Anthropocene Boosters and the Attack on Wilderness Conservation
A growing debate has serious consequences for our collective relationship to Nature. Beginning perhaps twenty years ago, a number of academics in disciplines such as history, anthropology, and geography, began to question whether there was any tangible wilderness or wild lands left on Earth. These academics, and others, have argued that humans have so completely modified the Earth, we should give up on the notion that there is anyplace wild and instead recognize that we have already domesticated, in one fashion or another, the entire planet for human benefit.
These individuals and groups are identified under an umbrella of different labels, including “Neo Greens” Pragmatic Environmentalists” “New Conservationists” “Green Postmodernism” and Neo-environmentalists” but the most inclusive label to date is “Anthropocene Boosters” so that is the term I will use in this essay.
The basic premise of their argument is that humans have lived everywhere except Antarctica and that it is absurd to suggest that Nature exists independent of human influences. Wilderness was, just like everything else on Earth, a human cultural construct—that does not exist outside of the human mind (1). With typical human hubris, Anthropocene Boosters suggest we need a new name for our geological age that recognizes the human achievement instead of the outmoded Holocene.
Not only do these critics argue that humans now influence Nature to the point there is no such things as an independent “Nature”, but we have a right and obligation to manage the Earth as if it were a giant garden waiting for human exploitation (2). Of course, there are many others, from politicians to religious leaders to industry leaders, who hold the same perspective, but what is different about most Anthropocene Boosters is that they suggest they are promoting ideas that ultimately will serve humans and nature better.
From this beginning, numerous other critiques of wilderness and wildness have added to the chorus. Eventually these ideas found a responsive home in some of the largest corporate conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy as well as some think tanks like the Breakthrough Institute (3), Long Now Foundation (4), The Reason Foundation (5), and others.
The Anthropocene Boosters make a number of assertions.
1. Pristine Wilderness never existed, or if it did, is now gone. Making wilderness protection the primary goal of conservation is a failed strategy.
2. The idea that Nature is fragile an exaggeration. Nature is resilient.
3. Conservation must serve human needs and aspirations, and do so by promoting growth and development.
4. Managing for “ecosystem services”, not biodiversity protection, should be the primary goal of conservation.
5. Conservation efforts should be focused on human modified or “working landscapes” not creating new strictly protected areas like national parks, wilderness reserves and the like. Wildlands protection is passe.
6. Corporations are key to conservation efforts, so conservationists should partner with corporate interests rather than criticize capitalism or industry.
7. In order to garner support for these positions, conservation strategies like creation of national parks and other reserves are attacked as “elitism” or “cultural imperialism” or “colonialism.” (6)
Many holding these viewpoints seem to relish the idea that humans are finally “masters of the Earth”. They celebrate technology and the “path of progress” and believe it will lead to a new promised land where Nature is increasingly bent to human desires, while human poverty is alleviated. For instance, Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, embraces the idea of altering evolution with genetic modifications of species by “tweaking” gene pools. (7)
These trends and philosophical ideas are alarming to some of us who work in conservation. The implications of these goals and observations imply no limits upon consumption that is destroying the planet’s ecosystems and contributing to a massive Sixth Extinction of species. Whether intentional or not, these ideas justify our current rapacious approach that celebrates economic and development growth.
These ideas represent the techno-optimism of a glorious future, where biotech, geoengineering, nuclear power, among other “solutions” to current environmental problems save us from ourselves.
Many Anthropocene Boosters believe expansion of economic opportunities is the only way to bring much of the world’s population out of poverty. This is a happy coincidence for global industry and developers because they now have otherwise liberal progressive voices leading the charge for greater domestication of the Earth. But whether the ultimate goals are humane or not, these proposals appear to dismiss any need for limits on human population growth, consumption, and manipulation of the planet.
Many of those advocating the Anthropocene Booster world view either implicitly or explicitly see the Earth as a giant garden that we must “steward” (original root from “keeper of the sty” or caretaker of domestic livestock) the land. In other words, we must domesticate the planet to serve human ends.
But the idea of commodifying Nature for economic and population growth is morally bankrupt. It seeks only to legitimize human manipulations and exploitation and ultimately is a threat to even human survival.
Our book, Keeping the Wild—Against the Domestication of the Earth, explains why this is so. It advocates a smaller human footprint where wild Nature thrives and humans manage ourselves rather than attempt to manage the planet.
However let us take these assertions one by one.
First is the Anthropocene Booster’s assertion that “pristine” wilderness never existed, and even if it did, wilderness is now gone. Boosters never define what exactly they mean by wilderness, but their use of “pristine” suggests that they define a wilderness as a place that no human has ever touched or trod (8).
That sense of total human absence is not how wilderness advocates define a wild place. Rather, the concept of a wilderness has much more to do with the degree of human influence. Because humans have lived in all landscapes except Antarctica does not mean the human influence is uniformly distributed. Wilderness is viewed as places largely influenced by natural forces, rather than dominated by human manipulation and presence. Downtown Los Angeles is without a doubt a human-influenced landscape, but a place like Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge is certainly not significantly manipulated or controlled by humans. Though certainly low numbers of humans have hunted, camped, and otherwise occupied small portions of the refuge for centuries, the degree of human presence and modification is small. The Alaska Refuge lands are, most wilderness advocates would argue, self-willed. By such a definition, there are many parts of the world that are to one degree or another largely “self-willed”.
Nature is resilient
Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy’s Chief Scientist, is one of the more outspoken proponents of the idea that Nature is not fragile, but resilient. Kareiva says “In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function.” He cites as an example the loss of the passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, whose demise, according to Kareiva, had “no catastrophic or even measurable effects.”
Stewart Brand also sees no problem with extinction. Brand recently wrote “The frightening extinction statistics that we hear are largely an island story, and largely a story of the past, because most island species that were especially vulnerable to extinction are already gone.” (10)
Indeed Brand almost celebrates the threats to global species because he suggests that it will increase evolution, including biodiversity in the long run.
Such a cavalier attitude towards the demise of species, and the normalizing of species declines, undermines the efforts of many conservation organizations to preclude these human-caused extinctions.
