In yesterday’s post, I quoted Stan Goff as saying that conservation is the only solution to the coming energy crisis. The word ‘conservation’ is an ambiguous one, which is one reason why politicians can get away with saying they support it without doing anything. At its root, ‘not doing anything’ is, after all, what the word implies. Until about a century ago, it referred to protection of artworks and other cultural artefacts. More recently it has come to refer to protection of nature, in four senses:

  1. Conservation of commercial natural resources (forests, mineral resources, fish, oil) — Goff’s meaning
  2. Conservation of land for recreational purposes (e.g. local parks)
  3. Conservation of non-commercial natural resources (e.g. endangered species)
  4. Conservation of land as wilderness

George Bush, who favours drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, snowmobiles in Yellowstone, and logging and logging roads everywhere, calls himself a conservationist. He considers wilderness to be wasted space, but sees the value in conserving natural resources (so fishermen and loggers don’t find themselves unemployed and vote against him), and in keeping some treed and grassed areas and unpolluted lakes, and huntable and photographable animals, for human amusement.

A more generous definition of conservation is used by most environmental organizations, a definition which includes conservation of land as wilderness, where other creatures are relatively free from human interference, and recognizes that heavy human activity, even in the interests of recreation, degrades the land. But even these defenders of conservation are utilitarian, and carefully couch their defense of wilderness as necessary for “human self-discovery” and, again ambiguously, for “posterity”.

And then there are those, like David Suzuki for instance, who value wilderness and biodiversity for its own sake, who see nature as sacred and believe that as much of the Earth as possible should remain in ecological balance, with a human footprint so light (e.g. eco-tourism) that it does not upset that balance. With most of the temperate and arable land of Earth already developed for human uses, there are now four types of wilderness that could still be protected:

  • polar, tundra, desert and scrub areas with no mineral resources beneath them, areas that have no commercial value
  • a few marginal or deep-forest areas still populated by hunter-gatherer tribal cultures
  • a few tropical forest areas that have not yet been bulldozed for forestry, mining or agricultural purposes
  • a few designated, protected wilderness forests and wildlife preserves

But to actually preserve land as wilderness is considered by most romantic folly, naive, even selfish — depriving humans who ‘need’ it from having it all. Since it has no human economic value it is considered by most to have no value at all.

Humans aren’t the only adaptable creatures on Earth, and most ‘wildlife’ (non-agricultural, non-domesticated plants and animals) now lives in areas that have been moderately or heavily encroached upon by human activity, areas where the natural balance is constantly disrupted but wildlife makes do. So anti-wilderness forces can argue that wilderness isn’t necessary to protect wildlife — it can go on living on the margins of human development, and provide entertainment for humans in the process (“Look, Mom, a fox!”, or, more likely, “What’s that squished on the road, Mom?”)

This leaves conservation organizations in a bit of a quandary. They want donations from those with a George Bush definition of conservation (like the Ducks Unlimited folks) and also from those with a David Suzuki definition of conservation (like the Green Party). Beggars can’t be choosers, and the former group of donors are, on the whole, much wealthier than the latter. So policies must be designed to waffle as much as possible, so as not to alienate either gun-lovers or tree-huggers. Occasionally, as in the recent Sierra Club blow-up, one faction or another insists that the organization take a stand that would clearly define what ‘conservation’ means to them. In that case, tree-hugger conservationists ran a slate of candidates calling for zero population growth and immigration curbs to achieve that end, on the basis that conservation (in the wilderness protection sense) is impossible with a population that will more than double or triple in this century. The gun-lover conservationists cried foul, accused the opposing faction of racism, and orchestrated a successful campaign to discredit and defeat the tree-huggers, using tactics so outrageous the result of the vote is now in the courts. But ultimately they can’t have it both ways. Organizations with such utterly irreconcilable factions are as anachronistic as the old racist Southern ‘Democrats’ who opposed everything in their party’s platform. Eventually, the Sierra Club and other conservationist organizations will split into two groups — gun-lover conservationists, who want animals to kill for amusement and well-groomed trails for their power vehicles, and tree-hugger conservationists, who want wilderness and biodiversity preserved. The latter group will be the losers, financially, but there will then, finally, be some candid, honest discussion and advocacy for wilderness and biodiversity.

