The Incoherent Philosophy of the Radical Environmental Lobby

Commentary

The Incoherent Philosophy of the Radical Environmental Lobby

While the growing influence of a small number of environmental lobbying groups on the implementation of the Endangered Species Act is widely known, less well understood is the philosophy driving these groups, which reveals a radical and incoherent view of humanity, history and nature. The most prominent of these groups is the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson, Arizona that has a staff of 104 spread across ten states and the District of Columbia and revenue of $9.3 million in 2013. Yet the center spends not one nickel on actual conservation work, instead engaging in “armchair” conservation; filing lawsuits, issuing press releases and advocating that others do the difficult and time-consuming work of conservation.

As for understanding the center’s philosophy, there is fortunately an invaluable resource. In 1999 a revealing profile of the group appeared in The New Yorker. And, just as fortunately, the full text of the article is available online courtesy of the center, even though providing the article appears to violate copyright law. But this should not be surprising because the center apparently has no regard for property rights; whether for intellectual property, such as the article, or the very real property that the group likes lock up and deny use of through the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity makes no secret of its views, as reported by The New Yorker. Kieran Suckling, the group’s co-founder and Executive Director, contends the group is ultimately striving for a “decentering and disempowering of the human” in its efforts. Suckling and Peter Galvin, another of the center’s co-founders, began their activist careers in the late 1980s by participating in protest actions, such as sitting in trees to prevent logging, with groups like Earth First. During this time, Sucking came to a realization about the Endangered Species Act; “We’re crazy to sit in trees when there’s this incredible law where we can make people do whatever we want.”

Soon after founding the Center for Biological Diversity in 1989, Suckling, Galvin and Dr. Robin Silver, a Phoenix physician and group’s third co-founder, began using the Endangered Species Act to restrict timber cutting and cattle grazing on federal lands in Arizona and New Mexico. They have been devastatingly successful. “We’ve basically crushed the timber industry” in the Southwest, Suckling bragged to The New Yorker. In order for the center to achieve its goals, “we will have to inflict severe economic pain,” according to Robin Silver. “We’d like to close thousands of miles of roads, and see a huge amount of retooling of local economies,” asserts Peter Galvin.

According to The New Yorker article:

The obvious irony about the center is that the means to its desired end of a de-technologized society require the most complicated, technical, top-down procedures imaginable; scientific studies of species and habitat, legal petitions, court orders. Suckling cheerfully admits that he’s “using one side of industrial society against itself,” but only temporarily; in the long run, he says, there would be a new order in which plants and animals are part of the polity. For example, legal proceedings could be conducted outdoors-in which case “the trees will make themselves felt.”

Trees with legal standing? Plants and animals as part of the polity? That is radical, to say nothing of completely bonkers and logically impossible. This ideal world that Suckling desires, in which the human is decentered and disempowered, is not possible independent of human thought and action. So Suckling’s belief structure is fundamentally anthropocentric, despite his claims to the contrary.

There is, however, a widespread but mistaken belief that views like Kieran Suckling’s represent a type of New Age pantheism or eco-religion. In fact, the views of Suckling and most in the environmental lobby, whether radical or more mainstream, are fundamentally rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Robert Nelson, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, has written extensively on this issue, and according to him:

To a greater degree than most environmentalists realize, the real roots of their thinking lie in Christian (and Jewish) sources. One might describe environmentalism as an implicit Christianity-a religion in disguise. In the United States, reflecting the large historic influence of Puritanism on the intellectual and political life of the nation, American environmentalism is an implicit Calvinism. This has been a major contributing factor to its wide success and impact there.

Indeed, Kieran Suckling’s views very much reflect this. After graduating from college in Massachusetts, as detailed in The New Yorker article, Suckling had an epiphany while camping in Badlands National Park in South Dakota en route to Montana (where he hoped to pursue his desire for more wild landscapes and environmental activism):

For the first time in my life, I realized that land is not scenery. Wilderness is not an experience. It’s not something you can control. It’s like grace, like love–it happens to you.

