Can the Wolf Unite Us? Environmental Leadership in Polarized Times

Grey wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

What is our fate if we do not learn to speak with one another over our cultural divides, with an indifferent natural world bearing down on us?

–Barry Lopez, Horizon (2019, pg. 31)

The environmental movement is in dire need of a new paradigm. Neither mainstream groups, who have the backing and direction of powerful political and economic forces, nor radical opposition groups, who resist those entities in ways reminiscent of oppressed people cumulatively losing ground even as they win some battles, are getting the job done.

The urgency of “the wolf situation” in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Wisconsin – though one could enlarge that list – has pushed reflection on how contemporary society might alternatively relate to the awe-inspiring apex predator, the grey wolf. That evocation, then, opens onto the more generalized one of how we might create a new environmentalism. As I have lived the entirety of my adult life in the northern reaches of the Rocky Mountains of the United States, and more specifically in Montana, I will speak from that embodied knowledge, but its greater geographic applicability will be obvious.

First, the wolf.

It is deeply troubling, deeply and viscerally disturbing, that which is happening in Montana pursuant to a slew of new legislation, all signed by Montana’s governor, Greg Gianforte and put into practice as this essay was written. The grey wolf, North America’s iconic wolf, has just begun to be subjected to a proliferation of hunting and trapping practices and quotas that are both brutal and genocidal. Strangulation snares, which choke an animal to death as he or she tries to escape them, added to existing, so-called foothold traps (a euphemism for a gruesome device that tortures and terrifies its captives). Two hundred wolves, out of a population of six hundred, targeted for killing in Montana this year. Idaho is now planning to kill 900 of its 1,000 wolves! Bounties given out on each wolf killed. A proliferation of wolf killing contests privately arranged. Hunting methods which unfairly advantage the hunter, including the use of night-vision scopes and spotlighting, which allow the shooter to locate their prey and kill under cover of darkness. Pouring gasoline into dens and burning any wolves, pups included, trapped inside. Chasing and running wolves over with motor vehicles. Baiting wolves, so that they think they have found a meal, only to be defenselessly and painfully poisoned or shot down as they try to dine. All of these are craven and detestable, and we should not mince words about it.

Strikingly, the grievances I’ve seen about the new wolf legislation, the objections raised to it, are all about numbers and the rules of unproblematized hunting and trapping; whether there should be any trapping or hunting of wolves at all, or of any predators, is hardly ever even broached. Instead, we argue almost exclusively about whether wolves are really reducing elk numbers for hunters, or how many wolves the State should authorize to be killed in order to minimize depredation of livestock in ranching ethos/romanticized country. Or whether trapping with snares should be allowed, or instead to only keep the so-called foothold traps legal.

This has all come about in a politically divided landscape, driven by the same psychodynamics and group dynamics driving other polarized and politicized issues, like Covid mask mandates, vaccinations, immigration laws, voting restriction laws. Even within the Democratic Party and President Joe Biden’s 30 x 30 specifics, a negative hallucination of the harmful effects of the perversely named restoration logging and logging-for-resilience prevails, allowing further deforestation and “resource” extraction in service to capitalistic drivers and their numerous paths to controlling public consciousness.

Ironically, none of the tragic wolf debacle could be happening if Montana’s own Democratic Senator Jon Tester had not gotten the wolf removed from its protection under the Endangered Species Act, now saying that the States can better manage their own wolf populations. Aside from the obvious criticism that there is no inherent wisdom granted a given State by its proximity to the wolves residing within its borders, how can the Senator believe that the barbaric laws just legislated in his own State of Montana exemplify superior insight? Or, does he sheerly hew to the power brokers of capitalism, and to an attachment to perceived “popularity” and getting re-elected? Most recently, when many U.S. Senators are calling upon the Biden Administration to deploy an emergency re-listing of the grey wolf to the protections of the ESA, Senator Tester has publicly opposed that intervention.

Missing entirely from broad public conversation is whether any trapping of any sort and any hunting of the wolf should be happening at all, given their grossly inhumane impacts as well as their ecological indefensibility. We don’t openly discuss whether we should be reducing wolf populations at all, except in perhaps certain individual cases, taken on a case-by-case basis. We similarly have no public dialogue as whether, if any hunting of the wolf is to be allowed, it ought to be by the hunting methods of fair chase, characterized by respect for the wolf. Should there be hunting of any predators at all? I mean, who hunts predators? This is done by people trying to envision themselves as manly. But of course, there is nothing potent or masculine in this, nothing indicative of a brave or great white hunter.

