Environmentalists Are Battling Over the Nature of Nature

The state of the universe.
Dec. 12 2012 8:30 AM

The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement

Can modern greens loosen nature’s grip on environmentalism? 

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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).

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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. In Scientific American, marine biologist Benjamin Halpern recently described a new metric of ocean health that will incorporate fishing, recreation, and other human uses of the sea. "Such pragmatism requires us to recognize that people are a fundamental part of all ecosystems that make up Planet Earth, including the sea," he writes. This perspective, he admits, is a radical departure from the nature-centric framework that has long dominated environmental politics and policy.

Halpern, like Kareiva, has experienced fierce resistance from his peers to this more expansive view of conservation. But there is no other way, Halpern insists: "For conservation and management to be successful, we need to change our relationship with nature, from trying to lock it away to using and enjoying it in a practical but necessarily sustainable way. We must reconcile purely conservation-focused goals with the many other values people have for nature."

The Anthropocene looms large in this debate over the future of conservation and, more broadly, environmentalism. Both modernists and traditionalists agree that human activities since the Industrial Revolution have given the planet a global facelift. But the two camps differ on what the Anthropocene means and how it should be interpreted.

Green traditionalists are well-represented among environmental scientists, and they publish high-profile papers warning "that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth" to an irreversible tipping point. They issue reports from prestigious science societies warning about a finite planet being run into the ground. Some hold glitzy, international symposiums that put humanity on a mock trial for the global imprint of its civilization.

The common thread: The Anthropocene is an unmitigated disaster. Humans are planet wreckers. Time is running out for us. 

The modernist greens, by contrast, don't catastrophize. They are even optimistic about the future. Some, like geographer Erle Ellis, point out that "the history of human civilization might be characterized as a history of transgressing natural limits and thriving." He thus suggests that "we must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human-directed opportunity."

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."

Similarly, greens have a choice to make about the future of their movement. Environmentalism (especially in the United States) has been a force for much good since the first Earth Day in 1970. Plants and animals and their habitats are better protected, our air and water are much cleaner, and polluting industries are better regulated. These important gains should not be sacrificed in the name of economic development.

At the same time, however, greens should recognize that the nature-knows-best, technology-averse philosophy has bred some unfortunate tendencies that make 20th-century environmentalism ill-suited to address 21st-century problems and needs. If modernist greens are successful in prodding their peers, environmentalism will be reborn and continue to play a vital role in making the world a more sustainable place for all.

Keith Kloor is a journalist based in New York. You can find him on twitter here. He is a former editor at Audubon magazine and often writes about environmental issues.