Notwithstanding his professed beliefs, Suckling appears to be less interested in the environment itself than in using the environment as a tool. According to Bill McDonald, an Arizona rancher quoted in The New Yorker:

Kieran Suckling wants to change society, and he believes the environment is the way to do it. When you talk to him about species, his eyes glaze over. When you talk about changing society, he get excited.

In a 1998 interview with J. Zane Walley in Range Magazine, there was this revealing exchange:

Walley: “Can’t you do this [oppose human uses of natural resources] in a humane and gentle way?”

Suckling: “It is sad, but I don’t hear you put that in a direct relationship to the effect on the land. I hear you talk about the pain of the people but I don’t see you match that up with the pain of the species.”

Walley (dumbfounded): “What?”

Suckling: “A loach minnow is more important, than say, Betty and Jim’s ranch-a thousand times more important. I’m not against ranching, it is a job. My concern is the impact on the land.”

The New Yorker article also contains a telling insight from author Nicholas Lemann, as well as a quote from Kieran Suckling:

What deconstructionists usually deconstruct is texts and meanings. But for a deconstructionist turned radical environmentalist, like Kieran Suckling, the only way to get to the desired state of “absolute relativism” among species is to deconstruct stuff that exists in the world: legal arrangements, social and economic forms, and even physical structures.

In his desire for “absolute relativism,” Suckling draws on the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. According to Suckling, Derrida “insist[s] that there is no safe haven of clear meaning free from the semantic play of language.” If this seems problematic, even experts have a hard time with it. In a 2000 interview with Reason magazine John Searle, professor of philosophy, had the following to say about Derrida and relativism:

Reason: You’ve debated Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. Are they making bad arguments, or are they just being misread?

Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.” And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.

The belief structure of Kieran Suckling, the Center for Biological Diversity, other allies and much of the more mainstream environmental lobby also draws heavily on the idea of wilderness; that there is a pristine state of nature, free from the supposedly malign influence of humans. Wilderness, with its Edenic overtones, including that it is ruined by the hand of man, also reflects the Judeo-Christian roots of the environmental lobby. The New Yorker article includes the following excerpt from a letter Suckling sent to his then-advisor for the philosophy dissertation that would never be finished:

Wilderness is itself an event of deconstruction. Wilderness bewilders. The bewildering is a dis-orienting, a loss of the directionality inherent in will subjectivity. Without centering principle, wilderness is the construction (if such a word makes sense anymore) of every being by every other being, the co-construction of plant, animal, virus, cloud, breeze, stream, rock and mountain. Meanings weave, unweave, proliferate and dissipate. This is the realm of the monstrous, promiscuous Pan, half-human, half-animal, everywhere alive. Socrates panics.

Yet the idea of wilderness, like “absolute relativism,” crumbles under scrutiny. In his seminal article, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” William Cronon, distinguished professor of environmental history, states:

The time has come to rethink wilderness.

This will seem a heretical claim to many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet-indeed, a passion-of the environmental movement, especially in the United States. For many Americans wilderness stands as the last remaining place where civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully infected the earth. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness. Seen in this way, wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet. As Henry David Thoreau once famously declared, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

But is it? The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation-indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it’s a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made. Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural. As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires. For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem…

Learning to honor the wild-learning to remember and acknowledge the autonomy of the other-means striving for critical self-consciousness in all of our actions. It means the deep reflection and respect must accompany each act of use, and means too that we must always consider the possibility of non-use. It means looking at the part of nature we intend to turn toward our own ends and asking whether we can use it again and again and again-sustainably-without its being diminished in the process. It means never imagining that we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions that history inescapably entails. Most of all, it means practicing remembrance and gratitude, for thanksgiving is the simplest and most basic of ways for us to recollect the nature, the culture, and the history that have come together to make the world as we know it. If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world-not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.

While there is obviously much more that can be written on the topic of the philosophical beliefs of the environmental lobby, especially its more radical wing, the foregoing provides a general sense of the issue. The combination of “absolute relativism,” including its “decentering and disempowering of the human,” coupled with the idea of wilderness, results in the rambling, incoherent philosophy of the Center for Biological Diversity and fellow travelers.

Brian Seasholes is a former research fellow with Reason Foundation.