Many biologists disagree with Brand and the authors he references. They believe we are on the verge of a Sixth Mass Extinction. There have been other extinctions, but this is a preventable mass extinction. We know it is occurring and the cause of this extinction spiral is human-domination of the Earth and its resources (11).
There is something callous and morally bankrupt in asserting that it is OK for humans to knowingly drive species to extinction.
There seems to be no expression of loss or grief that we are now pushing many species towards extinction. Humans have survived the Black Plague, the Holocaust, and many other losses over the centuries, but one doesn’t celebrate these losses.
Conservation must serve human needs
Another pillar of the Anthropocene Boosters platform is that conservation’s main purpose must be to enhance and provide for human needs and desires. Of course, one consequence of conservation is that protected landscapes nearly always provide for human needs—contributing clean water, biodiversity conservation (if you think that is important), moderation of climate change, to name a few.
However, the main rationale for conservation should surely be much broader and inclusive. Despite the fact that most conservation efforts do have human utilitarian value, the ultimate measurement of value ought to be how well conservation serves the needs of the other species we share the planet with.
The problem with Anthropocene Boosters promotion of growth and development is that most species losses are due to habitat losses. Without reigning in population and development, plants and animals face a grim future with less and less habitat, not to mention changes in their habitat that makes survival difficult if not impossible.
Even when species do not go extinct, the diminishment of their ecological effects can also lead to biological impoverishment, for instance, when top predators are eliminated from ecosystems.
Conservation should focus on “working landscapes” not creation of more parks and wilderness
The term “working landscapes” was invented by the timber industry to put a positive spin on their rapacious operations. Americans, in particular, look favorably upon the “work ethic” and industry coined the phrase to capitalize on that affirmative cultural perspective. Working landscapes are typically lands exploited for economic development including logging, livestock grazing, and farming.
While almost no conservationists would deny that there is vast room for improvement in these exploited landscapes, the general scientific consensus is that parks, wilderness reserves and other lands where human exploitation is restricted provide greater protection of ecosystems and biodiversity.
For this reason, many scientists, including such eminent biologists as Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson, are calling for protecting half of the Earth’s terrestrial landscapes as parks and other reserves.
Conservationists should stop criticising corporations
Some Anthropocene Boosters believe conservationists should stop criticizing corporations and work with them to implement more environmentally friendly programs and operations.
Almost no conservationist would argue that corporate entities should not adopt less destructive practices. However, it is overdevelopment that is the ultimate threat to all life, including our own. Implementing so called “sustainable” practices may slow the degradation of the Earth’s ecosystems and species decline, but most such proposals only create “lesser unsustainable” operations.
At a fundamental level, the promise of endless growth on a finite planet is a dead end street, and it is important for conservationists to continuously harp upon that message. To halt criticisms of corporations invites greenwashing, and precludes any effective analysis of the ultimate problems of development and growth.
National parks and reserves are a form of cultural imperialism
Many Anthropocene Boosters, in order to validate their particular view of the world, go beyond merely criticizing environmental and conservation strategies. They seek to delegitimize parks and other wild lands protection efforts by branding them with pejorative terms like “cultural imperialisms”, “colonialism” and other words that vilify protected lands.
The creation of parks and protected areas began with Yellowstone National Park in 1872 (or arguably Yosemite, which was a state park earlier). The general Anthropocene Boosters theme is that this model has been “exported” and emulated around the world and that Western nations are forcing parks upon the poor at the expense of their economic future.
Notwithstanding that nearly all cultures have some concept of sacred lands or places that are off limits to normal exploitation, to denigrate the idea of parks and wildlands reserves as “Imperialism” because it originated in the United States is crass. It is no different than trying to scorn democracy as Greek imperialism because many countries now aspire to adopt democratic institutions. Western countries also “export” other ideas, like human rights, racial equality and other values, and few question whether these ideas represent “imperialism.”
Of course, one of the reasons protected areas are so widely adopted is because they ultimately are better at protecting ecosystems and wildlife than other less protective methods.
But it is also true that strictly protected areas have not stemmed the loss of species and habitat, though in many cases, they have slowed these losses. When parks and other reserves fail to safeguard the lands they are set aside to protect, it is typically due to a host of recognized issues that conservation biologists frequently cite, including small size, lack of connecting corridors, lack of enforcement, and underfunding.
To criticize parks for this is analogous to arguing we should eliminate public schools because underfunding, lack of adequate staffing, and other well publicized problems often result in less than desirable educational outcomes. Just as the problem is not with the basic premise of public education, nor are the well-publicized difficulties for parks a reason to jettison them as a foundation for conservation strategies.
Another criticism is that strictly-protected parks and other reserves harm local economic and sometimes subsistence activities. In reality that is what parks and other reserves are designed to do. The reason we create strictly protected areas is that on-going resource exploitation does harm wildlife and ecosystems or we would not need parks or other reserves in the first place.
While park creation may occasionally disrupt local use of resources, we regularly condone or at least accept the disruption and losses associated with much more damaging developments. The Three Gorges Dam in China displaced millions of people. Similar development around the world has displaced and impinged upon indigenous peoples everywhere. Indeed, in the absence of protected areas, many landscapes are ravaged by logging, ranching, oil and gas, mining and other resource developers, often to the ultimate detriment of local peoples and of course the ecosystems they depend upon. In the interest of fairness, however, people severely impacted should be compensated in some way.
Nevertheless it should also be recognized that the benefits of parks and other wildlands reserves are nearly always perpetual, while logging the forest, killing off wildlife, and other alternatives are usually less permanent sources of economic viability.
The Wild does have economic and other benefits for human well-being. However, the ultimate rationale for “Keeping the Wild” is the realization there are intangible and intrinsic value to protecting Nature. Keeping the Wild is about self-restraint and self-discipline. By setting aside parks and other reserves, we, as a society and a species, are making a statement that we recognize that we have a moral obligation to protect other lifeforms. And while we may have the capability to influence the planet and its biosphere, we lack the wisdom to do so in a manner that does not harm.
Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth is a new book edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler. In bringing together essays in one volume, we seek to examine and challenge the assumptions and epistemology underlying the Anthropocene Booster’s world view. We seek to offer another way forward that seeks to preserve wildness, wildlands, and Nature and ultimately a co-existence that emphasizes humility and gratitude towards this planet—our only home.