I have said that I would discuss the environmental movement in general, too. A boost in that direction is provided by the following moving account of a middle of the night, wilderness encounter with a pack of wolves. A dear friend of mine, Bill Goslin, 20-plus years a Wilderness Ranger in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest, and the mentor who taught me how to live in and with wild lands, shared this with me:

A little story about my respect for wolves: On a cold November night about eight years ago I was horse camping up the East Fork Trail. Camp was set up earlier in the day, before the snow fell. After a day further up the trail, I returned to camp long after dark. I got a fire burning in the woodstove. I fed the critters and then ate a quick supper right before going to bed. Sometime after three in the morning things were “not right”. My dog woke me up trying to get my attention. The horse and mule were stirring where they were tied about 30 yards away. Something had their attention. I stepped out of the tent into the darkness. My headlamp was dim, but I could see the glint off the horses’ eyes. A quick scan of the surroundings revealed no other activity. It seemed time to give the horses a little more feed. They worked hard day before and were put up wet. Feeding accomplished, I did not go back to my warm sleeping bag but instead chopped some kindling for the wood stove. My dog was close at my side. The constellations shined brightly.  I finished chopping bent over, gathered an armload of wood, then straightened up to look at the starry eastern sky. Exactly at that moment a pack of wolves (that as I suspected, was very close by) erupted into spontaneous howling, and simultaneously a shooting star vividly streaked through the constellation Orion. I immediately got the feeling that I would never experience anything like that again. I savored the experience, went back to my tent, stoked the fire and slid back into my sleeping bag.

The morning light revealed a story told by wolf tracks. The wolves first passed my tent walking single file ten yards away while I slept. The pack then congregated on a flat knoll about 80 yards above camp and to the east. From there the wolves had an unobstructed view of my camp. Some of them sat down, some had laid down, some milled around. It was from this vantage point that they burst into their wonderous howling. This is what they were saying to me.  This is our land. We want you to know we are here. The howling then stopped suddenly. There was nothing more said. They quietly left the area, at a trot this time, no closer than 30 yards away. The wolves were spread-out. Their tracks revealed that there were six wolves in the pack. Having made their point, they moved on. I followed their tracks for a distance. Numerous downed lodgepole logs proved to be no obstacle. Without breaking stride, they slid over each log, leaving behind wispy brush marks of their belly hair in the fresh snow.

Second, the human. It should be noted that in order to have authentic discussions of this sort I have already intimated, we would also explicitly or implicitly be considering just what kind of human we are, and what kind of human we want to become. In Montana, known for its majestic and intact wildlife populations, is gross cruelty to and annihilative efforts aimed at the wolf what we want to be known for; is that the kind of people we want to be? Do we want to control wildlife populations by lethal means to force wildlife to exist only within our comfort zones of a global capitalist system? Do we want the existing systems of power and money to determine what compromises we are willing to make, while failing to face the accumulating and ultimate dire consequences of those compromises?

Do we want to exclude from public conversation those voices whose values do not align with capitalistic determinism? Because it is exactly that sort of exclusion that is happening in today’s popular “collaboration and compromise” model of resolving societal antagonisms about our relationship to the natural world. That is the order of the day for all the “Big Greens,” what I’ve called above “mainstream environmental groups,” those whose funding comes from uber-wealthy corporate foundations who have made green-washing and conscience-laundering mere orders of the day, simply everyday matters of doing business.

Here’s a compelling consideration for all of us. In the field of Consciousness Studies, human civilization is considered to be in the latter period of its current epoch, what has been called the Mental-Rational. Or what cultural and historical anthropologist Bruno Latour unflatteringly calls the Modern, that is, that we aren’t as “modern” as we think we are, that we aren’t as wise as we think we are.

Modern society has lost touch with indigenous people’s more attuned relationships to the other-than-human world. We have erroneously elevated ourselves to a disconnect in which we believe we are separate from the rest of the world, a world that exists for us to use as we see fit, without respect and concern for all its elements, all its members, a concern that was simply part and parcel of indigenous peoples’ lives before the Modern way took over. We have lost a sense of the interdependence of all parts of the world.

Furthermore, our current age is known more specifically as the Mental-Deficient. All civilizational epochs to date have come to their ends in multi-faceted breakdowns, much as the Modern epoch is doing today. The list of its forms is enormous and space does not allow for its enumeration here, but suffice it to say the following. Breakdown is a good term for it, as psychotic group processes have taken over rational group thought, rational group discussion, and respectfully dialogical disputation, and as the hatred inherent in paranoia has moved more and more center stage in societal life. We see unwanted characteristics and experiences being projected onto others, never to be recognized as part of one’s own mental life and way of being. The paranoid ideas that abound, and the contempt directed at those who disagree with us are readily found examples.  And their virulence grows rapidly, so that direct assaults, of various sorts, become more and more a possibility of everyday life, anywhere in the world.

