Editor’s Note: Many environmentalists state their reason for wanting to stop the destruction on nature is because, according to them, there is no humanity without nature. As a biophilic organization, DGR believes that we should save nature because nature has an inherent worth (irrespective of the value for humans). The following article is written with the same sentiment.
Environmentalists rightly urge us to consider the long-term effects of our actions. Plastic bags, they point out, can take hundreds of years to decompose, while radioactive waste can remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. It could take the Earth’s biosphere several million years to recover from human-caused mass extinctions.
As an environmental philosopher, I spend a lot of time thinking about facts such as these. This can be depressing. Still, looking very far into the future offers a glimmer of hope. After all, our waste will eventually decompose. The ecosystems we have degraded will eventually recover.
To be sure, like all things, planet Earth will eventually meet its end, engulfed, perhaps, by the expanding sun. However, as comedian George Carlin once said, it will nonetheless “be here for a long, long, long time after we’re gone and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ‘cause that’s what it does”.
Only a few people, perhaps including Donald Trump, claim that this provides a reason to refrain from preserving biodiversity, reducing pollution or taking any other sort of environmental action. However, some think it tells us why such action is needed.
For them, the fact that the planet will eventually recover tells us that when environmental action is needed, it’s needed not for the planet’s sake, but for ours – for the sake of us humans.
Almost no matter what we do, life will persist on Mother Earth – she is one tough lady. Even if there is a massive extinction, slowly the number of species will recover. So it is not Mother Earth that we should worry about. It is the quality of our own lives.
Satya Tripathi, secretary-general of the Global Alliance for a Sustainable Planet, agrees:
We need to look at ourselves, be very selfish, stop making high-sounding claims that we are helping Mother Nature and the planet, [and] start telling that we are helping ourselves […] The planet does not need saving. Mother Nature was here billions of years ago, and she will be here after us.
The planet does not need saving. Mitigating the impacts of climate change isn’t for Earth’s sake. Rather, it is for our own survival […] Even if we choose to neglect the climate emergency, and cause the Earth’s environment to be inhabitable, planet Earth would still survive.
The argument implied by these claims runs as follows. Take some immense and near-invulnerable entity such as planet Earth or Mother Nature. That entity will eventually recover from whatever damage we humans do to it.
So we don’t need to engage in environmental action for the sake of anything as grand as planet Earth or Mother Nature. We need to do it for ourselves – for the sake of us humans.
This is an argument for “anthropocentrism”: the view that the non-human world only has value because it serves human interests. There are several things wrong with it. Here, though, let’s consider just one.
The anthropocentrists seem to assume that people can only ever take environmental action either for the sake of some gigantic entity such as planet Earth, or for the sake of human beings. So if we reject the first option, we must accept the second.
That, however, is a false dilemma. Other options are available.
For the sake of the animals
Take Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, for example. The anthropocentrists quoted above would, I expect, acknowledge that that huge area of highly biodiverse tropical forest should continue to be protected.
But they would add that it needn’t be protected for the sake of the planet. Even if the forest is levelled and transformed into coffee plantations, the planet will be just fine. Ditto Mother Nature.
They would add that Bukit Barisan Selatan should be protected for the sake of human beings – because it supplies certain people with vital material goods, for instance, or because it has cultural value for them.
But that is not the whole story. There is a third option – a third reason why the area should be protected.
Consider the non-human animals for whom the place is home. Consider the dishevelled, bear-like binturong, or the slow loris, a fluffy, owl-eyed mammal with a toxic bite. Or take the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran tiger or the Sumatran elephant. These animals are not just parts of planet Earth, Mother Nature or whatever. They are conscious individuals.
And, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and others have argued, they both deserve to flourish and need places in which they can flourish. So, although the forest really should be protected for our sakes, it should be protected for theirs too.
The anthropocentrists are, therefore, partly right. The planet doesn’t need saving. But acknowledging this does not mean we must be “very selfish” and devote all our efforts to saving ourselves. There are other reasons to protect the strange, wonderful and partly non-human world we inhabit.
Editor’s Note: Taking the context of Maryland’s forests, the following piece analyses how the mainstream environmental movement and pro-industry management actors have used deliberately misinterpreting to outright creation of information to justify commercial activities at the expense of forests. Industrial deforestation is harmful for the forests and the planet. The fact that this obvious piece of information should even be stated to educated adults affirms the successful (and deceitful) framing of biomass as an environmentally friendly way out of climate crisis. The same goes for deep sea mining.
Most would agree that we live in an age of multiple compounding catastrophes, planetary in scale. There is controversy, however, regarding their interrelationships as well as their causes. That controversy is largely manufactured. In the following pages I will describe the state of “forestry” in the state of Maryland, USA, and connect that to regional, national, and international stirrings of which we should all be aware. I will continue to examine connections between international conservation organizations, the co-optation of the environmental movement, the youth climate movement, and the financialization of nature. Full disclosure. I am writing this to human beings on behalf of all the non-human beings and those yet unborn who are recognized as objects to be converted to capital or otherwise used by the dominant culture. I am not a capitalist. I am a human being. I occupy unceded land of unrecognized peoples which is characterized by poisoned air, water and soil, devastated forest ecosystems, decapitated mountains, and collapsing biodiversity. I am of this earth. It is to the land, water and all of life that I direct my affection and gratitude as well as my loyalty.