List of people, corporate partners, key words, strategies, and concepts.
(1) Cronon, William The Trouble with Wilderness in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (1995)
(2) Marris, Emma (2011). Rambunctious Garden. Bloomsbury NY.
(3) Breakthrough Institute
(4) The Long Now Foundation
(5) Ronald Bailey 2011 The Myth of Pristine Nature.
(6) Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz Conservation in the Anthropocene.
(7) Steward (Brand 2015) Rethinking Extinction.
(8) Interview with Emma Marris.
(9) Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz Conservation in the Anthropocene.
(10) Stewart Brand (2015) Rethinking Extinction.
(11) Brian Miller, Michael Soulé, and John Terborgh, The “New Conservation’s” Surrender to Development.
George Wuerthner is Ecological Projects Director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
67 Responses to Anthropocene Boosters and the Attack on Wilderness Conservation
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The Wildlife News is pleased to post George Wuerthner’s critique of the “new conservation,” which has always struck me as the old anti-conservation updated with some new terms.
The point of new conservation is to attract large corporate donations by saying “We are your friends. We like almost everything you do. You are doing the world a service, especially if you give us a large donation, for which you will get a lot of praise from us.”
Amazing how large corporate entities can corrupt even basically good ideas isn’t it?
I would contend that you are right about most the “Anthropocene Boosters”. They took a basically good idea and corrupted it with unethical corporate greed.
I would contend that most those ideas, applied differently in a more holistic manner and context, would have the desired beneficial effects, but only if divorced from that corporate mentality. The large corporation, especially public corporations with stockholders, is too much tied to short term profits at any cost. Any corporate management attempting to take a long term view at the expense of short term yields is subject to removal and replacement. This trend is sufficiently strong enough to undermine this basically good idea of viewing the era we live in as the Anthropocene. By definition that viewpoint requires a VERY long term view of hundreds and/or thousands of years. The two are largely incompatible.
I am glad you didn’t mention the “Crunchy Conservatives” in your list of Anthropocene Boosters you are criticizing. They have some similar views, but reject the large corporate business model, as largely being incapable of meeting those goals.
Since you left them out and focused on the movements that have been corrupted, I very much applaude this article! Spot on!
“Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.”-Rod Dreher, A Crunchy Con Manifesto
This was great! Thank you!
There seems to be no expression of loss or grief that we are now pushing many species towards extinction.
This is what worries me too.
Thank you for publishing this. I can’t help but wonder if the evolution of the “new conservation” model has been furthered (underwritten) by the Koch Brothers, as I am sure they are in love with it. Pathetic, sad, and frightening for what it could mean for wild lands and wildlife if it is fully embraced. Must stop this.
Barbara, I think we’re safe in suspecting the Koch brothers, but it’s also the corporate world. It’s not just the Kochs; it is our entire system. They are masters of marketing.
How about conservation or wetland “banks”? I struggled with that concept the same as I did with wetland mitigation. And, wetland scientists are seeing that mitigation (constructing a wetland in some other place to replace one that is removed (that may well be of higher ecological function) is not working as it should.
To me, some of the conservation concepts seem like an attempt to apply capitalistic theory on the natural world. Buying credits here to apply over there….REDD is another example.
Great essay. What troubles me with the Anthropocene boosters as you call them is their failure to put the challenge to conventional agriculture to improve their practices to enhance very poorly managed landscapes. This where the focus of their attention should be, not attacking conservationists for trying to preserve what little wild lands we have left. In my view, this is not an “either/or” proposition: either we protect remaining wild lands or we manage them like “gardens” and forget about the vast expanses of degraded agricultural landscapes…NO! It is a “both/and” proposition: we provide greater and permanent protection to remaining wild landscapes AND restore degraded agricultural landscapes to more sustainable, more biodiverse working landscapes, particularly where they buffer wild lands. It is the height of human hubris to believe what nature has created, man can willfully destroy without degrading the collective soul of our species.
I thought the idea of renaming our era as the anthropocene grew from negative connotations of the negative impact we humans have had on earth, not positive ones. A couple of years ago is when I first heard the concept of earth never having been totally pristine. An anthropologist was presenting on the SE Indigenous people of the Mississippian era and the concept gave me pause. Since she was presenting at my tribe about my long ago ancestors she went into detail explaining how nearly every place had at least some human disturbance. Anthropology isn’t my field so I wasn’t sure whether to chalk it up as a concept new to me or as academia just finding another way to whitewash the past.
I’ve also noticed in my own work and in research for the literature review for my M.S. an explanation on how ecosystem services with wetlands were tangible services where humans benefited. I’d have to go back to that resource to get the exact wording but it struck me profoundly enough that I remember exactly where I was when I first read it and remember my response being that I disagreed with it. Again, I thought it was whitewash, but just had to accept it as standard thought in wetland science.
I do tend to believe a lot of the natural world is not as fragile as we tend to believe. Things do rebound given enough time, but there are so many of us putting so much pressure on systems that we have crossed a threshold for many places. I know this is cliche, but I see us humans like microbes in a petri dish. We will run out of resources and we’ll crash. Nancy put up a great link to an article about a study on rats that showed how severe the effects of overcrowding and overuse of resources effects populations.
Lastly, anyone that is flippant about extinction must be a corporate suit guy disguised in a pair of Keens and a Northface jacket. A flippant attitude toward extinction of any species should be blasphemy.
Good article, George.
Great George! Glad you wrote this much needed book that counters this growing idea. I read Emma Marris’ book and some of her since published essays. I fear her ideas are gaining traction out there. So we need your voice to counter hers and others. From her book, I gleaned that she really had never spent any time in the wilderness, but maybe a night in a tent in a public campground. And yes, she had a lot of negative things to say about YNP.
YNP was a model for over 100 years, but parks like Uluru are fast becoming the model now. Indigenous peoples are being hired and trained to manage these conservation parks in places across the world. Some are a success, some aren’t; but new models and experiments are being tried. Rewilding the World by Caroline Fraser, although written in 2009, chronicles these attempts and is a good read.
This “new conservation” is explicitly political, and with its support for corporations as the only conservation actor and capitalism as the only possible economic system, it is explicitly ideological as well.