And maybe then, there will be some non-hysterical, non-xenophobic discussion of population ‘stabilization’, or even population reduction, in North America, and of the need for drastic conservation of natural resources (commercial and non-commercial), the former because current consumption is unsustainable and destroying the atmosphere, the environment and the third world, and the latter because, just like peace and democracy and human rights, the protection of wilderness and biodiversity is to some of us also a moral imperative. Not only is this different from the ‘conservation’ represented by the atrocious private fenced hunting preserves that Dick Cheney and his psychopathic cronies so enjoy, it is their absolute antithesis.

So now we get into the Lakoffian issue of how to ‘frame’ conservation in a way that the vast majority of first-world people, inculcated with the ‘value’ system of Christian religious orthodoxy, consumerism and ‘regulation is bad’ untrammelled corporatism, can appreciate and even support. Lakoff suggests that progressives need to stress ‘policy directions’ such as “Let’s have a sustainable environment” and “Working people shouldn’t be living in poverty” and “Everybody should have health care and a good education.” These statements of principle appeal to basic American, and global, human values. The only way you can argue with them is to change the frame (“People who are poor are just not working hard enough”) and progressives are finally learning not to allow conservatives to frame everything in these manipulative, demeaning, elitist terms. But it’s a long way from progressive anthropocentric principles like “Let’s have a sustainable environment” to ecocentric principles like  “Let’s protect wilderness and biodiversity”. I’ve even heard neocons quite sincerely accuse radical environmentalists (when they’re not calling them “eco-terrorists”) of religious, pantheistic zealotry, saying that wilderness protection laws are as much violations of the separation of church and state as anti-abortion or sharia laws. I’ve also heard labour leaders say that wilderness protection laws are un-progressive, because by restricting human activity they reduce jobs.

Is there some way to frame the need for conservation (in the ‘protection of wilderness and biodiversity’ sense) in secular, non-anthropocentric terms, or is this oxymoronic? After all, Suzuki himself describes the ethos of wilderness conservation as preserving “a sacred balance”. And if we cannot frame this conservation in secular terms. must we acknowledge, as Peter Singer has said, that politics and law are inherently and irretrievably anthropocentric, and that protection of animal rights and wilderness and biodiversity and all other things non-human are outside their jurisdiction? Does that mean that, exactly as devout anti-abortionists can only shake their heads and fists as they pass by abortion clinics, conservationists of the tree-hugger variety can only stand by helplessly as the last wilderness areas, and the last wild animals on earth, are destroyed, as animals are carelessly and indifferently run down on the roads, and as truckloads of helpless animals are driven from horrendous factory-farm prisons to their ghastly death in slaughterhouses?

There are two arguments advanced by wilderness conservationists and animal rights activists for saying their cause is different from religious causes, and hence deserve legal protection rather than just hands-off treatment. The first is that man, under most anthropocentric worldviews, both progressive and conservative, is the ‘steward’ of the Earth, and therefore has a responsibility for its welfare. That’s a nice principle, but one that doesn’t stand up to much challenge: “When we have to choose between human needs and wilderness needs, there’s not really a choice, is there?”

The second argument is that humans are part of nature, and therefore the welfare of man depends on the welfare of the natural world, so the natural world needs legal protection. This, too, is a nice principle, but its application to law runs immediately into semantic minefields: Who’s to say cities and golf courses and all other human uses of the land aren’t ‘natural’? What’s the line between a bird’s nest and a condominium? This argument at its heart is anthropocentric, since only when it can be demonstrated that some ‘unnatural’ activity actually hurts human welfare can it then be made illegal. That’s no change from the law as it stands now.

So the wilderness conservationists and animal rights activists and anti-vivisectionists (those opposed to animal torture for science or commercial research) are backed into a corner: Their cause, like the cause of anti-abortionists and those that abhor the eating of certain meats, is deemed ultimately one of personal faith, and, while each of us has the right to exercise his or her personal faith, we will find the law unwilling to impose it on the rest of humanity. Even practitioners of religions that entail bloodthirsty religious animal sacrifices now have the right to practice their personal faith, so long as it does not overtly harm other humans.