Last winter, amid deep concerns about the present mass extinction and an unshakeable feeling of helplessness, I began to search for answers and ecological allies. I compiled a running list of local, regional, national, and international organizations that seemed to have at least some interest in the environment. The list quickly swelled to hundreds of entries. I attempted to assess the organizations based upon their mission, values, goals, publications and other such things. I hoped that the best of the best of these groups could be brought together around ecological restoration and the long-term benefits of clean air, water, healthy soil supporting vigorous growth of food and medicine, and rebounding biodiversity throughout our Appalachian homeland. Progress was and continues to be slow. Along the way, I encountered an open stakeholder consultation (survey) regarding a risk assessment of Maryland’s forests. As an ethnobotanist with special interests in forest ecology and stewardship, Indigenous societies and their traditional ecological knowledge, symbiotic relationships, and intergenerational sustainability, I realize that my unique perspectives could be helpful to the team conducting the assessment. I proceeded to submit thought provoking responses to each question. Because the consultation period was exceedingly brief and outreach to stakeholders was weak at best, and because the wording of the questions felt out of alignment with the purported purpose of the survey, I sensed that something was awry. So I saved my answers and resolved to stay abreast of developments.
Summer came around, I became busy, and the risk assessment survey faded from my mind until a friend recently emailed me a draft of the document along with notice of a second stakeholder consultation and the question: should we respond? This friend happens to own land registered in the Maryland Tree Farm Program. The selective outreach to forest landowners with large acreage was an indication as to who is and who is not considered a “stakeholder” by the committee.
After reviewing the Consultation Draft: A Sustainability Risk Assessment of Maryland’s Forests I felt sick. Low to Negligible was the risk assignment for every single criteria. I re-read the document – section by section – noting the ambiguity, legalese and industry jargon, lack of definitions, contradictory statements, false claims, poorly referenced and questionable sources, and more. Have you heard of greenwashing? Every tactic was represented in the 82 page document. Naturally, then, I tracked down and reviewed many of the referenced materials and I then investigated the contributors and funders of the report.
Noting, furthemore, that on the Advisory Committee sits a member of the Maryland Forests Association (MFA). On their website they state: “We are proud to represent forest product businesses, forest landowners, loggers and anyone with an interest in Maryland’s forests…” They also state: “Currently, Maryland’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard uses a limiting definition of qualifying biomass that makes it difficult for wood to compete against other forms of renewable energy,” oh yes, and this extraordinarily deceptive bit from a recent publication, There’s More to our Forests than Trees:
When the tree dies, it decays and releases carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere. However, we can postpone this process and extend the duration of carbon storage. If we harvest the tree and build a house or even make a chair with the wood, the carbon remains stored in these products for far longer than the life of the tree itself! This has tremendous implications for addressing the growing levels of carbon dioxide, which lead to increased warming of the earth’s atmosphere. It means harvesting trees for long-term uses helps mitigate climate change. We can even take advantage of the fact that trees sequester carbon at different rates throughout their lifespan to maximize the carbon storage potential. Trees are more active in sequestering carbon when they are younger. As forests age, growth slows down and so does their ability to store carbon. At some point, a stand of trees reaches an equilibrium where the growth and carbon-storing ability equals the trees that die and release carbon each year. Thus, a younger, more vigorous stand of trees stores carbon at a much higher rate than an older one.
Just in case you were convinced by that last bit, my studies in botany and forest ecology support the following finding:
“In 2014, a study published in Nature by an international team of researchers led by Nathan Stephenson, a forest ecologist with the United States Geographical Survey, found that a typical tree’s growth continues to accelerate (emphasis mine) throughout its lifetime, which in the coastal temperate rainforest can be 800 years or more.
Stephenson and his team compiled growth measurements of 673,046 trees belonging to 403 tree species from tropical, subtropical and temperate regions across six continents. They found that the growth rate for most species “increased continuously” as they aged.
Al Goertzl, president of Seneca Creek (a shadowy corporation with a benign name that has no website and pumps out reports justifying the exploitation of forests) who is featured in MFA’s Faces of Forestry, wouldn’t know the difference, he identifies as a forest economist. In another publication marketing North American Forests he is credited with the statements: “There exists a low risk that U.S. hardwoods are produced from controversial sources as defined in the Chain of Custody standard of the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).” and “The U.S. hardwood-producing region can be considered low risk for illegal and non-sustainable hardwood sourcing as a result of public and private regulatory and non-regulatory programs.” The report then closes with this shocker: “SUSTAINABILITY MEANS USING NORTH AMERICAN HARDWOODS.”
Why are forest-pimps conducting the risk assessment upon which future decisions critical to the long-term survival of our native ecosystem will be based? What is really going on here?
“Europe’s largest single source of renewable energy is sustainable biomass, which is a cornerstone of the EU’s low-carbon energy transition […] For the last decade, forest resources in the US South have helped to meet these goals—as they will in the future. This heavily forested region exported over <7 million metric tons of sustainable wood pellets in 2021 – primarily to the EU and UK – and is on pace to exceed that number in 2022 (emphasis mine) due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has pinched trade flows of industrial wood pellets from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.”
Sustainability means using North American hardwoods.
If it has not yet become clear, the stakeholder consultation for the forest sustainability risk assessment document which inspired this piece was but a small, local, component of an elaborate sham enabling the world to burn and otherwise consume the forests of entire continents – in comfort and with the guilt-neutralizing reassurance that: carbon is captured, rivers are purified, forests are healthy and expanding, biodiversity is thriving and protected, and “the rights of Indigenous and Traditional Peoples are upheld” as a result of our consumption. (FSC-NRA-USA, p71) That is the first phase of the plan – manufacturing / feigning consent. Next the regulatory hurdles must be eliminated or circumvented. Cue the Landscape Management Plan (LMP).
