“In my 35 years as a conservationist, I have never beheld such a bleak and depressing situation as I see today. The evidence for my despair falls into three categories: the state of Nature, the power of anticonservationists, and appeasement and weakness within the conservation and environmental movements. I fear that on some level we must recognize that this state of affairs may be inevitable and impossible to turn around. That is the coward’s way out, though. The bleakness we face is all the more reason to stand tall for our values and to not flinch in the good fight. It is important for us to understand the parts and pieces of our predicament, so we might find ways to do better.”
Dave Foreman, from Nature’s Crisis
So begins the worst paragraph in the history of conservation writing, the most sniveling piece of crap I have ever read. Let’s be clear, all of us who are trying to save this planet know it is bad, but none of the bad news is new news. And there is some good news.
The international conservation movement has grown into one of the largest, most widespread and diverse social movements in the history of civilization. Facing the crisis of extinction is at the core of its mission. The fact that some of the movement’s largest institutions are not always on the front lines of this fight is not news either, and neither are many of the other things Foreman cites in his dreary piece. Earth to Foreman: the fact that we are losing the war is not news! David Brower said back in 1980 that all the environmental movement had achieved so far was to slow the rate of things getting worse.
Growing up in the age of nuclear weapons teaches us how precariously perched we are on the abyss of planetary destruction. I do, however, remember things being much worse. I think many people understood this before they became involved in the conservation movement. I became involved in conservation because I was drawn to the campaigns like the fight for Alaskan Wilderness, and effort to stop coal mining on the Black Mesa, as well as others land-use battles closer to my home in Wyoming. For me the reward was that we were all engaged in a struggle together to keep hope alive. Conservation was and continues to be about camaraderie, effort, courage, and sacrifice. They teach you this in Boy Scouts.
Let’s take some of Foreman’s comments in order here, one at a time, starting with his lament on the new and rising power of the Anti-conservationists. This is not news. We know this because we fight these Anti-conservationists every day. We are campaigners. Ron Arnold, the best-known voice of the Wise Use movement, refers to me sometimes as “Old Warrior”. That’s because campaigns are small wars that require strategy, tactics and training. We have won some major campaigns in the last few years, especially against some of the world’s largest corporations. Home Depot, Staples, and the international ban on the Amazon mahogany trade are just a few examples.
Foreman sees the world plunging headfirst into pre-scientific irrationality, and fears he is witnessing the undoing of the Enlightenment. Instead of looking for where the fissures are, where the pressure is building, where the weakness is, and recognizing opportunities for change, Foreman seems to see our cause as hopeless. He never gets around to asking the bigger question; “Why not another Enlightenment?” If we could do it once we could do it again. But let’s get it right this time. Nature does matter. Now that would be some Tom Paine shit.
Foreman makes the case that no one is talking about Zero-Population Growth. China does. It’s the world’s largest country and fastest growing economy. Zero Population Growth is government policy and strictly enforced. No doubt other countries are at least talking about China’s policy. It may be true that people have yet to abandon their long held and almost religious belief in the paradigm of unlimited growth, but it would be wrong to say that no one in the conservation movement is discussing it. It did take a while before the Enlightenment to catch fire.
Then, we have Foreman discussing appeasement and weakness in the conservation movement. Stop the presses; Big Groups Have Weak Knees! Foreman sites the growing threats of sustainable development, resourcism, nature deconstruction, politically correct progressivism, and anthropocentric environmentalism. You will pardon me if I don’t get into detail on what these words mean, because I think you can probably see the meaning through a barbwire fence. We know who these people are; they’re commies! Those people who think we can have both nature and human civilization. Once more; there’s nothing new here. The pesky recourcers have always been around. We had the way of life people, the biostitutes, apologists, corrupt government officials, touchy-feely groups, process people, progressives, peaceniks and everything else in Wyoming, back in 1975.
Foreman goes on, “The radical right has been disciplined about thinking and acting for the long term; we have failed in part because we do not have a long-term strategy to which we stick”. My response is that a strategy backed by big business money and supplicant government agencies will always be easier to win then one developed and implemented from a kitchen table or barstool, and funded by a barn dance. Strategy is not our problem. We have tactical problems. If the goal is to put meat on the table, the strategy would be to get a rifle and go get a deer. If you don’t know how to shoot, you have a tactical problem that good strategy will not overcome.
