I began working in the environmental movement in the late ’90s, and spent many years on campaigns to protect the last old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. That’s how I learned about the development of environmental policy. I could tell both grassroots organising and direct action were needed in the battle for wilderness preservation.
At the time, the core values we used to ‘market’ environmental legislation to the public were ‘clean water, wildlife, and recreation’. We were told by the campaign director not to mention ‘global warming’ in our outreach work, and if someone asked one of us what our group thought of global warming, to say we didn’t have a position on that subject. He said that would be the best approach because the science was still inconclusive, and it was a bizarre, fringe, tin-foil hat idea. A brilliant, diplomatic fellow, he designed our campaigns to target the ‘average, middle of the road folks’. That strategy turned out to be effective, we were successful in protecting lots of wilderness.
It’s empowering to discover ‘we the people’ can sometimes win grassroots campaigns. While it’s true there was support and funding from some organisations that can most politely be described as ‘right wing’, in my personal experience these forests were saved through policies that were created and pushed through from the ground up. Our blood, sweat and tears went into these campaigns. We went door to door, gathering support from key legislative districts. Some of us devoted the best years of our lives to this. On glorious, endless summer days, we did not lose focus. In the fall, when the mood became suddenly more thoughtful, and others were enrolled in classes, some of us did not relent. We had to win. Undeterred by rain and snow, driven by a passion that kept us warm in the bleakest winter, we continued.
Why did we do this? What kept us going? We simply thought the forest was beautiful. Our souls were stunned by the beauty, so we became devoted to protecting Mother Earth in any way possible. Of course, when we explained this to ‘the public’, we used the jargon provided to us by the ‘green culture’: biodiversity, the web of life, watersheds, threatened and endangered species, habitat protection, ecosystem restoration, and saving places to be enjoyed by future generations. Back then people still talked about salmon and owls; they complained about dams. Somehow it seemed we could sense a bigger picture… we were an army in defence of beauty, and we were unstoppable.
And what was it exactly that was so lovely? Was it the way mist can sometimes make little rainbows in small alcoves of a rushing, sparkling stream? Was it the way huge tree roots form hollow caves, big enough to crawl into, that must certainly be the homes of fairies, goblins, gnomes and elves? Was it those giant trees that get so tall it’s impossible to see the top; so big they look like they hold up the sky? Maybe it was the look on a friend’s face as they walked barefoot in the soft, springy, green moss that carpeted everything, the way their eyes lit up as they admired the tiny white flowers that grew so shyly, secretly… or it could have been the surprise of climbing a mountain to see what was up there, and discovering a waterfall rushing down the side of a cliff, a sight more joyful than it had any right to be.
Beauty, I suppose, is a matter of perspective. How can one explain it to those who are unable to see it for themselves? We must employ vaguely scientific sounding terminology to get the message out. ‘Marketing’ the importance of saving the forest had to be done very delicately. The idea of wilderness is one that makes some people uneasy, and others delighted. A place where however far you walk you won’t see a trace of ‘civilisation’, a place where you can gaze forever in each direction and only see trees, brings peace to my heart, but fear to others. The word ‘wilderness’ conjures up primeval fears that city people don’t often contemplate. Fear of the dark, the savage beasts, the unknown. They don’t venture out to spend a night in such territory, so they don’t know how good it feels to hear the wind in the trees, to have no city lights that interfere with the sight of all the incredible stars. In the city they can never know how many stars there really are, or how it feels to be free.
We worked to gather bipartisan support, and there were times when it seemed like the campaign leaders were pandering to Democrats or Republicans, but actually they were very savvy and did exactly what needed to be done to protect the last wild places. In our hearts and minds we were neither democrats nor republicans. In our spirits we knew we were not statistics and demographics. We were wild too. We could look deep into your eyes and you would see you were looking at someone who was truly free, untamed inside. We were anarchists at heart. Also, we were family. Other grassroots groups are aware, somewhat jokingly, of the cult-like atmosphere that often develops in campaign work, but we took that to the next level. We really cared about each other. We all moved in with each other and formed small households of friends. Some of us fell in love, and others even stayed together and had families. We would celebrate our victories and comfort each other through our misfortunes.
We went to see Julia Butterfly speak after she spent two years living in a redwood tree and was successful in protecting the headwaters forest in California. Her victory inspired us to keep going. We kept each other going. Some people got land, and lots of them had beautiful children, and they named them mostly after flowers and trees.
We marched together at the Battle of Seattle, at the end of 1999, to help our city successfully shut down the WTO in solidarity with cities across the world who cheered as we stood up to the global corporations that threatened us all. I was amazed by the bravery of my brothers and sisters in the movement, who put their lives on the line in defence of what seemed to be workers rights, environmental rights, fair trade — but was actually this more obscure sense of beauty and freedom, which had become the most important thing in life.
Another protest, tiny and quiet, went unnoticed. About a dozen of us volunteered on behalf of an international organisation to protest at Fidelity Investments, part of a campaign targeting stockholders to make them aware of the damage being done by Occidental Oil. In the Colombian Andes, a tribe called the Uwa were threatening to commit mass suicide if Oxy didn’t stop drilling in the rainforest where they lived. Fidelity did eventually divest from Oxy because of the pressure put on stockholders from people like us. Protests on behalf of the Colombian people continue.