“Taken together, the actions taken by AFF [American Forest Foundation] over the implementation period have effectively set the stage for the implementation of a future DBC project to promote and expand SDE+1 qualifying certification systems for family landowners in the Southeast US and North America, generally.”
“As outlined in our proposal, research by AFF and others has demonstrated that the chief barrier for most landowners to participating in forest certification is the requirement to have a forest management plan. To address this significant challenge, AFF has developed an innovative tool, the Landscape Management Plan (LMP). An LMP is a document produced through a multi-stakeholder process that identifies, based on an analysis of geospatial data and existing regional conservation plans, forest conservation priorities at a landscape scale and management actions that can be applied at a parcel scale. This approach also utilizes publicly available datasets on a range of forest resources, including forest types, soils, threatened and endangered species, cultural resources and others, as well as social data regarding landowner motivations and practices. As a document, it meets all of the requirements for ATFS certification and is fully supported by PEFC and could be used in support of other programs such as other certification systems, alongside ATFS. Once an LMP has been developed for a region, and once foresters are trained in its use, the LMP allows landowners to use the landscape plan and derive a customized set of conservation practices to implement on their properties. This eliminates the need for a forester to write a complete individualized plan, saving the forester time and the landowner money. The forester is able to devote the time he or she would have spent writing the plan interacting with the landowner and making specific management recommendations, and / or visiting additional landowners.
With DBC support, AFF sought to leverage two existing LMPs in Alabama and Florida and successfully expanded certification in those states. In addition, AFF combined DBC funds with pre-existing commitments to contract with forestry consultants to design new LMPs in Arkansas and Louisiana. DBC grant funds were used to cover LMP activities between July 1, 2018 and December 31, 2018 for these states, namely stakeholder engagement, two stakeholder workshops (one in each state Arkansas and Louisiana) and staffing.” (American Forest Foundation, 2, 7).
It is clear that global interests / morally bankrupt humans have been busy ignoring the advice of scientists, altering definitions, removing barriers to standardization / certification, and manufacturing consent; thus enabling the widespread burning of wood / biomass (read: earth’s remaining forests) to be recognized as renewable, clean, green-energy. Imagine: mining forests as the solution to deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, and economic stagnation. Meanwhile, mountains are scalped, rivers are poisoned, forests are gutted, biological diversity is annihilated, and the future of all life on earth is sold under the guise of sustainability.
Sustainability means USING North American hardwoods!
The perpetual mining of forests is merely one “natural climate solution” promising diminishing returns for Life on earth. While the rush is on to secure the necessary public consent (but not of the free, prior, and informed variety) to convert the forests of the world into clean energy (sawdust pellets) and novel materials, halfway around the planet and 5 kilometers below the surface of the Pacific another “nature based solution” that will utterly devastate marine ecosystems and further endanger life on earth – deep sea mining (DSM) – is employing the same strategy. Like the numerous other institutions that are formally entrusted with the protection of forests, water, air, biodiversity, and human rights, deep sea mining is overseen by an institution which has contradictory directives – to protect and to exploit. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) has already issued 17 exploration contracts and will begin issuing 30-year exploitation contracts across the 1.7 million square mile Clarion-Clipperton zone by 2024 – despite widespread calls for a ban / moratorium and fears of apocalyptic planetary repercussions. After decades of environmental protection measures enacted by thousands of agencies and institutions throwing countless billions at the “problems,” every indicator of planetary health that I am aware of has declined. It follows, then, that these institutions are incapable of exercising caution, acting ethically, protecting ecosystems, biodiversity or indigenous peoples, holding thieves, murderers and polluters accountable, or even respecting their own regulatory processes. Haeckel sums up industry regulation nicely in a recent nature article regarding the nascent DSM industry:
“…Amid this dearth of data, the ISA is pushing to finish its regulations next year. Its council met this month in Kingston, Jamaica, to work through a draft of the mining code, which covers all aspects — environmental, administrative and financial — of how the industry will operate. The ISA says that it is listening to scientists and incorporating their advice as it develops the regulations. “This is the most preparation that we’ve ever done for any industrial activity,” says Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general, who sees the mining code as giving general guidance, with room to develop more progressive standards over time.
Of course, this “New Deal for Nature” requires “decarbonization” while producing billions of new electric cars, solar panels, wind mills, and hydroelectric dams. The metals for all the new batteries and techno-solutions have to come from somewhere, right? According to Global Sea Mineral Resources:
“Sustainable development, the growth of urban infrastructure and clean energy transition are combining to put enormous pressure on metal supplies.
Over the next 30 years the global population is set to expand by two billion people. That’s double the current populations of North, Central and South America combined. By 2050, 66 percent of us will live in cities. To support this swelling urban population, a city the size of Dubai will need to be built every month until the end of the century. This is a staggering statistic. At the same time, there is the urgent need to decarbonise the planet’s energy and transport systems. To achieve this, the world needs millions more wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicle batteries.
Urban infrastructure and clean energy technologies are extremely metal intensive and extracting metal from our planet comes at a cost. Often rainforests have to be cleared, mountains flattened, communities displaced and huge amounts of waste – much of it toxic – generated.
That is why we are looking at the deep sea as a potential alternative source of metals.”
Did you notice how there is scarcely room to imagine other possibilities (such as reducing our material and energy consumption, reorganizing our societies within the context of our ecosystems, voluntarily decreasing our reproductive rate, and sharing resources) within that narrative?
Do you still wonder why the processes of approving seabed mining in international waters and certifying an entire continent’s forests industry to be sustainable seem so similar? They are elements of the same scheme: a strategy to accumulate record profits through the valuation and exploitation of nature – aided and abetted by the non-profit industrial complex.
