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The Conservation Movement: Time For Thought

For months now, the internet and surely conservation board meeting rooms have been abuzz over an article, "The Death of Environmentalism," by two conservationists, M. Shellenberger and T. Nordhaus. While their epistle focused on global warming and what is a seemingly obvious and clear argument that conservationists in this country have been low key and unpersuasive in marching the global warming issue to the forefront, it focused on the diminishing energy of a once robust and broad-based environmental movement. The best place to catch up on this debate, if you've not followed it, is Grist Magazine,

The responses to the allegation that environmentalism is dead (and needs to be reinvented) have been equally vigorous, from acceptance and defiance, both expected, to a defiant-sort-of-apology, acknowledging our weaknesses and failures while simultaneously touting our successes, to a defiant-sort-of-acceptance. Responses have ranged from now-is-not-the-time-to-acquiesce, but to push-our-limits even further to the now-is-the-time-to-enter-into-discussion and reclaim the radical-center and the high ground of politics. While most of the responses have been deep, thoughtful and filled with struggle, some are just the typical language of self-aggrandizing righteousness. And some has been good old spin - we shouldn't be taking this discussion too public because the other side will grab it, use it to their benefit, and make us appear even weaker.

It is really a much older discussion than the last few months... or the last four years, for that matter. It is very much needed and very frustrating. It may be the prime indication the environmental/conservation movement isn't dying but is in need of and engaging in an ever-constant reflection.

Cleary, these days are as dim and blurry as we have seen. It seems a rare day that we don't face a new dilemma. Our collective community knew that GWB did not harbor much of a conservation ethic, but we certainly overlooked his zeal, willingness and capability to undue and alter the direction of conservation. He didn't do this alone or with a handful of advisers. It is deeper.

But is it some line of faults of the conservation/ environmental movement? Have we acquiesced too much, not enough? Minced our words too often? Failed to broaden our coalition, which often means the safe ideological phraseology must be put aside to accommodate other languages? Are we fearful of living outside that safe, long-developed conservation phraseology? Have we become addicted to the courts or paralegal appeals to the extent that we forget they are the epitome of the mainstream? Or that we hold as success the number of appeals and court cases filed, regardless of whether they take us anywhere? Or are we plain hypocrites, whining about how much money the "other side" has while coveting more and more funds and grants so we can compete economically with the money grubbers? We complain about the ability of the "other side," including the government, to hire public relations groups and use experts to "frame" the issues, only to hire the same firms to frame our own. Have we been deceived by the electronic World Wide Web and how easy it is to send out hundreds of thousands of messages and alerts and obtain rapid responses to comment periods, believing this is an indication of political power and democracy at work and not the proverbial shallow support a mile wide and inch deep?

Or, in spite of all of our good work, has America just basically changed? Nothing and nobody has ever said progress (that itself is undefined) is linear and always moving toward some obvious better state wherein the air will be cleaner, wilderness more wild, grizz flourish, whales sing or wolves return to Utah.

Maybe we've missed the real issue: there are just too damn many of us everywhere, and too damn many of us in America use too damn much of everything, expect to be able to go damn well where and when we want!

Maybe the conservation community just can't get its collective arms around what we are because we can't define what we are... and never will. When I was the Utah Regional Representative of the Wilderness Society way back in the mid-'70s, I was having dinner with a friend who asked me why there were so many groups doing conservation work? It was a serious question and I sort of shrugged it off with what seemed then and still today the obvious answer: There is a lot of stuff going on and it takes a lot of groups and people to deal with it... There are far more today than yesterday and they come and go and then come again as second iterations. Our collective conscience, if you will, has yet to find a way or find it right to instill a monistic conservation system.

Simply put, we have a broad metaphysical language and a lot of right answers under that umbrella. Just in the last few months, a classic tale of the above has occurred. Congress passed and GWB signed a wilderness bill in Nevada that designated 14 wildernesses in Lincoln County. From three or four very wise people, all of whom have distinguished themselves in the conservation movement, I heard these stories (of course, paraphrased):

  • 'One of the most dangerous and bad wilderness bills ever passed by Congress because of the compromises dealing with acres, places and public land give-aways.'
  • 'Why can't the wilderness gods work this in Utah?'
  • 'Be glad they didn't. I wish it wouldn't happen anywhere because the precedents are so bad with some areas not being designated and because of the fact that a large block of public land was given to local government.'
  • 'I say it again: look at the wonderful success in the recent Nevada wilderness billall parties entered into a collaborative effort and a lot of crucial wilderness was protected. This is the only way wilderness will be protected'

Like it or not, as much as wilderness is about wilderness, it is equally about politics, and the divorce will be impossible, and the marriage always rocky.

That is why we have so many groups and why we will struggle to find a simple path with the right answer. Politics is local, politics is regional, politics is national, politics is international. Someday we may find politics is universal. In fact, Vaclav Havel has already given us that lesson - genuine politics is a matter of serving those around us and those who come after us. He said genuine politics must become a "memory of being."

So what to do? Is the North Slope of Alaska actually going to be drilled for puny amounts of oil and gas? Or the North Slope of the Uintas roadless country drilled for something beyond the pale of puny amounts of oil and gas? Does it matter that non-native fish swim in High Uintas Wilderness lakes that evolved without them? Will American conservation groups and all Americans realize global warming/ climate change is pivotal?

Obviously, and with a degree of embarrassment, there are no answers from this writer. I know a couple of things, simple though they may be:

  1. Our language and stories must change. That will only happen if we keep speaking them. Your silent voice is just that silent.
  2. It may or may not take a very wise "leader" to get us back on a winding and wild path. Our changing language may produce that leader either as an entity or a movement.
  3. We have no choice but to wait... and act... and hope no direction taken is irreversible.
  4. We need to live simpler lives, easier lives and then move them to an even simpler and easier style and then again and again. This seems as difficult as anything else.
  5. Conservation must become first person, not third person, not policy, not science. Now, don't all yell at once. Science is crucial, policies equally so, massive hundreds-of-areas-millions-of-acres of wilderness proposals notable, maybe even visionary. But conservation has to be within us. We have to care and know about places to understand them.

Dick Carter


To you good HUPC members, friends and readers, we open the future editions of the LYNX to this discussion. A silent voice is silent.
Send us your 500-1000 word essays focusing on the death, revitalization, vision, hope, hopelessness of environmentalism/ conservation. What to do now? How? Why? If you can focus it on the Uintas, great; if not, great!
The only guidelines are write it well, without hostility, and preferably without comment on the last writer. Send it by email so it does not have to be re-typed. And then send another comment a couple of months later. Your name and phone number are required so we can check to make sure it is from you! Editing will be dependent upon clarity, not content. Keep it around 750 words and a lot less editing will be required.
The LYNX is set up the last week of May, July, September... you get it. As long as responses arrive, they will be published. If none are received, silence will be the norm.

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