Long ago it was clear to us all why the Earth should be ‘saved’. The Earth was an awesome place to be! Mountains, forests, oceans, and all the creatures who lived in them were beautiful, so we thought they all deserved to live in peace and flourish. Although we couldn’t manage to explore very many wild places, just knowing they were there was comforting. They were not there for us to explore, but for their own sake. The idea was that such living ecosystems had an intrinsic value that was more important than the resources that could be extracted from them for human use. It was understood that if an old growth forest is logged, it will never grow back. A tree farm is not a forest. When replanting is done in a clear-cut, the soil is soaked in toxic herbicide and mono-crop plantations are grown for later harvesting. It was silly to pretend this replanting was somehow replacing the old growth forest ecosystem that had been destroyed.
These days, in the ‘new green economy’, trees are seen simply as things that make the air better for people to breathe. This new, modern functionality stems from the next generation of green propaganda, which strives to homogenise everything into one giant communist planetary pie chart. Small ecosystems like a forest or river no longer matter in this grand global picture. It sounds almost acceptable now to hear someone say something like ‘But after they clear-cut the old growth forest, they replant way more trees than were there before, so they improve the climate, now it’s even better than it was!’ Marketing air as a commodity from trees created things like carbon credits and off-setts.
It’s not just trees that have been given a new global importance. Any ecosystem must now prove it has value according to what it has to offer humanity. As we are all linked in the web of life, and humans are most important, it’s possible to see how everything in the natural environment is somehow important for human survival, so now to care about the environment has become… humanitarian. Was this a ‘natural’ trend within the environmental movement and scientific community? Or was it put into motion by things like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment? A worldwide 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment enlisted hundreds of scientists to develop a view of ecosystems through the lens of services those ecosystems provide humanity.
Although climate change seems like a selfish movement, such attitudes make it look altruistic to care about the molecules that compose our atmosphere. I, on the other hand, question the whole idea of an ‘ecosystem’. I propose an ‘ecochaos’ instead, where things are random sometimes. These things might be not only unpredictable, but also unknowable, mysterious and undiscovered. Nature might not be systematic and balanced. People seek to find ‘harmony’ in nature, but is it really there? Is nature only a machine? No, nature is alive.
Climate change is something that appeals to shallow consumers, so even they can get involved in environmental issues. Once people think maybe they themselves may become uncomfortable, they fear change. Even if it isn’t always getting hotter, change is happening left and right. It scares them. What about Greenland? What about the hole in the ozone? What about Fukushima, Hanford, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Gone are the days of blaming god for floods, fires, and storms. Atheists have found a new religion in climate change. It’s a weak form of megalomania. They indulge in a common pseudo-scientific superstition by thinking their SUVs are responsible for freakish weather patterns all over the world.
If rivers flow red in China and Lebanon, and a red flood swallows Hungary, and rivers flow black in Venezuela, how does climate change manage to capture everyone’s attention year after year? Pollution is still deadly to the people nearby the source of it, not so much to those far away. Who is going to stand up for people whose local environment gets destroyed? Local bureaucrats can’t afford it, and the US Environmental Protection Agency appears just as worthless as it ever has been. We have to hold these bureaucrats accountable on the local level, we have to go to meetings, submit comments, do our part. Yet forests are still being deforested, even if you recycle.
In the ‘new green economy’, corporations can pay to continue polluting and deforesting. They can pay someone else to implement a ‘green’ policy somewhere else, one that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. Maybe some of those projects are fine and good. What irks me is how they make everything a globalisation, a commodification, a tiny particle of a planetary climate in a disastrous cycle, so the devastatingly singular incidents of ecocide are overlooked. In any environmental organisation around today, I’ll bet you five bucks you won’t find anyone to speak out about the Belo Monte Dam.
It’s weird to me personally that people want to stop using fossil fuels in order to clean up their personal and global oxygen supply, rather than doing so because of what oil production does to local areas. They still continue with the tar sands and the keystone pipeline.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, people still work to protect the environment for actual reasons. Yet, in a global movement for protecting a global atmosphere, local areas often seem obsolete. Local communities, driven to extinction and even mass suicide, go mostly unnoticed as rich, white people worry about carbon.
The truth is everyone isn’t equally to blame for the destruction of this planet. Some folks are more to blame than others.
And when was the last time you heard of the Marbled Murrelet?
Image: ‘Old growth forest’. Licensed under Pubic Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Thank you for your beautiful insights on contemporary–and sadly, fairly globalized–thinking about “ecosystems” and “the environment.”
Your intuitions about reducing nature to “ecosystem services” that exist to benefit an abstract “humanity” are spot on!
A UK-based network called “Common Cause” offers evidence as to why framing nature as something outside of us is harmful and will never lead to meaningful change. In a recent narrative, Tom Crompton, someone with Common Cause, highlighted the absurdity of putting a price on nature by saying “Martin Luther King had a dream, not a cost-benefit analysis.” That is, civil rights movements of yore weren’t built upon financial arguments, but upon appeals to people’s benevolence and sense of affiliation. More info: http://valuesandframes.org/ Thanks again!
My experience is the exact opposite – show rich white people pictures of a natural forest under threat, or the animals that live there, and they help, tell them about carbon wiping out their grandchildren and they don’t seem to care.
That’s why environmental groups use polar bears and orang utans on their posters instead of Bangladeshi farmers or inuits.
Wow, that was an awfully long-winded way of writing “I am better than you”. 10 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Cheers for that. :/
Mark, theres a lot of ‘food for thought’ in the article; sorry your brain hasnt got the ability; your family will be proud.