“The non-profit industrial complex (or the NPIC) is a system of relationships between: the State (or local and federal governments), the owning classes, foundations, and non-profit/NGO social service & social justice organizations that results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements.
The state uses non-profits to: monitor and control social justice movements; divert public monies into private hands through foundations; manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism; redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society; allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work; and encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them.” (Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex | INCITE!).
The emergence of the NPIC has profoundly influenced the trajectory of global capitalism largely by inventing new conservation and the youth climate movement –
“What’s infuriating about manipulations by the Non Profit Industrial Complex is that they harvest the goodwill of the people, especially young people. They target those who were not given the skills and knowledge to truly think for themselves by institutions which are designed to serve the ruling class. Capitalism operates systematically and structurally like a cage to raise domesticated animals. Those organizations and their projects which operate under false slogans of humanity in order to prop up the hierarchy of money and violence are fast becoming some of the most crucial elements of the invisible cage of corporatism, colonialism and militarism.” (THE MANUFACTURING OF GRETA THUNBERG – FOR CONSENT: THE GREEN NEW DEAL IS THE TROJAN HORSE FOR THE FINANCIALIZATION OF NATURE [ACT V]).
We must understand that the false solutions proposed by these institutions will suck the remaining life out of this planet before you can say fourth industrial revolution.
An important point must never get lost amongst the swirling jargon, human-supremacy and unbridled greed: If we do not drastically reduce our material and energy consumption – rapidly – then We (that is, all living beings on the planet including humans) have no future.
In summary, decades of social engineering have set the stage for the blitzkrieg underway against our life-giving and sustaining mother planet in the name of sustainability industrial civilization. The success of the present assault requires the systematic division, distraction, discouragement, detention, and demonization (reinforced by powerful disinformation) and ultimately the destruction of all those who would resist. Remember also: capital, religion, race, gender, class, ideology, occupation, private property, and so forth, these are weapons of oppression wielded against us by the dominant patriarchal, colonizing, ecocidal, empire. That is not who We are. Our causes, our struggles, and our futures are one. Unless we refuse to play by their rules and coordinate our efforts, We will soon lose all that can be lost.
Learn more about deep sea mining (here); sign the Blue Planet Society petition (here) and the Pacific Blue Line statement (here). Tell the forest products industry that they do not have our consent and that you and hundreds of scientists see through their lies (here); divest from all extractive industry, and invest in its resistance instead (here). Inform yourself, talk to your loved-ones and community members and ask yourselves: what can we do to stop the destruction?
All flourishing is mutual. The inverse is also true.
“…future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts […] this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public.” – Top Scientists: We Face “A Ghastly Future”
—Austin is an ecocentric Appalachian ethnobotanist, gardener, forager, and seed saver. He acknowledges kinship with and responsibility to protect all life, land, water, and future generations—
"Saving the planet" can't possibly be literal — the planet will be just fine long after we die out — so it can only be symbolic, a kind of affective or identity-based signaling that immediately selects for the small class of self-identified environmentalists.
Climate change is going to cause escalating disruption, dislocation, & migration. It's going to exacerbate income inequality at every level. It's going to produce health, social, & economic damage in every major country. These are all more relevant to more people than "earth."
This idea is not new to Mr. Roberts. It actually reflects a decades-long push to make environmentalism mainstream by sacrificing its foundational biocentric values in favor of anthropocentrism.
The organization 350, for example, has released a ‘style guide’ advising activists to “Focus on people. Whenever possible, use visuals to emphasize that climate is a real, tangible human problem—not an abstract [sic] ecological issue.” A later version of the same guide edited the statement to read: “People are the heart of the climate movement … avoid photos of polar bears, icebergs or other images that obscure the real people behind the climate crisis.”
Some see this sort of thing as pragmatic thinking to address a crisis. Others — including me, and despite my love of people — see it as at best a profoundly dangerous mistake, and at worst as enabling colonization of the environmental movement by profit-driven interests.
Last year, me and my co-authors Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith released our book “Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What to Do About It” (thanks to the wonderful folks at Monkfish Book Publishing Company) which we bookend with this topic. This is an excerpt from Chapter 2, which is titled “Solving for the Wrong Variable,” and from the conclusion of the book:
Once upon a time, environmentalism was about saving wild beings and wild places from destruction. “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind,” Rachel Carson wrote to a friend as she finished the manuscript that would become Silent Spring. “That, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.” She wrote with unapologetic reverence of “the oak and maple and birch” in autumn, the foxes in the morning mist, the cool streams and the shady ponds, and, of course, the birds: “In the mornings, which had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, and wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marshes.” Her editor noted that Silent Spring required a “sense of almost religious dedication” as well as “extraordinary courage.” Carson knew the chemical industry would come after her, and come it did, in attacks as “bitter and unscrupulous as anything of the sort since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species a century before.” Seriously ill with the cancer that would kill her, Carson fought back in defense of the living world, testifying with calm fortitude before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and the U.S. Senate. She did these things because she had to. “There would be no peace for me,” she wrote to a friend, “if I kept silent.”
Carson’s work inspired the grassroots environmental movement; the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Silent Spring was more than a critique of pesticides—it was a clarion call against “the basic irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world.”
Today’s environmental movement stands upon the shoulders of giants, but something has gone terribly wrong. Carson didn’t save the birds from DDT so that her legatees could blithely offer them up to wind turbines. We are writing this book because we want our environmental movement back.