As such (ideology) it isn’t science.
This is a great review of the “Anthropocene” rebirth of the oxymoronic concept of sustainable development of the Bruntland Report of decades ago. Basically, the objectives of continued population growth (accelerating or decelerating growth is still growth), unfettered economic growth, and continually improving lifestyles for everyone are viewed as sacrosanct. The purveyors of this mindset somehow think that these goals can still be achieved because nature is “resilient”, people have been screwing things up for longer than we thought (so what the hell is so bad about the degree to which we are screwing them up today?), and well, everything in nature is here to support humans to have a really swell life. Ironically, formally recognized geologic Epochs (which the Anthropocene is not) typically end with significant extinction events. The Anthropocene, if formally recognized as defined, will end with the extinction of humanity. However, nobody aside from future alien explorers to this planet will be around to discern its end.
The recent publication by many of the same Anthropocene boosters, who now call themselves Ecomodernists, of “The Ecomodernist Manifesto” takes this to the next level of the absurd.
In this view, they argue for the end of “people are bad” environmentalism. It is a kind of technological prosperity gospel for accommodating unfettered growth while re-defining ecological systems into entities that are incapable of deleterious alteration as evidenced by the illusion that humans have been affecting their state of being for a long time now and that they still sort of ‘work’. They take a licking at the hands of billions, yet keep on ticking, as one might view it if one chooses to ignore reality. In fact, the Ecomodernists argue that a technological solution to the ecological and resource pressures of humanity “might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” Now, how’s that for unbridled hallucinogenic optimism!
I’ve been suspicious of this concept too. Yes, people have ‘used’ the landscape for millennia – but so what? It was never on the massive scale of today and in the future, with modern tools, equipment, billions of people, or modern weapons of war. It does not mean that an ever increasing demand is inevitable. We’ve left an indelible footprint on many places, but that doesn’t mean we still can try to limit it, and protect those that, as George so eloquently said, more influenced by natural forces than human, and ‘self-willed’. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make our urban areas greener too, with parks and gardens too, because what is sadly missing in these debates is the healthy, relaxing effect ‘greening’, even just to look at the color as a break for your eyes, has on many people.
And as far as being ‘elitist’ and ‘imperialist’, the exploiters are the ones who set the standard for that, didn’t they. Society was built around the elite, white and male, and as society slowly changed, more and different people became involved. I really don’t know what this accusation means, except a these charges always works to squelch debate effectively.
Yvette is right about the term.
You write: “With typical human hubris, Anthropocene Boosters suggest we need a new name for our geological age that recognizes the human achievement instead of the outmoded Holocene.” Actually the term Anthropocene comes from geology and has a basis in observation. You
wouldn’t want to argue that our heavily cropped and grazed soil is Holocene soil. You also wouldn’t argue that the chemical composition of the atmosphere is the same as prior to the industrial revolution. The scientists using the Anthropocene term are the same ones who are doing the research to establish Planetary Bourdaries which is helping to establish the need for de-growth.
The post-modern, Breakthrough Institute crowd, in fact hate this work.
Now that scares the shit out of me! Maybe you should call them “boosters, and Anthropocene Knockers” because they support unending growth and knock the idea of planetary boundaries.
Pretty good. Not sure we need to invoke the good of other species or intangibles though. Long-term-view enlightened self-interest may actually be sufficient, but the calculation is complicated. Also, restricting the argument to just tangible self-interest type stuff means no tree-hugger criticisms – you are playing their game, their rules. Parrish Storrs Lovejoy taught me to practice this method, though I am guilty of using “pride of place” arguments for certain native species (e.g. trumpeter better than mute swan), but consider that partly pragmatic (need people to care about the land around them).
I might venture that passenger pigeon loss impacts might be hard to discern cause other human caused changes happening with it were so vast, you can’t attribute single effects to the pigeons. We’re still not that great at such science, cause it’s complicated, and controlled experiments few, and we’ve not been very good at science til very recently. I love St. Aldo for how often he points out we hardly know squat yet.
In the words of the Nature Conservancy’s Chief Scientist: “In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function.”
This can be applied to the human species more than any other species, as the planet would most certainly be much better off with the demise of so-called “civilized” humans.
What I meant to say is, “civilized,” industrialized humans will most certainly not be missed by any other life form on the planet.
I don’t like your sad straw man representation of the eco-modern position.
I’m proud to be an Anthropocene Booster, and eco-Modernist. You have no right to attribute stupid values to me. I’m working hard against fossil fuels. I’m working hard for nature. I’m working hard against CAFO’s and monocrops and Monsanto’s destruction of biodiversity.
I love the national parks and want to preserve them. I love the zoos too. I’m not under the delusion that either can avoid collapse without active human management.
I think the IPCC is a conspiracy of govt scientists who are lying to us about climate change- UNDERSTATING the problem. I believe we should stop burning ANYTHING for energy in 10 years. And we can do it!
And I recognize that tech gives us new choices. And I recognize that govt and industry like to limit the evolution of tech to what they control. Cellphones and computers improve in large part because govt hasn’t figured out how to stop it.
Renewable energy is already cheaper than coal in some broad contexts. That’s good news! It means people who live in sunny places can be richer and have less carbon impact that they used to. And it is getting better. Wind and certain kinds of innovative nuclear (which you probably haven’t heard of before) are also capable of improving lifestyle and reducing impact on nature.
But flaying straw men does no good.
Casting aspersions on the motivations of people who are working hard to protect biodiversity and human welfare, using technology, is unfair and unprofessional.
In order to prevent increases in extinction, these parks ad protected lands require, require habitat connectivity.
Some species cannot contribute to their own genetic diveristy with habitats fragmented as they presently have become, and smaller and subpopulations are trending toward homozygosity, meaning that in the future, without habitat connections unsevered by human development, these will fall prey to inbreeding depression and increased deleterious mutations inherent in such a limited gene pool.
One cannot and most definitely DOES NOT protect biological diversity through merely focusing on anthropocentric issues.
It has been well shown that when energy/resources are increased, populations increase. Without removing the human development and occupation aspect – without removing the humans and their propensity to eradicate species they consider irritating, and their propensity to introduce by accident or purposefully, alien species which can then (and do) release into an area, overcoming species not adapted to their presence – without removing that seriously damaging presence and modification, the world LOSES biodiversity.
