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.