I know our odds of a full-scale conservation victory are not good. But if it were about the odds, I never would have gotten into the conservation effort in the first place. For me, it has always been that these greed-heads were wrong, and I was taught to stand up to bullies. We do win some of the time, and even when we lose, we use that as an opportunity to build our movement and prepare for the next battle.
Another gem from Foreman’s masterpiece of whining is, “Similarly, the conservation and environmental movements in general shy away from acknowledging the reality of human-caused mass extinction. If we don’t even clearly state the problem, how can we do anything about it?” Who is this man talking about? I bet most of the organizations he is referring to have sent at least one delegate to the last Convention on Biological Diversity meeting. They have issued many reports on this subject; trust me. But what of the other groups, who, taken together make up a large part of the international conservation movement? Have they all been silent? No one is talking about extinction? Really? And are we also to believe that anthropocentric environmentalists are the enemy? Right now it is the Christian environmentalists who are leading the fight to save the Endangered Species Act. They call it stewardship, which I’ve read is a bad word in the language of Deep Ecology.
It gets better: “The overwhelming identification of environmentalism with the progressive movement and the Democratic Party is a key reason that it lacks credibility with much of the American public”. Here we have more red-baiting. That Foreman can make this claim after just having made the point that the election was very close is astonishing. I might remind him that the only alternative to the Democratic/Progressive slate is the Republicans. I believe the Republican Party is capable of change, but at the moment it his held captive by the very pre-scientific loonies he fears most. What’s a brother to do? Up here in the greater Northwest, we get a lot more assistance from progressives than we do Republicans, but we won’t turn anyone away. Many Republicans voted against their party and put a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion.
We are almost done. Next Foreman says, “These are trends. Of course there are exceptions. Dwelling on the exceptions, though, keeps us from doing something about the real problems. I’m not doing ‘nuance’ here. This sober, unapologetic cataloging of the array of problems nature conservationists face is, I am convinced, the first step in developing a more effective strategy”.
Were you waiting for a strategy to follow this bit of uplifting news? So was I but not really. None of the people who are now sniveling about strategy are actually proposing a new one. I do not believe there is one strategy for everyone, and I believe that our mission is a tactical one. Too much thinking and not enough campaigns that put things into perspective are the problem. Campaigns are powerful symbols of who we are and what we want. We should always be defined by our actions. While I have seen some pretty sorry-assed campaigns with too much funding, and too little tactical know-how, for the most part our people perform well in the field with what little they have. This is as true in Missoula as it is Washington D.C.
Fairness dictates that I acknowledge some of the truth in Foreman’s words. But none of what he has to say is new. Before we change our strategies, or our tactics, we need to know to what purpose we will put them. I see good campaigns underway everywhere I go; against illegal logging in the tropics, illegal fishing, the financing of dams (and other mega projects), and against bad corporations and government agencies. Many of these campaigns have been truly heroic and the sacrifices of the people who led them have been great. I’m sure if someone has a better idea, we’d all at least listen to them, but I have never believed that there was a Golden Age to go back to, whether it’s the conservation movement or Rock n’ Roll. As Donald Rumsfeld would say, “You fight to save the Planet with the movement you have, not the one you wished you had” It would be much easier to listen to Foreman’s lament if he spent more time on the front lines and less time on the lecture and fundraising circuit. It is in these frontline campaigns that one can find hope.
We do need to campaign better. We need to do more with less. We need to give up some of the luxury we have come to expect working in the conservation movement. We have to be willing to make sacrifices. We must be willing to fight. But we must also remember that these are big problems, and are not likely to be solved without a major shift in the status quo. We cannot do it alone. We can only strive to demonstrate to our adversaries that we have not, and will not, surrender. A General cannot tell his troops to fight on because the cause is hopeless. Indeed hope is the cause itself. And victory is always the only option. Can we say that we will win? No. But as long as we are fighting, we have not yet lost. I can’t believe universities pay people like Foreman to say such demoralizing crap to their students, with drug use and suicide rates as high as they are.
MIKE ROSELLE has worked on environmental campaigns for thirty years. E-mail a response to Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.