Conservation in the Real World: Suckling responds to Kareiva

Thanks to Sharon for posting the article about Peter Kareiva’s research and thoughts, which recently appeared on Greenwire, as well as linking to Conservation in the Anthropocene, written by Kareiva, together with Robert Lalasz and Michelle Marvier.   The comments section quickly filled up with some great perspectives.  Regular commenter “TreeC123” highlighted the fact that the Breakthrough Journal invited Kierán Suckling, with the Center for Biological Diversity, to provide a response to the piece by Kareiva et al titled Conservation in the Real World.  Below are snips:

Had the article been published a century ago, the author’s decision to frame the environmental movement through a critique of Emerson (1803-1882), Hawthorne (1804-1864), Thoreau (1817-1862) and Muir (1838-1914) might have made sense. But alleged weaknesses of these dead white men is an entirely inadequate anchor for an essay that bills itself as a rethinking of contemporary environmentalism. Indeed, the only 20th century environmentalist mentioned in the essay is the novelist and essayist Ed Abbey. It is frankly bizarre that Kareiva et al.’s depiction of environmentalists is not based on NRDC, the Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, Environment America,, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, or indeed, any environmental group at all.

Bizarre, but necessary: Kareiva et al.’s “conservationist” straw man would have fallen to pieces had they attempted to base it on the ongoing work of actual conservation groups.

Consider their take on wilderness. The straw man is constructed by telling us (without reference to an actual conservation group, of course) that “the wilderness ideal presupposes that there are parts of the world untouched by humankind.” Then the authors smugly knock it down with the shocking revelation that “The wilderness so beloved by conservationists — places ‘untrammeled by man’ — never existed.”

Do Kareiva et al. expect readers to believe that conservation groups are unaware that American Indians and native Alaskans lived in huge swaths of what are now designated wilderness areas? Or that they mysteriously failed to see the cows, sheep, bridges, fences, fire towers, fire suppression and/or mining claims within the majority of the proposed wilderness areas they have so painstakingly walked, mapped, camped in, photographed, and advocated for? It is not environmentalists who are naïve about wilderness; it is Kareiva et al. who are naïve about environmentalists. Environmental groups have little interest in the “wilderness ideal” because it has no legal, political or biological relevance when it comes to creating or managing wilderness areas. They simply want to bring the greatest protections possible to the lands which have been the least degraded….

At a time when conservationists need honest, hard-headed reassessment of what works and what needs changing, Kareiva et al. offer little more than exaggerations, straw-man arguments and a forced optimism that too often crosses the line into denial. There are plenty of real biodiversity recovery stories to tell, but to learn from them, we have to take off the blinders of sweeping generalizations and pay attention to the details and complexities of real-world conservation work. That’s the breakthrough we need to survive the Anthropocene.

2 thoughts on “Conservation in the Real World: Suckling responds to Kareiva”

  1. He does seem to be a bit of a caricature of the Wise Use folks. We need more options, in the middle somewhere. We’re just going to lose more forests until our “democratic” society evolves. (I mean that in the most a-political way possible!) Simple as that!

  2. Dr. Kareiva’s real intent these days is in undermining traditional attitudes and principles in grassroots environmentalism. He does this by exposing various historical environmental fallacies and hypocrisies of its luminaries (some interesting anecdotes, most minor, and all neither pertinent nor useful to the present state of converging catastrophic environmental declines other than arguing for the TNC approach to conservation: “embrace technology” (aka technological fundamentalism) and “partner with businesses” (aka market-based solutions (sic), combined with public outreach.) This approach has already been exposed as hopelessly failing to prevent irreversible, catastrophic climate change.

    His advice in the present neoliberal age of post-regulatory capture is, “Partner with business! Business is supposed to be our enemy…(but) Conservation of the environment is not going to succeed unless we make business our friend… So we, at the Conservancy have established serious partnerships — with Dow Chemical and Rio Tinto” (snip) “We intend to change their business practices — we’ll see.”

    As a primer to Kareiva’s message, this link provides a detailed video lecture of his real message:

    It’s about an hour long presentation of what he is presently up to and from which the above quotes were derived. It’s a program of the National Academy of Sciences, and has a title worth noting, “Failed metaphors and a new environmentalism for the 21st Century”. Kareiva is also a cofounder of “Natural Capital Project” which appears to be aligned with the past attempts at monetizing ecosystem services so that “stakeholders” can then decide how best to advocate for business-friendly environmental solutions.

    I found many of his claims in the above video presentation highly debatable, deliberately provocative and some, deeply offensive. To wit:

    The video presentation begins with a warning that those in the audience who refer to themselves as an “environmentalist” will be “mad” at what he has say. 13 minutes into this presentation he recounts a watershed moment in his life when he was so moved by a logger protest in the back of Judge Dwyer’s courtroom during the spotted owl deliberations. In that example, the loggers held their children on their shoulders with placards on their parent’s chests invoking the potential negative consequences Dwyer’s decision would have on their child’s welfare.

    Dr. Kaveira noted, due to courtroom restrictions on noise disrupting proceedings, the loggers (rather than protesting aloud themselves) resorted to shaking their children until they cried and when all heads turned to the back of the courtroom everyone would see their placards and crying children. This was a seminal event for him personally, which he states in the video made him feel “a little less confident I was a wonderful hero” speaking in defense of the spotted owl viability as a species. His kids, were “exactly the same age” as the loggers, and he’d identified with their plights as a parent himself.

    (Conversely, I would respond, as a parent myself, having the opposite reaction — similar to the conflicted queasiness one feels watching a parent physically punishing a child in public until the child cries — with one important difference — the children in this case were simply tools of their timber-industry-dependent parents, and the children had done nothing wrong, yet were deliberately shaken to start them crying on cue.)

    Dr. Kaveira then goes on to say environmentalists have “made a severe tactical error” in the way in which they have generated so much controversy. (Funny, I thought controversy was generated by dysfunctional, unsustainable, economic policy. Regardless, attributing blame singulary to one side of the inevitable responses to inherently dysfunctional economic policy seems distinctly biased and incredibly unscientific.)

    A minute later in the video, Dr. Kaveira points out the consequences of this tactical error by environmentalists, by supporting his argument with a poll which asks, should we be giving the environment or the economy greater priority? Interestingly, Dr. Kaveira either misses or completely neglects the point at which the charted poll over time elevates the economy over the environment — that point in time being the latter half of 2008.

    (At precisely that point in American history there was also this not so little event labelled the
    “2008-2012 Global Financial Crisis” ) which precipitated a predictable level of economic desperation in millions of families of the American public just to make mortgage and other payments on accrued credit card debt. It comes as no surprise such desperation leads to a decline in environmental concerns when millions face homelessness and bankruptcy.

    As an advocate and chief scientist representing the “world’s largest environmental organization”, his agenda and message are clearly relying upon polemic and standard tropes of free market environmentalism.

    He’s TNC’s equivalent of their very own Rush Limbaugh with a PhD.


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