Sunday, March 13, 2005

Make Me A Mutt

Every blogger with an interest in sustainability and conservation will certainly be making some reference to Nicholas Kristof’s March 12th op-ed piece in the New York Times. I’m no exception.

Kristof’s conclusion that Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, co-authors of “The Death of Environmentalism,” are right, that “modern environmentalism…must die so that something new can live,” is bound to provoke vitriolic response from many folks with “greening” on their mind. (Dave Roberts, the usually thoughtful assistant editor of Grist Magazine, calls Kristof’s article a “lazy, risible piece of sh*t.”)

I’m electing to take the middle road on this one. For every informed environmentalist, there are at least three ignorant screamers. Both sides (if the situation must be reduced to such black-and-white perspectives) know this to be true, and, more importantly, we have all been one of these screamers at some point, no matter how informed we may be otherwise.

Allow me to use myself as an example. I used to rant about the urgent need for blanket prohibitions on the importation of any wild-caught exotic reptiles and amphibians. Further, I insisted that states should require permits, obtained upon completion of a basic training course, for private reptile or amphibian ownership. My reasons were valid: I had grown tired of seeing “pet” reptiles and amphibians improperly cared for and exotic introduction (consider the Burmese pythons currently thriving in Florida’s Everglades) is more likely when dealing with “fad” herp owners, those that think a snake or lizard will be a “cool pet” but soon become bored by a relatively sedentary animal.

Yet, after considering the issue for several years, I no longer think prohibition a wise idea. Economic incentives overseas, in the form of local breeder farms and conservation projects in heavily pressured areas, and restricted foreign breeder partnerships seem a more sound response to the problems caused by the burgeoning interest in herpetoculture. (Of course, this won't prevent a negligent owner from releasing an exotic locally and I still favor a permit system for large or venomous herp ownership.)

So I changed my mind; I still want the same end result, but the means I now think best are notably different. This wouldn’t be a problem if I hadn’t been so eager to hop on the soapbox when I was calling for prohibition. Now, despite my current attitudes being more nuanced and informed, I am what some dub a “flip-flopper.” But flip-flopping is not always bad. It proves one is engaged and considerate. Unfortunately, it can also be cited as a weakness.

What does my flip-flopping have to do with Kristof’s criticism of the environmental movement? In his editorial, Kristof writes,
“The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they've lost credibility with the public. Some do great work, but others can be the left's equivalents of the neo-cons: brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance.”
He is right. Too often we opt to bang the table and throw a tantrum, presumably operating on the maxim, “Make enough noise, and they will come.” Jared Diamond, a contemporary hero of mine, correctly suggests that being an alarmist is better than not alerting others to the burning building, but the fact remains, alarmists are annoying. Taking the extreme position - the championing of wind power and denial of related criticism, for example – virtually guarantees you will be deemed wrong in the end. If you tell someone that drunk driving will surely result in their death and they drive off a bridge and nearly drown, they’ve proved you wrong by surviving the terrible accident. Your ultimate point, that drunk driving is stupid, dangerous, and wrongheaded, is true...but, technically, um, you said he would die.

Don’t think for a minute that the “other side” won’t hold us to our word. “Global cooling” is still pilloried by the neo-cons and energy industry spokesmen. If you try to explain that “global cooling” and “global warming” are essentially descriptions of the same phenomenon, you’ll get nowhere fast. The dire forecasts made by meteorologists in the 1970s didn’t materialize. Neither did Paul Ehrlich’s population predictions. Now Kristof cites these as examples of environmentalists crying wolf. Technically, he is correct, but global climate change and population pressures remain serious threats to the health of society and biodiversity.

The challenge that the environmental movement faces now, just as it did thirty years ago, is one of image. The Pew Research Center statistic Kristof cites is encouraging; 3/4 of Americans polled agree that environmental protection is vital. With that sizable majority in mind, it may not be necessary to throw tantrums. Reasonable, determined methods will serve the movement well. In environmentalism, like anything else, contradictions abound. Rather than dogmatically championing every device or idea that comes out of the green camp, we should fully consider each and push for thoughtful action as a diplomat would.

As Garret Keizer writes in his recent essay, “Life Everlasting,”
“We can dare to walk on this ground of dubious footing, because we are holding one another up as best we can, and because it is we ourselves and not some deterministic logic that writes our civil laws…We can sniff out our options and pick and choose among them, a birthright generally less appreciated by a dogmatist than by a dog.”
Photo credit: Superdog Inc, copyright 2003


chris at organicmatter said...

I'm glad to see that there are others who are willing to consider that Kristof might not be totally off his rocker. I was dismayed to see Dave Roberts, whose work I usually admire, utterly rule out the possibility that there might be something to Kristof's op-ed (especially in light of the huge coverage that Grist has given to the 'Death of Environmentalism' on the whole).

Mikhail Capone said...

He's just trying to write something shocking to get people talking, and it's working.

In the underground music world, if you want to stir up passions you just have to say that genre X of music is dead. Voila!

Mikhail Capone said...

Oh, and I must add that all this talk of "alarmism" and "extremism" is mostly the way that the opposition (polluters, etc) use to "shoot the messenger" instead of having to deal with the message.

Call them a bunch of dirty hippies, extremists, lunatics, etc.

~85% of people call themselves enviros, but the TV cameras will only focus on the smelly guy with the dredlocks who's called for the immediate stopping of all logging worldwide.

They could interview busloads of very reasonable people if they wanted to (Paul Hawken, David Suzuki). But they CHOOSE not to.

That's not all cases, but it covers many.

deborah said...

The environmental movement in the United States needs to find a new way reaching the public and I am glad Kristoff is addressing the subject.

In many ways the message environmentalist have espoused for the past 30 years has sunk in. Amost no one in America supports whale hunting or DDT. My mother on a recent visit to her place, proudly pointed out her organic dish soap, asking if I realized that all of our detergents go down the drain and out to sea, harming the ocean. My mother is an intelligent, caring person, but does not follow the news or what environmentalists are up to. She is your average American, so some of the message has gotten through.

The problem isn't simply protecting the environment by recycling or buying organic - it is addressing poverty, issues of international trade and corruption. Recently in India poachers were caught with the bodies of five tigers. They were caught only because the recent political upheval in Nepal had closed the borders. They were forced to go through at a different point and a border guard in Uttaranchal arrested them. The guards at the original border point had most likely been bribed.

A tiger pelt gets about $2000 while the organs bring in $50,000 from the Chinese medical market. To protect the tigers one must deal with the Indian government to better staff, fund and patrol the reserves, The Nepali government to better enforce the law at the border and the Chiniese goverment to stop the import of endangered animals for a variety of purposes within China. None of this is particularly easy.

All of these issues have their root in poverty. Most of the people living in and around India's nature reserves are desperately poor. The staff within the resrves are underpaid, overworked and suseptable to bribes. Until needs of the people are addresses and methods are developed to ensure the well being of the local communities and the animals, the tigers will be threatened.

All of this is hard to sum up in a 30 second commercial and there are no pictures as evocative as a man clubbing a baby seal. I don't have an answer or even a decent suggestion as to how to go about raising public awarness and concern to a point where something gets done.

It's a complex issue and until public pressure grows to the point where an elected offical will lose an election for not enforcing international environmental treaties, not much will happen.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Deborah, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

The tiger poaching problems in India are serious. I would love to learn more. Seeing as you're living there now, keep me posted.

Your points about the relationship between poverty and conservation are vital. Along with habitat preservation, I believe education and alleviation of poverty are critical components of any conservation effort. Of course, this is easier said than done on a global scale. Locally, though, individual efforts can have some positive effect.