There is a crack in this legal armour, and that is the existing animal cruelty laws in many (but not all) nations. Weak as they are, they represent important anomalies in our legal and political codes. Agribusiness, more than aware of the horrendous cruelty that occurs behind the walls of factory farms, have effectively exempted farmed animals from such laws, and religions whose ‘purification’ rites require torture of animals at the point of slaughter are also exempted. Ambiguous animal rights laws are furiously opposed by hunters, laboratories, factory farmers and other ‘users’ of animals. Yet some of these laws remain, carefully couched as laws governing human ‘property’. Why have these not been struck down as ultra vires, outside the law’s jurisdiction? Probably for the same reasons that laws prohibiting suicide, or the taking of unauthorized drugs, remain on the books: The law has no compunction about passing laws that support a prevailing moral view when they do not ‘unduly’ interfere with human freedoms, including commercial freedoms. Here’s where it gets dicey: A law prohibiting suicide, or a law prohibiting the mainlining of heroin, is not substantively different from a law prohibiting abortion, or a law prohibiting all forms of animal cruelty by anyone, or a law prohibiting any further development of wilderness areas. All five are strictly moral issues, issues of personal faith, in which the law has, by action or inaction, taken a stand. Suicide and heroin use are illegal, with severe fines, abortion is illegal in some countries and under some circumstances but legal in others, while animal cruelty is mostly legal, and wilderness development is (except in a few small areas temporarily afforded legal protection) completely legal. Why do we make these distinctions?

Let’s take a look at a couple of areas where we have made an about face on the law in the last two centuries: Slavery and Corporate Personhood. At one time slavery was legal in much of the world, and defended as essential to commercial success. And at one time corporations had no rights whatsoever except for the shareholders’ right to limited liability in the case of financial demise or legal wrongdoing arising from circumstances over which they had no control. Today slavery is mostly illegal, and corporations have substantially the same rights as humans, and in some cases even more rights than humans. And cigarette smoking remains legal and highly commercial, though it is increasingly restricted — largely on the dubious arguments about the health effects of second-hand smoke — and viewed as morally and socially repugnant. And the emission of dioxins into the atmosphere, horrendous toxins with major, known health consequences, while restricted, is also legal and highly commercial.

Conservation LawsHere’s a table that shows, then, that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, anthropocentrism is not a central determinant of the domain of law. I’ve added in a few more illegal things to complete the chart: Wiretapping (without reasonable cause), polygamy, and dangerous driving. Things that are (mostly) illegal are shown in red, and those that are (mostly) legal are shown in green. If you believe the domain of law is restricted to issues of human rights and responsibilities, then there should be no laws against suicide or heroin, and corporations should never have been granted ‘personhood’. And if you believe the domain of law, under the principle of separation of church and state, does not concern itself with issues of personal faith, then there should be no laws against suicide or polygamy.

The chart shows a very different hypothesis about the law: That it concerns itself with non-commercial issues, and refuses to pass laws banning or significantly restricting commercial activities. Why, then, is heroin illegal, when it could be a huge commercial success? Because it interferes with the commercial productivity (labour and consumption) of workers, with a higher commercial cost than the benefits of commercial heroin production would produce. Why isn’t abortion, which is not a lucrative commercial business, illegal? In much of the world it is, and if Bush is re-elected and continues to stack the Supreme Court, it probably will be in the US soon as well. And what about slavery — doesn’t its illegality mean that human rights trump commercial interests? I would argue that while physical slavery is finally illegal in much of the world, economic slavery is rife and growing. More than half of first-world workers believe they are significantly under-employed, have wages that in real terms have been dropping for over two decades and a debt load that yokes them to the corporate machine most of them are part of. And don’t even get me started on working conditions in the third world.

So, despite all the historic protestations that the law doesn’t get into wilderness or biodiversity conservation or animal rights issues in any serious way because these are personal, moral issues not connected with human rights, the reality is that the law is heavily into such issues — banning suicide, polygamy, and heroin use, for example — and its criteria for refusing to get involved are strictly commercial, which is why tobacco production, manufacture and sale of semi-automatic weapons, and release of toxic poisons into our air and water, are all legal, why corporations today have more rights than people (and keep most of us as wage slaves), and why laws to conserve wilderness and biodiversity, or to protect animals from cruelty, don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being passed.