Grizzly bears, for instance avoid roads and motor vehicles – unless a great number of roads are removed, this species, already fragmented and unable to reach its subpopulations, is on a fast trail to extinction.
Isolated insects that needed normal natural fire regimes, WITHOUT soil-destroying logging, such as Franklin’s Bumblebee, are bereft of their habitat, which once oened up when other parts closed – this species, living only in a 190 mile by about 60mile oval on Earth, is being devastated by the continuing use of National OFrests for farming logs and dirt roads.
There are thousands of species like this which require the withdrawal of human technology.
Must I go on, mentioning the Humboldt marten, the fragmented Pacific Fisher, the still-losing northern Spotted Owl, the large birds like Northern Goshawk and others whose nesting is disturbed by baby-making humans and their hobby dredging for gold, artificial intrusion into the long seasons of fire and regrowth?
Wolves, shot mistakenly, hit by the new world of freeways (all built since 1950s-60s), cannot return to their original world, unless technology builds substantial crossings. Tule Elk are fenced in the Owens Valley in its narrowest neck, not allowed to spread, nor is the other population inPoint Reyes, fenced in away from enough water in this drought, dying for it?
Spare us working against CAFOs without working against the exploitation of the West by euro-cattlemen who have been here ONLY about 160 years. Before then, there were the unfenced bison. Do you work to return their home to them?
Let someone take away YOUR purported home, and you will begin to understand.
#1. Stop making babies.
Stop going on ecotours, supporting for-profit concerns that bring too many humans into wildlands where the animals are so shy from gunfire and poaching over the past no-so-many years (less than 200. Just a couple long human lifetimes in which the incredible devastation has occurred).
Stop overbuying, overusing energy (if you can’t handle 40 degree and 100 degree weather, go where the weather suits you,rather than demand cradle-perfect warmth).
Then you ain’t no conservationist, no environment-caring individual. You are part of the problem.
Totally agree, Mayuke.
Another thought provoking article by an original thinker. Much to mull, but two things I wanted to point out:
1.) While I understand there are different schools of thought on this, it is folly to assume and act as if human beings are also not part of nature. We are in it, of it, from it, as much as any other part. The inherent assumption of many scholars that we are separate is an often overlooked blind spot in our prognostications. Just try a few days in a blizzard without food, clothing or shelter (or technology) and see how our natural selves are rapidly revealed, for one easy example.
2.) The term “ecosystem services” always causes a degree of revulsion in me; “services” equivocates with servant, who by definition serves in relation to a Master, which by self-definition is of course, ourselves. We share this world and think we master it, but this too is a form of psychic blindness that further commodifies the world we share, and all that share it with us. We can fire the “help” of a servant, but can’t fully divorce ourselves from our nature, no matter how many clever names we can invent.
Ecosystem services are in service to the ecosystem and you just got through stating in your same post, “We are in it, of it, from it, as much as any other part.”
So I suspect you need to rethink your aversion to the term ecosystem services. Or rethink your position on our relationship to nature. Right now you’re expressing your thoughts in a way that seems confused.
Oh no, I’ve never witnessed Nancy as confused. Far from it.
“Ecosystem services are in service to the ecosystem”
In regard to how researchers, ecologists and managers have used the term ‘ecosystem services’ your statement above is incorrect even though many of those functions most definitely benefit ecosystems. I’ve had multiple professors teach that ‘services’ are the valuation we humans apply to some function a system ‘provides’. That valuation seems to always go back to a monetary one vs. intrinsic. Staying with wetlands:
“Functions” are properties that a wetland naturally provides. i.e., reduction in erosion, groundwater recharge, reduction of ‘flashy streams’, nutrient cycling, sediment traps (which can reduce pollutants in that sediment that may enter a stream, and etc.)
“Services” is a valuation of things humans derive benefit from the functions that a wetland provides.
Like Nancy, I’ve always taken issue with the way the term ‘services’ is applied in relation to wetland functions.
Mark Brinson, who developed the HGM classification for wetlands included this from (Lubchenco et al 1991) when ending his discussion on wetland functions and values, “Regardless of the functions and whether they are perceived as having utility during a given decade
or by a particular culture, an anthropocentric goal of management for ecosystems worldwide should be to maintain ecological processes, preserve the genetic diversity, and utilize species, populations, and ecosystems in a sustained way.”
Like Nancy, the way the term ecosystem ‘services’ is used as a result of some ecosystem function that has valuation for humans has always been splinter under the fingernail for me. To me, the ‘service’ is intrinsic. I like what Lubchenco said but would add, ‘regardless of whether humans can place a monetary value on the function, or not.”
I understand your aversion. Economically and politically powerful users can easily quantify and argue their needs, based on a monetary system. It is harder to define the economic value of ecosystem services (especially those ecosystem services that primarily benefit wildlife) and, therefore, the ecosystems and people most dependent on them for their subsistence become voiceless and often neglected users. That is the reality of what is, not what should be. So in a way both of you are right. However, by definition, ecosystem services are a measure of the service to ecosystems’ function, whether we humans obtain economic benefit or not.
So change your measuring stick. Instead of measuring ecosystem services monetarily, use a holistic measuring stick. You might ask, “What is a holistic measuring stick?” Simple enough, it is a framework that places the four basic ecosystem processes, (water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow, and community dynamics) as equal in importance to economic and social welfare.
That simple contextual change puts the basically good concept of ecosystem services back in balance.
It adds what is missing, instead of it being the one-sided human-centric view only. 🙂
The so-called Anthropocene Boosters either have memory problems or never sat on Grandpa’s lap to hear his firsthand stories about the good old days , to wit:
The Dust Bowl.
(Cody) Amen Brother…..
Thanks for your continuing vigilance on this George! You’ve pointed out the key battle lines here an in your excellent volume. We simply cannot sit by and allow the discussion and language of preservation to be colonized and bastardized by the “neos.” We need to sharpen our pencils and our wit and on every occasion possible push back.
The neos rely on a straw man argument, dubious propositions about progress, fact-free assertions, an unrestrained love of all things techno. Most importantly, their metaphysic is completely out of whack. There is an unmistakable cold-heartedness throughout the neo platform.