Mainstream environmentalists now overwhelmingly prioritize saving industrial civilization over saving life on the planet. The how and the why of this institutional capture is the subject for another book, but the capture is near total. For example, Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute—someone who has been labeled as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” and “the guru of the environmental movement”—routinely makes comments like, “We talk about saving the planet…. But the planet’s going to be around for a while. The question is, can we save civilization? That’s what’s at stake now, and I don’t think we’ve yet realized it.” Brown wrote this in an article entitled “The Race to Save Civilization.”
The world is being killed because of civilization, yet what Brown says is at stake, and what he’s racing to save, is precisely the social structure causing the harm: civilization. Not saving salmon. Not monarch butterflies. Not oceans. Not the planet. Saving civilization.
Brown is not alone. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, more or less constantly pushes the line that “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people…. Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.”
Bill McKibben, who works tirelessly and selflessly to raise awareness about global warming, and who has been called “probably America’s most important environmentalist,” constantly stresses his work is about saving civilization, with articles like “Civilization’s Last Chance,”11 or with quotes like, “We’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”
We’ll bet you that polar bears, walruses, and glaciers would
have preferred that sentence ended a different way.
In 2014 the Environmental Laureates’ Declaration on Climate Change was signed by “160 leading environmentalists from 44 countries” who were “calling on the world’s foundations and philanthropies to take a stand against global warming.” Why did they take this stand? Because global warming “threatens to
cause the very fabric of civilization to crash.” The declaration concludes: “We, 160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes, call on foundations and philanthropists everywhere to deploy their endowments urgently in the effort to save civilization.” Coral reefs, emperor penguins, and Joshua trees probably wish that sentence would have ended differently. The entire declaration, signed by “160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes,” never once mentions harm to the natural world. In fact, it never mentions the natural world at all.
Are leatherback turtles, American pikas, and flying foxes “abstract ecological issues,” or are they our kin, each imbued with their own “wild and precious life”?
Wes Stephenson, yet another climate activist, has this to say: “I’m not an environmentalist. Most of the people in the climate movement that I know are not environmentalists. They are young people who didn’t necessarily come up through the environmental movement, so they don’t think of themselves as environmentalists. They think of themselves as climate activists and as human rights activists. The terms ‘environment’ and ‘environmentalism’ carry baggage historically and culturally. It has been more about protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places than it has been about the welfare of human beings. I come at it from the opposite direction. It’s first and fore- most about human beings.”
Note that Stephenson calls “protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places” baggage.
Naomi Klein states explicitly in the film This Changes Everything: “I’ve been to more climate rallies than I can count, but the polar bears? They still don’t do it for me. I wish them well, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that stopping climate change isn’t really about them, it’s about us.”
And finally, Kumi Naidoo, former head of Greenpeace International, says: “The struggle has never been about saving the planet. The planet does not need saving.”
When Naidoo said that, in December 2015, it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal at the North Pole, above freezing in the winter.
I (Derrick) wrote this for a friend’s wedding.
> Each night the frogs sing outside my window. “Come to me,” they sing. “Come.” This morning the rains came, each drop meeting this particular leaf on this particular tree, then pooling together to join the ground. Love. The bright green of this year’s growth of redwood trees against the dark of shadows, other trees, tree trunks, foliage, all these plants, reaching out, reaching up. I am in love. With you. With you. With the world. With this place. With each other. Redwoods cannot stand alone. Roots burrow through the soil, reaching out to each other, to intertwine, to hold up these tallest of trees, so they may stand together, each root, each tree, saying to each other, “Come to me. Come.” What I want to know is this: What do those roots feel at first touch, first embrace? Do they find this same homecoming I find each time in you, in your eyes, the pale skin of your cheek, your neck, your belly, the backs of your hands? And the water. It is evening now, and the rain has stopped. Yet the water still falls, drop by drop from the outstretched arms of trees. I want to know, as each drop let’s go its hold, does it say, and does the ground say to it, as I say to you now, “Come to me. Come.”
In the 15 years since that wedding, the frogs in my pond have suffered reproductive failure, which is science-speak for their off- spring dying, baby after baby, year after year. Their songs began to lessen. At first their songs were so loud you could not hold a (human) conversation outside at night, and then you could. The first spring this happened I thought it might just be a bad year. The second spring I sensed a pattern. The third spring I knew something was wrong. I’d also noticed the eggs in their sacs were no longer small black dots, as before, but were covered in what looked like white fur. A little internet research and a few phone calls to herpetologists revealed the problem to me. The egg sacs were being killed by a mold called saprolegnia. It wasn’t the mold’s fault. Saprolegnia is ubiquitous, and eats weak egg sacs, acting as part of a clean-up crew in ponds. The problem is that this culture has depleted the ozone layer, which has allowed more UV-B to come through: UV-B weakens egg sacs in some species.
What do you do when someone you love is being killed? And what do you do when the whole world you love is being killed? I’m known for saying we should use any means necessary to stop the murder of the planet. People often think this is code language for using violence. It’s not. It means just what it says: any means necessary.
UV-B doesn’t go through glass, so about once a week between December and June, I get into the pond to collect egg sacs to put in big jars of water on my kitchen table. When the egg sacs hatch, I put the babies back in the pond. If I bring in about five egg sacs per week for 20 weeks, and if each sac has 15 eggs in it, and if there’s a 10 percent mortality on the eggs instead of a 90 percent mortality, that’s 2,400 more tadpoles per year. If one percent of these survive their first year, that’s 24 more tadpoles per year who survive. I fully recognize that this doesn’t do anything for frogs in other ponds. It doesn’t help the newts who are also disappearing from this same pond, or the mergansers, dragonflies, or caddisflies. It doesn’t do anything for the 200 species this culture causes to go extinct each and every day. But it does help these.