It’s even worse than that: Bush is busy selling off the people’s lands to private commercial interests (mostly his campaign financiers) so that, not only will there be no wilderness or endangered species left, there will soon be no recreation land or non-renewable resources left either. Recreation is almost never the most lucrative commercial use (called “the highest and best use” by economists) of land, so Bush is freeing it for more intensive purposes: logging, mining, dam reservoirs, high-density residential and commercial development. Only then will it have value. And the natural resources on these lands only have commercial value when they’re consumed. Conservation, like long-term planning, is an absurd concept in the acquisitive capitalist economy: By using up what you have quickly, you create scarcity, which increases the value of what is left and motivates commercial interests to dig even deeper (like burning tons of coal, and building hundreds of new nuclear reactors) to capitalize on that scarcity. So no matter which of the four definitions of conservation listed at the start of this article you adhere to, it just ain’t going to happen in this economic system, in this political system, in this legal system.

Adam Smith said, famously, “the real purpose of government is to protect those who run the economy from the outrage of injured citizens”, and the law is their principal tool for doing so.

Back to Lakoff: Now we have a much greater, and more important challenge, in framing our message to the people. Our message must be ecocentric rather than anthropocentric, but “Let’s protect wilderness and biodiversity” won’t do the job. Most progressives don’t even think in that frame-set. We need to create an entirely new frame-set that engages universal human values at a much more fundamental, less selfish, more instinctive way. A third way, different from both the anthropocentric ‘manifest destiny’ moralizing of conservatives and the anthropocentric ‘sustainable growth’ rationalizing of progressives.

Or, putting it another way, as Thomas King and Thomas Berry have said, we need to invent a new story about ourselves and our role on Earth.

This is what the Green Party has tried to do, but, as you can tell from the opinion polls, it isn’t catching on very quickly. Part of the reason for this is that, in their endeavour to win converts and be inclusive, they have tried to explain their position using conservative moral frames and progressive rational frames. Lakoff would tell them this is futile. You can’t get there from here. As Einstein put it, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.”

What would an ecocentric values frame-set look like? What would some of its principles and ‘policy directions’ be? We should probably start by listening to the stories and lessons of Earth’s last remaining tribal peoples. And listening to the land, the wilderness itself. Perhaps my novel, if I’m truly imaginative enough, and listen carefully enough, will be the new story. But that won’t be enough. We need the new ecocentric frame-set as well. We need to show people, billions of us, the third way.

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  1. gbreez says:

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…yes, the third way. :)

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    There’s another way (fourth way?) to look at it, that may make some sense even to the “nature as free resources for commercial exploitation” crowd. This involves looking at our situation in a larger frame: humanity as not separate from nature, drawing on it, but as embedded in it (also, planning based on a timeframe of centuries, even millenia). We are inescapably part of the environment — degrade the environment, and you sooner or later degrade the quality of human life. In the limit, we have the power to trigger a massive environmental change that will make human life unsupportable. (Although life as a whole will survive and adapt, just as it has many times before).From this viewpoint, the question becomes “how do we reconcile economics with ecologics”, understanding that ecologics is a given that we must adapt to. This probably doesn’t necessarily entail all the good things that Suzuki-style environmentalists would like, but it does make a strong case for being very careful about what we do. For example, “wilderness” produces a lot of things we need, and processes our waste products — two extremely valuable services.Even this way of seeing isn’t guaranteed to convince everyone that should be convinced. Thinking on that large a scale is difficult, and goes against well-established patterns of thinking. Also, there’s a strong streak of “apres moi, le deluge” thinking among the economic elites — “I’ve got mine, and it’ll last ’til I’m dead, let future people worry about the results” (I sometimes wonder if confronting such people with pictures of their grandchildren would break them loose from this attitude).

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Don: That’s precisely what we need to do. John Kerry should be up on the podium telling George Bush that his economic, social and environmental policies are all sending the same message: “Fuck our children and our grandchildren, too bad if they end up bankrupt, ravaged by man-made diseases and ruined by wars of retribution due to our actions today, we’re taking all we can grab now and future generations can go to hell.” But of course Mr. Kerry won’t say that.

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