If we are in a civilizational and biospheric state of unraveling, what can we do to avert its worst iterations? We must hold an awareness of the possibility of our demise as well as that of our transforming our world, both social and environmental.  That is, we must face head-on the reality of the damage we have caused and are causing, or else we are prone to continue down the same path of destruction we are on, convincing ourselves that we can avert it without radical change in how we relate to ourselves, to each other and to the earth. Without consciously facing what we have done, we are doomed to remain blind, maintaining our repression while developing psychological symptoms that we treat with pharmaceutical drugs and Orwellian psychotherapies to support our blindness.

What are we at this time in our history? As a collective, we continue on in our ideologico-capitalistic consumersim, in an anthropomorphic relation to the planet, using it for the pleasures the dominant society has made us believe are our own desires.  We cannot see that our efforts to curb the destructive effects of capitalism’s reified and deified Invisible Hand are but drops in the bucket compared to what the Earth needs us to do if it is to remain habitable for us, and if we are to have a chance of harmonious relation with it, with each other, and with ourselves.

Some of what we have to face is exemplified here in the Rocky Mountain West regarding not only our relationship to the grey wolf and to all predators, but also to our extractive, our appropriative, and our recreational uses of the land. Must we kill bears and wolves to protect cattle, who suffer natural deaths in far greater numbers from sources other than predators? Do we even need a cattle industry that worldwide is so enormously biotically destructive? Is monetary profit so all-fired sacrosanct that we can’t put higher values before it? Must we squeeze out wildlife from its diminishing homelands by our ever increasing recreational numbers and speed and distances of encroachment?

Can we not dream, in real time, of a world that would take care of all its people – whose global population almost certainly needs to be drastically reduced? The mainstream and the radical environmental communities have both got to find a new way.

The subversive psychoanalyst and philosopher Félix Guattari speaks of “three ecologies,” inextricable from each other, and which I offer here as an absolutely necessary undertaking, in fact akin to my CounterPunch essay, “Terra & Demos: A Unified Ethics for Conservation and the Human Quest.” Three Ecologies, published in 1988 but strikingly more pertinent and far more urgent today, proposes the notion of ecosophy, an integration of the ecologies of the environment, social relations and human subjectivity as being the only way of tackling our declining world situation.

Noting that it is impossible for politics to do this work for us, Guattari is arguing for the ecosophic problematic of the production of human existence! He means that we must mutate, transform what we are as human subjects, and as civilization, and how we relate to the other-than-human world; and that we must address these three “ecologies” as being inextricably linked to each other. This is of course no small order. I quote him here:

Environmental ecology, as it exists today, has barely begun to prefigure the generalized ecology that I advocate here, the aim of which will be to radically decentre social struggles and ways of coming to one’s psyche… Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations… (pg. 35).

How do we go about this? Guattari sees areas for intervention in many walks of life, in art, in education, in town planning, (in county and public and private land planning, we in the Rocky Mountain West would add), in architecture, in institutions of all sorts. In so many arenas of day-to-day life, we have opportunities to envision new ways of being, ways never before thought, ways we must experiment with, ways we must generate. And we must do this with an eye to the inextricability of the three ecological registers he identifies. In Guattari’s words, it is “essential to organize new micropolitical and microsocial practices, new solidarities, a new gentleness, together with new aesthetic and new analytic practices regarding the formation of the unconscious. It appears to me that this is the only possible way to get social and political practices back on their feet, working for humanity and not simply for a permanent reequilibration of the capitalist semiotic [i.e., meaning-providing] Universe” (pg. 34).

In “The Inherent Trauma of Conservation,” I argued that we need to sacrifice our insistence of limitless recreational fun, and to place concerns for the interconnectedness of all life over and above dominant and hegemonic, banal narcissism. I addressed “consumeristic excesses,” but demurred when it came to an explicit critique of capitalism, something all but unbearable for the general public to absorb. But if we are to dream of another world, we must be able to include that reflection. We might be at least a little emboldened by a reflection of Ursula LeGuin that there was a pre-capitalist time when the demos could not imagine a world beyond the monarchical.