I don’t mean to make too big a deal of this.
One of my earliest memories is from when I was five years old, crying in the locker room of a YMCA where I was taking swimming lessons, because the water was so cold. I really don’t like cold water. So, I have to admit I don’t get all the way into the water when I go into my pond to help the frogs. I only get in as far as my thighs. But this isn’t, surprisingly enough, entirely because of my cold-water phobia. It’s because of a creature I’ve seen in the pond a few times, a giant water bug, which is nicknamed Toe-Biter. My bug book says they’re about an inch and a half long, but every time I get in the pond, I’m sure they are five or six inches. And I can’t stop thinking about the deflated frog-skin sacks I’ve seen (the giant water bug injects a substance that liquefies the frog’s insides, so they can be sucked out as through a straw). I’ve read that the bugs sometimes catch small birds. So, you’ll note I only go into the pond as deep as my thighs—and no deeper. Second, I have to admit that sometimes I’m not very smart. It took me several years of this weekly cold-water therapy to think of what I now perceive as one of the most important phrases in the English language—“waterproof chest waders”—and to get some.
What do you do when someone you love is being killed? It’s pretty straightforward. You defend your beloved. Using any means necessary.
We get it. We, too, like hot showers and freezing cold ice cream, and we like them 24/7. We like music at the touch of a button or, now, a verbal command. We like the conveniences this way of life brings us. And it’s more than conveniences. We know that. We three co-authors would be dead without modern medicine. But we all recognize that there is a terrible trade-off for all this: life on the planet. And no individual’s conveniences—or, indeed, life—is worth that price.
The price, though, is now invisible. This is the willful blindness of modern environmentalism. Like Naomi Klein and the polar bears, the real world just “doesn’t do it” for too many of us. To many people, including even some of those who consider themselves environmentalists, the real world doesn’t need our help. It’s about us. It’s always “about us.”
Decades ago, I (Derrick) was one of a group of grassroots environmental activists planning a campaign. As the meeting started, we went around the table saying why we were doing this work. The answers were consistent, and exemplified by one person who said, simply, “For the critters,” and by another person who got up from the table, walked to her desk, and brought back a picture. At first, the picture looked like a high-up part of the trunk of an old-growth Douglas fir tree, but when I looked more closely, I saw a small spotted owl sticking her camouflaged head out of a hole in the center of the tree’s trunk. The activist said, “I’m doing it for her.”
The goal has been shifted, slowly and silently, and no one seems to have noticed. Environmentalists tell the world and their organi- zations that “it’s about us.” But some of us refuse to forget the last spotted owls in the last scrap of forest, the wild beings and wild places. Like Rachel Carson before us, there will be no peace for us if we keep silent while the critters, one by one, are disappeared. Our once and future movement was for them, not us. We refuse to solve for the wrong variable. We are not saving civilization; we are trying to save the world.
[And this part comes from the conclusion of the book:]
… throughout this book, we’ve repeated Naomi Klein’s comments about polar bears not doing it for her. Not to be snarky, but instead because that’s the single most important passage in this book.
Although we’ve spent hundreds of pages laying out facts, ultimately this book is about values. We value something different than do bright greens. And our loyalty is to something different. We are fighting for the living planet. The bright greens are fighting to continue this culture—the culture that is killing the planet. Seems like the planet doesn’t do it for them.
Early in this book we quoted some of the bright greens, including Lester Brown: “The question is, can we save civilization? That’s what’s at stake now, and I don’t think we’ve yet realized it.” And Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy: “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people.” And climate scientist Wen Stephenson: “The terms ‘environment’ and ‘environmental- ism’ carry baggage historically and culturally. It has been more about protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places than it has been about the welfare of human beings. I come at it from the opposite direction. It’s first and foremost about human beings.” And Bill McKibben: “We’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”
Do we yet see the pattern?
And no, we’re not losing that fight because “we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.” We’re losing that fight because we’re trying to save industrial civilization, which is inherently unsustainable.
We, the authors of this book, also like the conveniences this culture brings to us. But we don’t like them more than we like life on the planet.
We should be trying to save the planet—this beautiful, creative, unique planet—the planet that is the source of all life, the planet without whom we all die.
We are in the midst of a battle for the soul of the environmental movement, and I, for one, will not forget the forests, the birds, the fish, the antelope, the bears, the spiders, the plankton — all those beings who hold the world together in their weaving, who share common ancestry with us. Nor will I forget the mountains whose minerals make up our bones, the rivers whose waters flow in our veins, the Earth itself who is our mother. These beings are family, and I will not turn away from them.
David happens to live in my hometown, Seattle. David – if you read this, I’d like to invite you to get a cup of coffee next time I’m in town. I’ll give you a copy of #BrightGreenLies and we can talk.
Postscript: The type of thinking being promoted by David Roberts has profound consequences for the living world. For the past two years, I’ve been fighting to “Protect Thacker Pass” — a beautiful, biodiverse sagebrush-steppe in the northern Great Basin of Nevada — from destruction for a lithium mine.
The Bright Green worldview sees lithium as a necessary resource to transition away from fossil fuels and save civilization from global warming, and so Bright Greens promote lithium mining, vast solar arrays in desert tortoise habitat, and offshore wind energy development in the last breeding ground of the Atlantic Right Whale. And if some endangered wildlife has to be killed, some water poisoned, and some Native American sacred sites destroyed, well, that’s just an acceptable cost to save civilization. And so vast subsidies (see the inflation Reduction Act, for example) are being mobilized to convert yet more wild land into industrial energy and mining sacrifice zones.