For the unvarnished nonsense that is neoenvironmentalism take a look at the the Ecomodernist Manifesto, so called, at:
Rather than pulling back from our obviously clumsy and misguided ways, the neos and their corporate masters would put the pedal to the metal.
What was it Thoreau said about making your life a friction against the machine? Can any thoughtful person really believe the neos ought to be charting the future course of anything we hold dear?
Just read the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” via the link you provided. These people are truly scary.
“Rather than pulling back from our obviously clumsy and misguided ways, the neos and their corporate masters would put the pedal to the metal”
Interesting read Kyle.
I already read Brave New World. 😉
It’s not realistic, and it’s too much about us first.
These are some of the problems/questions/fallacies I noticed too:
btw, I love the term ‘ethical sloppiness’. 🙂
“No one in their right mind should wish to return to a way of life in which disease was more prominent, nutrition less available, and leisure time more scarce. There is no going back, only forward, they argue, and future prospects for humanity and for the planet depend on our creativity in developing more advanced forms of technology”
I long for the Paleo-terrific when we were at our best and brightest!
I love your terminology – Paleo-terrific!
No need to go back to the stone age, but there is a need to carefully consider the impacts of technology.
“I think science without ethics is sociopathology. To say, “I’ll apply what I know regardless of the outcome” is to take absolutely no responsibility for your actions. I don’t want to be associated with that sort of science.” Bill Mollison
Well said. 🙂
“Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development — development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind.”
Figures that these concepts are now coming out of a Think Tank. Could they be more isolated from the spiritual and human necessity of the natural world.
If you read this essay through, it will scare the pants off of anyone who has spent real time in wilderness or enjoyed seeing megafauna in large tracts of land.
I take offense that they are calling these ideas ‘progressive’! And I’ll say it again, they have their literary cheerleaders like Emma Maris who is getting traction. These ideas are much more dangerous than the ATVer’s in my neighborhood who want lots of loop roads in Grizzly bear country.
As an aside, Emma Marris’ next planned book project is on wolves and human culture. See here:
Wild wolves in the “post-wild” world, or something like that.
Also, George Wuerthner wrote an in-depth review of her book “Rambunctious Garden” in 2012 that is still accessible on the book’s Amazon.com page and well worth reading.
Now this is totally untrue right out of the gate:
“We really see the two species so differently. I think it’s revealing that a single wolf can be killed in a hunt in the United States and all the environmental groups are up in arms while the hunters are celebrating, and it’s a big deal. But last year, the U.S. federal government killed 75,000 coyotes as a matter of course, without anyone noticing. So there’s a huge difference in how we treat those two animals and how we think about them. Do we want to keep them completely separate? What do we lose or gain if wolves become more like coyotes?
People do notice and are trying to do something about it! I don’t know what she means by comparing ‘environmental groups’ with wolves and ‘nobody noticing’ with coyotes. “Nobody” notices or cares when either one is killed to be honest, and environmental groups notice and care about both!!
She’s glossing over the conflict in Europe, and as far as ‘how much wildness we want wolves to possess’? As much as they are entitled to and born to possess.
I’d like to see her write about the kai-oat killin’ contests and about how many people are trying to stop them, and who is behind the governmental killing of wildlife. It’s also never just a ‘single’ wolf killed during a hunt.
Her numbers are off as far as coyote killing too:
There’s a difference between ‘nobody noticing’ and actively hiding it from people, despite the accessible, everyperson (gag) tone of her piece.
I hope she has a good editor/factchecker.
Well, maybe this project will have the positive effect of bringing all the coyote killing to light to the public.
I don’t know why the new environmentalists don’t seem to support the national parks anymore either. She makes a sweeping implication that they are not kid friendly because a kid couldn’t play with gravel, but a lot of places do have kid interactive exhibits or activities where kids can have involvement? You do have to have a little bit of restraint for safety reasons. You can’t go up and pet the bison or the grizzlies!
The other things that bugs me about this interview with Emma Maris is that I’m getting an underlying sense of that old devil wolf hysteria from it; ‘obsession’ with OR-7 and his ‘crafty and cunning’ father (as if the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). And wolves mating with dogs? Is that a real problem? It seems more a function of carelessness of the owners (or perhaps when populations of wolves get extremely low, as with coywolves?) Perhaps any (legitimate) scientists she consults with can shed light on the matter. I doubt that a wolf is going to sneak into the house and abduct the dog a la Little Red Riding Hood. Unless we are wandering a bit into the genre of speculative fiction?
“Living happily side by side” with wolves has got to be one of the worst things I have ever heard.
Thanks Jim, for posting this information. I had read George’s review of Rambunctious Garden, but not the book itself.
Ms. Marris is right. We should accept our new reptilian overlords.
I had to LOL at this comment. Here’s another article:
Incredible! This Ms. Marris is one objectionable person.
She wants to feel good about disordered environmental change, so she tells us it is interesting, perhaps lovable. We should relax and accept the inevitable.
She is certainly not one who believes in a struggle to keep or make things right.
.I think we’re gonna need the Ed O Wilsons and the Emma Marris’s both to get much done in the next few years. Kind of like tolerating pushy southern baptists…or mormons…or Jehovah’s witnesses with Christianity…let the whole spectrum of viewpoints get out there, and then find holes in their arguments for their own good. I think that’s a fair point of view, without offending the ‘extremities’ on either end. Btw, I’m way over towards the Wilson side, but see Marris as ‘useful’ and will leave it at that. You need all the colors to see the whole spectrum, even if you hate yellow…or indigo, etc.
Ralph, This is not my take on “Ms Marris” Your and Georges attack on her seems more personal than founded in conservation. I have read her book Rambunctious Gardens. She rightfully expresses that things can not be returned to 1650 and that in todays world we must try to improve things we can. She gave many examples in her book. Her Chapter on “Conservation Everywhere?” enlightened me as to what can be done. Her take on agricultural lands and improvements in those areas are something I have personally accomplished. I don’t understand this article and the attack that is made on her. In my view the other end of the spectrum of conservation is the “return everything back to 1650 mentality” which now appears you and George are part of? I also agree with the premise that humans were part of the landscape EVEN back in 1650.
