effects”.

    There’s a shrub or tree whose seeds only germinate after passing through a dodo stomach or something very similar. For centuries there weren’t any new generations.

  35. Ichthyic says

    You want renewable energy but think there is not going to be any environmental impact at all?

    where in the hells did he say that?

    In fact, one of Chris’s first posts here had a big discussion in it about the impacts of the solar project out in the Mojave desert.

  36. John Morales says

    berniemooney:

    Huh? Obey what law?

    I can’t imagine you’re being serious with this question.

    (Obviously, applicable Federal and State law)

  37. says

    Obey what law? The law that requires Environmental Impact Statements: the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. (And various similar state laws.) It’s not activists that insist on those statements: it’s Richard Nixon.

    Perhaps you should refrain from taking part in this conversation until you understand the very basic Eco 101 stuff.

  38. says

    I should have expanded my comment on that. Even when they do follow the laws that isn’t enough for environmentalists and they will sue to stop projects.

  39. says

    Okay. I made a mistake. I wasn’t clear. I understand it’s the environmental laws. But as i noted in another post, it doesn’t matter if they follow the law. Environmentalists will sue to stop projects. Groups demand study after study on environmental impacts. And then even when they get their study, if it doesn’t agree with their stance they demand more.

  40. eddarrell says

    Groups demand study after study on environmental impacts. And then even when they get their study, if it doesn’t agree with their stance they demand more.

    What’s your problem with knowing more?

    If your claim is that studies can be used to delay projects indefinitely, that’s not the law. Our national environmental protection laws actually favor development, and the studies get done, the decision gets made, and then we move on.

    If your claim is we don’t need to learn any more about how the environment works, I remind you that EPA’s original decision to do nothing about DDT was found to be flawed in court, and the court-ordered studies EPA did established solid scientific foundation for rational regulation of a dangerous pesticide.

    “Additional studies” saved the bald eagle.

    Off-hand, I can’t think of any “additional study” that ever prevented a worthwhile project from getting done. I can think of several projects that got rammed through that people lament, sometimes with lamentable results.

    Developers sue to push stuff through, too. Developers take their money and get state legislatures and Congress to pass laws requiring the studies be overlooked — the Tellico Dam stands today, and the farms and towns it drowned would be nice to have back, socially, economically, agriculturally, environmentally.

  41. says

    The problem is environmentalists see any kind of environmental impact no matter how small as unacceptable. We operate on a risk/benefit scenario. Does the benefit outweigh the harm? Hardcore Greens don’t accept this. Which headline do we see more? “Green group sues to block new solar project?” or “Green group applauds new solar project?”

    When environmentalists sued to block the Panoche Valley Solar Farm, one of their lawyers was quoted as saying, “Solar obviously is very critical. No one disputes the necessity for solar energy,… The issue here is that it is improper on this site.”.That reasoning seems to be the mantra any time anyone wants to build a solar power plant. Okay if not there, then where? Every time some company wants to build a solar power plant, wherever they want to build it is not the proper place. So, again, where?

    Greens clamor for a move away from fossils fuels yet are the biggest impediment to that goal. They yammer that we’re not moving fast enough to develop renewable energy then block project after project. Back in 2009, 13 solar plant projects were scuttled in the Mojave due to Green objections. If the Greens want to be helpful, how about they make a positive contribution and do their own studies and decide where they feel such plants could be built? .

  42. says

    Back in 2009, 13 solar plant projects were scuttled in the Mojave due to Green objections.

    Those were proposed power plants, not even close enough to the planning stages to have had draft environmental impact statements scheduled, and the “Green” that scuttled them was U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, because they were all in an area that was ALSO proposed as National Park land.

    If the Greens want to be helpful, how about they make a positive contribution and do their own studies and decide where they feel such plants could be built?

    You mean like here? Or the EPA’s “RePower America” initiative, which all the people opposed to those wildlife-killing solar plants have gotten on board with? Where the EPA and hardcore greens have gotten together and said “here’s 1.5 million acres of land for utility scale solar you might consider?” Like that, berniemooney?

    Remote solar power in deserts on public lands is not a climate change strategy. It’s a last gasp of centralized utilities and power companies who rely on old-school coal-style remote generation and transmission in their business models. Decentralized generation like rooftop solar and smaller utility-scale projects, with occasional big solar on land that we have already trashed, are more efficient, cheaper, and faster to come online. California’s getting as much as a gigawatt of solar coming into its main grid on sunny days now — probably doubling that in 2013, at least — and almost none of it’s from the desert, and almost none of it was opposed by anyone.

    This is the topic I’ve been working on fulltime for the last 4 years, berniemooney. Like, as my paid job. You may want to think about whether you want to get into this in a combative frame of mind. With what you seem to be bringing to the table, you won’t win.

    But I suppose we could build a solar plant on the smoking crater if you persist.

  43. ChasCPeterson says

    There’s a shrub or tree whose seeds only germinate after passing through a dodo stomach or something very similar.

    alas, this iconic story is likely untrue.

    Back in 2009, 13 solar plant projects were scuttled in the Mojave due to Green objections. If the Greens want to be helpful, how about they make a positive contribution and do their own studies and decide where they feel such plants could be built? .

    here you go