Around the world, nature retreats and civilization grows.
Featured image by Max Wilbert: a spring gushing from the rock high in the western mountains.
Banner: A spring gushes from stone cliffs in the high western mountains, fed by melting glaciers which recede higher with each passing year. Photo by Max Wilbert.
What this adds up to should be clear enough, yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business-as- usual: the expansive, colonizing, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted, and the nonhuman. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this “environmentalism.”1 —PAUL KINGSNORTH
Once upon a time, environmentalism was about saving wild beings and wild places from destruction. “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind,” Rachel Carson wrote to a friend as she finished the manuscript that would become Silent Spring. “That, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.”2 She wrote with unapologetic reverence of “the oak and maple and birch” in autumn, the foxes in the morning mist, the cool streams and the shady ponds, and, of course, the birds: “In the mornings, which had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, and wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marshes.”3 Her editor noted that Silent Spring required a “sense of almost religious dedication” as well as “extraordinary courage.”4 Carson knew the chemical industry would come after her, and come it did, in attacks as “bitter and unscrupulous as anything of the sort since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species a century before.”5 Seriously ill with the cancer that would kill her, Carson fought back in defense of the living world, testifying with calm fortitude before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and the U.S. Senate. She did these things because she had to. “There would be no peace for me,” she wrote to a friend, “if I kept silent.”6
Carson’s work inspired the grassroots environmental movement; the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Silent Spring was more than a critique of pesticides—it was a clarion call against “the basic irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world.”7 Today’s environmental movement stands upon the shoulders of giants, but something has gone terribly wrong with it. Carson didn’t save the birds from DDT so that her legatees could blithely offer them up to wind turbines. We are writing this book because we want our environmental movement back.
Mainstream environmentalists now overwhelmingly prioritize saving industrial civilization over saving life on the planet. The how and the why of this institutional capture is the subject for another book, but the capture is near total. For example, Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute—someone who has been labeled as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” and “the guru of the environmental movement”8—routinely makes comments like, “We talk about saving the planet.… But the planet’s going to be around for a while. The question is, can we save civilization? That’s what’s at stake now, and I don’t think we’ve yet realized it.” Brown wrote this in an article entitled “The Race to Save Civilization.”9
The world is being killed because of civilization, yet what Brown says is at stake, and what he’s racing to save, is precisely the social structure causing the harm: civilization. Not saving salmon. Not monarch butterflies. Not oceans. Not the planet. Saving civilization. Brown is not alone. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, more or less constantly pushes the line that “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of [human] people…. Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to [human] people.”10 Bill McKibben, who works tirelessly and selflessly to raise awareness about global warming, and who has been called “probably America’s most important environmentalist,” constantly stresses his work is about saving civilization, with articles like “Civilization’s Last Chance,”11 or with quotes like, “We’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”12
We’ll bet you that polar bears, walruses, and glaciers would have preferred that sentence ended a different way.
In 2014 the Environmental Laureates’ Declaration on Climate Change was signed by “160 leading environmentalists from 44 countries” who were “calling on the world’s foundations and philanthropies to take a stand against global warming.” Why did they take this stand? Because global warming “threatens to cause the very fabric of civilization to crash.” The declaration con- cludes: “We, 160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes, call on foundations and philanthropists everywhere to deploy their endowments urgently in the effort to save civilization.”13
Coral reefs, emperor penguins, and Joshua trees probably wish that sentence would have ended differently. The entire declaration, signed by “160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes,” never once mentions harm to the natural world. In fact, it never mentions the natural world at all.
Are leatherback turtles, American pikas, and flying foxes “abstract ecological issues,” or are they our kin, each imbued with their own “wild and precious life”?14 Wes Stephenson, yet another climate activist, has this to say: “I’m not an environmentalist. Most of the people in the climate movement that I know are not environmentalists. They are young people who didn’t necessarily come up through the environmental movement, so they don’t think of themselves as environmentalists. They think of themselves as climate activists and as human rights activists. The terms ‘environment’ and ‘environmentalism’ carry baggage historically and culturally. It has been more about protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places than it has been about the welfare of human beings. I come at from the opposite direction. It’s first and foremost about human beings.”15
Note that Stephenson calls “protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places” baggage. Naomi Klein states explicitly in the film This Changes Everything: “I’ve been to more climate rallies than I can count, but the polar bears? They still don’t do it for me. I wish them well, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that stopping climate change isn’t really about them, it’s about us.”
And finally, Kumi Naidoo, former head of Greenpeace International, says: “The struggle has never been about saving the planet. The planet does not need saving.”16 When Naidoo said that, in December 2015, it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit at the North Pole, much warmer than normal, far above freezing in the middle of winter.
13 “Environmental Laureates’ Declaration on Climate Change,” European Environment Foundation, September 15, 2014. It shouldn’t surprise us that the person behind this declaration is a solar energy entrepreneur. It probably also shouldn’t surprise us that he’s begging for money.
14 “Wild and precious life” is from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” House of Light (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992).
In late spring, Antonia Torres González’ tears rolled freely at the rare sight before her: the Colorado River flowed again in what is usually a parched delta.
Torres González, a member of the Cucapá tribe who grew up in the river delta, couldn’t help but relive memories of childhood romps in the once-lush waterway in northwestern Mexico. “It was like seeing the river come back to life,” she says.
On May 1, 2021, the river once again flowed in its delta thanks to an agreement between the United States and Mexico dubbed Minute 323. Through Oct. 11, a total of 35,000 acre-feet of water (11.4 billion gallons) will be released downstream from Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border to quench the thirst of this long-withered ecosystem.