Outdoorfunnut, First, George’s critique was not on Ms. Marris’ book per se. I doubt they’d disagree with her ideas of planting hedgerows on farmlands, or planting medium strips in cities with butterfly plants. What is dangerous are her ideas regarding the vast ecosystems such as we have here in WY, MT, and ID, and how designer landscapes are acceptable altercations of them.
One of the main flaws in her argument is that she accuses restoration ecologists of setting a time period in the past as their ideal. Although I am not a scientist, I have worked on many restoration projects and that is simply not what I’ve observed. If a creek used to support salmon and trout, but because of sewage, silting, etc. now doesn’t, would you say that working on cleaning that up to bring back the fish is going backwards to an idealist time in the past? Of course not. You’d say that a healthy creek which supports wildlife is what we want. Like many faulty arguments, she makes assumptions and chooses her facts to reflect what she wants her outcome to be.
Lesle, The east end of my property is a prime example of your stream storyline. We were having issues with some beaver that had moved in and flooded parts of mine and my neighbors property (mostly theirs). I personally thought the beaver thing was great but not so much for my neighbor. In making decisions with the neighbors it was decided to rid the small river bottom of the beavers and breach the dam to relieve the flooding on the farm land.
Now, with my research we added a control drain to allow us to relieve water at different heights. We have tested it and it seems to be working great. The dam was somewhat put back (we are not as good as beavers) but we have not brought the water level even close to what it was. Our next step is to talk to a neighbor about some minor timber we will drowned if we continue to raise it. Our big dream is to do a land swap with the farmer and get it back to where the beavers had it.
Why do I say all this? Because, as we talk about here we have two different ways of “saving nature” From what I have read on Emma I’m doing what she advocates.
What would some of the tactics of the other way be? Well, they would get the local paper to write a article of how they are killing all the beavers in our neck of the woods and to send money to save the beaver and try to get the local bullhead on the Endangered Species Act so they could really bully the local farmers and pocket some EAJA dollars ;o).
We thought we had some new beavers move back in but. I’m not as sure as I was earlier in the spring.
Like I said, her examples of restoration for city and rural living might hold as those landscapes are incredibly broken already. But do we want designer landscapes along the RMF or the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? I think nature can take care if itself fine in wilderness et al. I am not against rural farmers or city folks doing their best. I spent 20 years pushing wildlife gardens, keeping native and non-native bees, etc. But her philosophy has its limits.
Also, I have been pushing to restore beavers to the Shoshone NF around my area. It’s a hard sell with the landowners esp. those that flood irrigate. Others just have prejudices against them. I have done extensive research on beavers and they have found that in places where they are trying to restore salmon, they have much more success with beavers there than without. They are also now being touted as very important to the drying West.
Leslie, I’m a newcomer to the beaver world. They have been a pet project of mine for over a year now. I’m excited to say we have had some new beaver activity in our river bottom (based on what a Turkey hunter told my neighbor). I’m taking a hike today to check it out.
I think she is spot on with regards to wilderness. The unattainable wonderland you call “wilderness” is a bottomless pit for tax dollars. Those that benefit from those tax dollars love “wilderness”. The part of wilderness that I don’t understand is that humans have been part of the landscape for thousands of years. Now, we have people saying they want their “hands off” mantra in one breath and claiming they want “balance” in the next.
“humans have been part of the landscape for thousands of years”
Yes, humans have been a part of the landscape but not in such obscene numbers as we see today, ODFN. The pollution of lands, waterways and other life forms (because of our needs) is glaring proof that we are no longer in harmony with the landscape.
And then, there’s the waste!
“The unattainable wonderland you call “wilderness” is a bottomless pit for tax dollars. Those that benefit from those tax dollars love “wilderness”.”
Outdoorfun, not sure what you mean by this. Bottomless pits for tax dollars are things like cattle/sheep subsidies on public lands or oil/gas subsidies. How is wilderness itself a bottomless pit? And what would you do a’ la Marris with our present wilderness?
Leslie, Population estimates of 10 to 50 natives living here when Whiteman arrived are the current estimates of those days gone by (1400ad / 1500ad). Some estimate the population at 50 to 100 million. All of which were where hunters and gatherers. Keep in mind that our current population is 315 million and most live in cities.
We only have 13.5 million hunters here in the US.
I was taught in school that Europeans and Africans inadvertently brought diseases and illnesses to this continent that the Natives were nowhere near immune to. The resulting decimation of the population had a profound effect on the Environment. By the late 1700s and early 1800s one in ten (minimum) natives died. I often see people referencing Lewis and Clark and what they saw as being “balanced nature” But the truth is it wasn’t and neither is places like Yellowstone. Archaeological evidence of Natives camp sites tells us Native killed predators and killed them in high numbers as compared to the prey they kill. The waste I talk about is from groups that want to protect predators at all cost. When the truth is some removal of predators from the eco-systems is normal and balance.
Can you think of two predators that we are currently spending a arm and leg on? Would spending that arm and leg on habitat for all animals benefit more creatures?
Current law here in WI allows the neighbors up stream to remove that beaver dam that was flooding there acreage even on private land. I think what we did here with regards to beaver is a great route to go with regards to wildlife and wild places. Much can be learned.
Wisconsin DNR has had a couple of screws loose in their collective noggin since Walker appointed Cathy Stepp as the department’s secretary. I don’t think there is much to be learned from your (and my parent’s) state’s environmental and wildlife policies anymore.
Outdoorfunnut, while the Indigenous people of this continent certainly were hunters and gatherers not all were only hunters and gatherers. It boils down to the time period. My tribe, for instance, during the Missippian period were hunters and gatherers but later became farmers. There’s a lot to it, but there is a lot of variation among different tribes and/or groups of tribes. (regionally based).
You are correct that many of the Indigenous people here died in the thousands due to being introduced to foreign pathogens. This still happens with people in the Amazon that have not been exposed to Western people. However, that is certainly not the only thing that decimated the population of Indigenous on this continent. A genocide happened on this continent. There are many excellent resources on the Andrew Jackson period. It was genocide.