When I think of the land where I live, and the agonisms and antagonisms that have roiled about throughout my entire adulthood here, I think of how woefully atomistic, reductionistic, and generally inadequate have been our efforts to address them. For example, there is the famous logging vs spotted owl debate. Okay, yes; we are cutting down old-growth forests far faster than the Earth can bear while still maintaining its biospheric and ecosystemic vitality. We need to stop and take stock of how to proceed. But how do environmentalists expect loggers and timber companies dependent on that continued cut to see a viable way forward for themselves? Don’t we need to find ways to address the good of the all, and not expect some groups to sacrifice, against their will, for the sake of others? Don’t we need to equalize people’s privileges, as well as equalize their sacrifices? And look after that equality? So, I want there to be no more hunting and trapping of wolves. Or someone else thinks that the ranching of cattle is causing progressively far greater environmental damage than it is providing a vital food-provision service. Even if they were correct, can they expect the rancher to see that point when, in today’s world, that rancher has no viable alternative by which to continue to sustain their family’s livelihood? Don’t we need to look together at transforming this world, and ourselves along with it, so that we needn’t cling to our excesses, those things that the world, or our minds and our relationships with each other, cannot afford? And yet again, I can say that we need to curb mechanized and motorized recreation on public lands for the dual sake of wildlife sanctuaries and the biodiversity they subtend, plus the transcendent experiences many find in wild places; but how do I expect the manic or normopathic (the one who fits seemlessly into society but lives a relatively vacuous mental life) recreationist who truly cannot give up their fix to alter their point of view? Even if I win one land use designation battle, it can always be resurrected later. And I’ll lose another somewhere else even if I’ve won one here.  Don’t I realistically have to consider how all might be served well simultaneously, even when I can’t see how? And mustn’t we also consider the inner lives of those who are outside the bounds of ethical thought regarding wolf or other trophy hunting or trapping?  Don’t we sooner or later have to take account of how it is that we of the human collective still are producing people who can feel okay about those practices?

Now, a way forward.

I was first moved to write this paper by what I experience as the barbarity of the current wolf hunting and trapping laws in Montana and other States. I had also long been pondering an essay calling for a new environmentalism paradigm. As I wrote, as I labored in the face of so much grief and horror about the state of our world, about its rapid and multi-faceted decline, I realized that these two concerns needed to be addressed together. There is no doubting that there are awful things happening. There is no doubting that there exist insincere and sadistic players in the world game, on all levels. Nor is there any doubt that we will encounter some of them in any effort at communal discussions aiming at the three ecologies.

Do we want to be a people who “smokes a pack a day,” as the bumper sticker of wolves in a rifle’s crosshairs juvenilely encourages? Or who loathes immigrants for doing 1) what we ourselves have a responsibility for, and 2) which we too would be doing in their situation? Who takes no overt or avowed position but hides and foments impunity behind declarations of “good people on both sides”? Can we become a people who faces the fact that capitalism must disband, and that we must – as a global demos – find an equitable way to do that? Or will be cling to the comforts of the familiar with which capitalism interpellates us?

Must some of us in the Rocky Mountain West and Midwest shore up a disavowedly sagging masculinity by killing predators and especially apex predators? Can others of us call out all such hunting and trapping as the biotically and civilizationally impoverished and depraved set of practices they are? Can we admit that we are still cumulatively and perhaps exponentially more rapidly consuming the Earth by our insufficiently analyzed decision-making regarding our recreational forms, our various insistences on comfort, our agricultural, mining, and logging practices?

Civilization has reached a point at which only an ecosophy, only an ethic of the three ecologies, gives it, and us, a chance. Even though its work will not reach fruition in our lifetimes. What can happen in our lifetimes is that we come to choose our acts based upon their contribution to that ultimate end. Can we be more forthright and publicly uncensored in our critique of all of what is missing in our efforts to achieve an integrated three-ecologies world?

Can the grey wolf unite us? The travesty of our brutality to this majestic creature has pushed me to further integrate my own thinking, and to speak it out loud. It is in this sense of open speech amongst us, speech which refuses its perversion by today’s powers that be, that the wolf – both its majesty and our grappling with what we are pitifully doing to it – just might ultimately unite us.


Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is a psychoanalyst, environmental and social critic, living in the northern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His environmental writings and interviews have appeared in numerous journals and podcasts in recent years. He is the author of Intimate Violence: Attacks Upon Psychic Interiority and numerous psychoanalytic journal articles. Scalia is in private practice in Livingston, Montana, and is President of Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, as well as a past President and current critic of Wild Montana (né Montana Wilderness Association).