The mammoth endeavor to rejuvenate the river delta was years in the making and involved dozens of people, including water managers, policymakers, scientists, conservationists, and nonprofits from both sides of the border.
In March 2014, a planned release from Morelos Dam sent water into the dry Colorado River Delta, connecting this river to the sea for the first time in many years. Photo courtesy of Raise the River, Peter McBride.
“We provide a lot of brainpower and blood, sweat, and tears, and commitment to this,” says Nancy Smith, Colorado River Program conservation director at the Nature Conservancy.
A History Dried Up
The decadeslong deterioration of the Colorado River Delta began with the diversion of most of its water to farms and growing city populations in the United States, and by the early 1960s, very little flow made it to the river’s lower reaches. Under a 1944 treaty, 1.5 million acre-feet of water—about 10% of the river’s annual flow—was required to reach Mexico each year, though most of that drenches farmland in the valley of Mexicali, Baja California, without ever reaching the delta that should reconnect the river to the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Recent agreements between the countries, including this year’s pulse as well as another eight-week pulse of water back in 2014, ensure collaboration in restoring the delta and managing river water, sharing surpluses and shortages.
The restoration work that grassroots organizers jump-started in the delta region some two decades ago—including the removal of nonnative vegetation and reforestation of thousands of acres of willow, cottonwood, and mesquite trees—would in time become a key factor in the cross-border undertaking. “We had a vision that someday the Colorado River could be connected again to the sea and to local communities,” says Francisco Zamora of the Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Arizona. The nonprofit, which also has offices in Mexicali, works with communities to revive dying ecosystems.
To see the river flowing into the delta today, albeit temporarily, gives him hope that local communities may one day again rely on it for sustenance and recreation. Over the years, restoration work not only has provided local residents with jobs, but also inspired them to believe that the delta can flourish again. Zamora says seeing the river flowing has reinforced that notion, even for young people who had never seen it happen before.
“It’s not only about wildlife, or birds and trees,” he says. “It’s also about the people.”
Torres González remembers the Colorado River delta as an abundant source of water that sustained multiple generations of Cucapá families living on its banks. “When I was a child, the river was still flowing,” she says. “We bathed in it, we played games, we fished there. We used to drink water from the river, and most of our families used the water to do the wash and for other household chores.”
Gradually, the fish and the water flows diminished, as did the lush, native trees, and other vegetation that families traditionally used for food and medicine, recalls the tribal elder who now lives in a Mexicali neighborhood. “We no longer consume what grew naturally in the wetlands that were there,” Torres González says.
This year’s water delivery will allow nearby communities to enjoy the river again for five months, and directly benefits about 700 acres of restored landscape, Zamora says. “This is an area where you can find many species of birds and some are what we call target species, like the yellow-billed cuckoo.” To thrive, target species require mature cottonwood and willow forest, so their presence in the delta is a good indicator that the habitat is improving and suitable for such birds, he says.
The Sonoran Institute and the Nature Conservancy are part of Raise the River, a coalition of environmental groups from Mexico and the U.S. working to restore the river delta. “The Colorado River Delta used to cover 2 million acres,” Smith says. “It was this vast, watery landscape teeming with birds—really quite extraordinary.”
Smith has no doubt the delta can make a comeback. “One of the really wonderful things we learned from the 2014 pulse flow is that with water, the ecosystem responds,” she says. “The birds return, the cottonwoods and willow trees return, the local and migratory birds have increased—many of which are endangered.”
The 2014 pulse flow released downstream, known as Minute 319, was roughly 105,000 acre-feet of water (about 1% of the river’s annual flow) and transformed the dry delta into a river again for eight weeks. Subsequent scientific studies showed the water release was a boost to vegetation, greening restoration areas and increasing certain bird species—at least for a while. Even though the abundance of birds later diminished, levels remained higher than before 2014, according to a 2018 report from the International Boundary and Water Commission.
Lessons learned from the first water surge helped design the current water delivery to maximize benefits to the delta, Smith says. To keep the water from seeping into the ground early on, which happened in 2014, existing irrigation canals are being used to direct the flow toward restoration sites. Nonprofits and grassroots groups also fund on-the-ground projects in the delta and contribute donor resources to match those of the U.S. and Mexico governments.
“We work hand in hand with the government to do all the science necessary to make sure that we keep making progress and to make sure that whatever environmental water comes across the border is put to the best use,” Smith says.
A Hopefully Wetter Future
For Torres González, seeing the river flowing again, if only briefly, restores her hope in the delta’s resiliency—just like it did her mother, Inocencia González, before she died in June 2021.
“It would benefit us a lot if the water reaches the delta regularly again,” she says. “In this water flow we saw that there were a lot of small fish that could have grown in this river, and it would’ve meant good fishing for the Cucapá.”
As drought and climate change further strain a dwindling Colorado River and other natural resources around the globe, Smith says, international agreements may become more important. She hopes the U.S.-Mexico collaboration will bring about similar arrangements elsewhere.
“If we can restore the river, it will benefit a lot of people, but it also shows that we can protect nature, we can restore nature,” she says. “And if we can do it in the Colorado River, we can do it in other parts of the world.”
LOURDES MEDRANO is an independent writer covering the U.S.-Mexico border. She focuses on illegal immigration, underserved communities, the environment, health, and matters of importance in both the U.S. and neighboring Mexico. She previously worked for daily newspapers, including the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. She is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, NAHJ, and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Lourdes is based in Tucson, Arizona, and speaks English and Spanish. She can be reached via Twitter direct message or LinkedIn.