As for hunting predators, yes Indigenous did kill predators but to try and compare the numbers and the reasons for killing a predator with what transpired once Europeans began to settle the first colonies is like comparing a machine gun to a sling shot. An entirely different economic philosophy was introduced to this continent with the arrival of Europeans. Private ownership; ‘owning the land’; ‘owning the wildlife’, and with that ideology came the war on anything that threatened that ownership—–predators. And remember, those early colonists did not know how to hunt unless they came out of the English Aristocracy. In England, only landowners were allowed to hunt. It was under the monarchies that the concept of ‘owning the wildlife’ emerged.
As for things being ‘more balanced’ during the Lewis and Clark expedition, yes, they were. I think people that say that really mean that all things were following the more natural ebb and flow of whatever particular natural system they are referring. There were fewer people so that is one factor, but only one factor.
“Archaeological evidence of Natives camp sites tells us Native killed predators and killed them in high numbers as compared to the prey they kill.”
Likely, this is going to be a difficult sell to most Indigenous people. This is a pretty big continent and the people here prior to the arrival of the early explorers, and even, the first colonists all are varied. I think we must be prudent in not falling into speaking in terms with a broad brush.
Yvette, If you read on the subject one in ten is not “thousands” its millions! And that is on the conservative side. Europe was not immune to such phenomena and the documented “black death” is one of many examples.
Don’t get me wrong on this, Andrew Jackson is not my favorite politician. BUT when you compare MILLIONS upon MILLIONS of natives dying of disease to Jackson and what he and his CONGRESS did you distort history. The biggest beef you have with him is the Indian relocation act which his congress passed and he signed. From what I remember, that Act move around 50000 thousand Natives from east of the Mississippi to the west. A bad winter then killed 5000 of them??? Some scholars say he prevented more wide spread fighting and death because people were not putting up with finding dead Whiteman without their scalps. Disease was the biggest enemy of historic natives, Jackson is historic natives biggest straw man.
I just lost my respect for ‘Dot Earth’!
Ida, did you listen to the interview at the end?
“L.A. is an example of diversity as far as their trees?”
I just watched it. Whaaaat? 🙂
I see what you mean though, for urban areas, I think making more green space is great. But we’ve got to save places from encroachment for other living things. The Florida panther example she used – it would have been better if we hadn’t let it get to that point where in order to save the panther from extinction, genes from a subspecies had to be introduced. All along the way, there had been chances to protect habitat from development, or build overpasses etc. for roads which is a huge threat. We need to be firmer in putting our foot down.
I don’t believe anyone wants perfect, but as George says, to prevent any more losses. In the example from yesterday, the Ecomodernist Manifesto, they mentioned bringing back wooly mammoths. Why would anyone want to do that, when we’ve got animals threatened currently? It’s puzzling.
I’m dismayed by the tone of this wolf project, because again, it seems to be singling out wolves from other creatures, or maybe that is what she will be examining, why humans do that.
I don’t hate snakes either, I love them. If I encountered a python in the Everglades, I’d be kinda thrilled (as long as I lived to tell about it). It’s a terrible tragedy that they are being destroyed because of human whims. I don’t think people see them as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. There again, we need to stop the importation of these poor animals at the source, not with a half measures like we have now. 🙂
I think she is writing about wolves so she could raise money and wolves as a subject will sell more books.
The problem with Marris’ Rambunctious Garden book is that some of her logic makes sense depending upon where it is applied. Thus she mixes it all up, blender-style, and therefore confuses the general public who does not have in-depth knowledge of ecosystems and how they function. If you look at the reviews, you can see what I mean. Here is my review from last year on Amazon:
Marris’ opinion seems to run the gamut and like a good writer, she was building her case with each chapter but without much depth of real facts. She is relentless in her criticism of restoration ecologists. I’d say that’s the one opinion that never changes. Yet I found much of what she discusses as ‘new and novel’ has been going on for a long time. For instance, while she beats on ecologists trying to restore ecosystems to an arbitrary baseline that they’ve decided on, she says, in truth most restoration work isn’t like that. A lot of restoration work doesn’t try to go back to some imaginary place in the past, but looks to restore habitat for specific species that the area can support.
I found her chapter on city/suburbia life simply advocating and rehashing things that have been going on for over 15 years. As a landscape designer for over 20 years in California, what she talked about is old news as far as tearing out lawns, creating wildlife habitat in nooks and crannies, using natives, etc.
The book might get you thinking about how mixed up and manipulated our earth has become, and it’s always good to get city folks, farmers, ranchers, etc. to think about hedgerows and habitat. But Marris does a great disservice in equating these places as having the same value (or when she talks about designer landscapes, more value) as large tracts of wild lands. Large areas of wilderness are necessary if we want to preserve the full array of wildlife including predators like grizzlies and wolves–and for our human spirit. Saying L.A.’s wide variety of trees as being a more diverse landscape “than many ecosystem types” is downright absurd. Marris needs to go on some extended backpacking trips in real wilderness to appreciate it. In the end, after all her scientific posturing of this and that person she talked to or quotes, it just comes down to her being more comfortable in a man-made, human size environments such as suburbia.
+ 1 Leslie. I haven’t read her book but your post of your review is spot on, as usual. Your points are spot on.
Her book, as you can see, left me steaming! I’m sure her wolf one will too.
I didn’t read the first one because I would have been steaming too. I have no doubt the wolf one will also. 🙂
I tried to post a comment with a link yesterday and tried again today, but it doesn’t show up. This has happened before in the past on this site. Not sure what the glitch is about, but the article is an excellent example of what George is talking about.
The article is titled, “Anthropocene Fever” and is on the Aeon Magazine site. It’s a uk site, but the writing is usually excellent. Good magazine. The article is definitely worth reading. It’s disconcerting to have yet one more group of people we have to confront to try and protect what wildlife and wild lands we have left on this planet. A professor of law at the U. of North Carolina wrote the article and has a forthcoming book.
A critique of the Breakthrough Institute George refers to. So it seems there are a conglomerate of anti-environmentalists singing one tune but different harmonies. So Marris might not exactly say this, but BI’s emphasis on ‘technology will save us’ echoes her voice. The unfortunate thing about this kind of message, is that today’s public, although they love their Parks etc., are also so hooked into their technology that this message is something they want to believe. It is a salve that soothes feelings of helplessness.