Welcome to the second and final installment of Forest Park and Wilderness Politics. You certainly don’t need to read part 1 to enjoy this, but why not read it? I think you’ll like it!
P.S. Most of the Forest Park information is in part 1.
“In wilderness is the preservation of the world”
-Henry David Thoreau
We have made many positive advances in protecting this land’s natural heritage. More than that, voices like Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Thoreau, Emerson, and so many others have inspired many to keep wilderness close to their heart, and to fight for the preservation of wild places and the health of ecosystems around the globe. Why, then, is it so important to continue pushing for more reform, for more preserves, for more awareness of our planetary health? We live in a society that necessarily puts these concerns second. A society in which unrestricted capitalism has been allowed to run amok and trample the delicate ecosystems so many of us hold dear. Capitalism, at its core, is about exploitation—exploitation of workers and exploitation of resources—because profits come first. Humans have always used the earth’s resources, farming uses land and water, hunting uses wildlife, yet since the time of industrialization and the capitalist economy that accompanied it, the use of our planet’s resources has grown at an exponential rate to monumental proportions that have become completely unsustainable. Carbon stored deep within the earth for millions of years is systematically pumped to the surface, burned, and then released as a gas back into the atmosphere to power our cars and create electricity for our always increasing energy demands. Even when fossil fuels are not burned for electricity, mighty rivers such as the Columbia are dammed, over and over, to meet our society’s electricity needs. The once fast-flowing Columbia, dotted with rapids and falls and filled with salmon, possibly the largest salmon runs on earth and enough to sustain one of the densest populations of American Indians in the United States, has been tamed, controlled, and its salmon runs reduced to a trickle. Since the birth of the conservation movement, global temperatures have risen drastically, deforestation and habitat loss have continued at an alarming rate, industrial pollution of our water and air persists, and extinctions have continued to pile up. Things have gotten worse, not better, since our collective consciousness was supposed to have been raised. This is because we live in a society designed to profit a few on the backs of many by exploiting the planet. Needless to say, as long as this system is allowed to continue unchecked, any step forward for conservation is merely a bright star in a dark sky.
Capitalism and profits are so entrenched in our society that even conservation has had to appeal to the almighty dollar just to be noticed. The current trend of “ecosystem services” argues that ecosystems and natural areas are not just important in their own right, but because they have some dollar-figure based on a service they provide to our society. For example, wetlands are often cited as being important in cleaning water and in flood prevention by holding large amounts of water during a flood that might otherwise be diverted elsewhere. This is undoubtedly true, but wetlands are also beautiful, a trait which is much harder to ascribe a dollar figure. To quote Bob Marshall: “the most important values of forest recreation are not susceptible of measurement in monetary terms. They are concerned with such intangible considerations as inspiration, aesthetic enjoyment, and a gain in understanding.” There could be positives from this money-focused approach, mainly pushing people to consider themselves as part of the ecosystem instead of separated from it, yet I find monetizing nature unnecessary, incomplete, and wrong. For one thing, many ecosystems do not provide as many benefits as wetlands. Grasslands, even easier targets for developers than wetlands, are vanishing across the globe. I’m sure these areas do provide some ecosystem services, but I’m guessing they are much less valuable than wetlands in this respect. I, however, do not see grasslands as any less valuable. They are just as beautiful and contain just as many wonderful species of plants and animals. Are we as a society supposed to allow the tearing up of our native grasslands while protecting our wetlands simply because wetlands provide flood protection? Beyond this practical reason, there is something I find disturbing about introducing capitalism into conservation that is harder for me to express. It just feels wrong, like the desperate last stand or groveling to an enemy. I think we can do much more; now is not the time to grovel or compromise. I’ll stand with Aldo Leopold who expressed his land ethic as: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise,” and stated that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (A Sand County Almanac). These biotic communities deserve protection regardless of the financial savings they may provide. They deserve protection and respect because they are our fellow species, and have every right to exist that we do. We ought to be able to protect them on that basis alone.
I believe what conservation needs to make serious progress is more democracy. That is to say, the people should have a much more direct say in how their communities and the environments that surround them are managed. Our current capitalistic society, where wealth reigns supreme, is actually quite undemocratic. How many people truly feel as if they have a say in how their community is run, in how land is used? Currently, developers and corporations must only comply with laws passed by politicians decades ago and often without the knowledge or support of the voters, laws often meant to pacify one business interest or another. It is no wonder people feel voiceless. I believe these developers and corporations should also comply with the community. In this way, we can check the powerful and begin to release the grip capitalism has on our lives and government while simultaneously empowering the people—all the people—to choose how they want their country or society to function. When land is being converted from its natural or historic state into strip malls or condominiums, the people, not developers, should have a say in whether or not that is the right thing for their community. Critics refer to this as “social planning,” inferring some overpowered government controlling our lives and robbing us of our “freedom” and “liberty.” What these people forget to mention is that social planning is occurring all the time in capitalism; the distinction is who is doing the planning. In an unrestrained capitalist society, it is the powerful. Imagine a corporation that can make more money dumping their chemical waste into a river or releasing their pollutants into the air. The choice of whether that should be done is left to the incredibly wealthy corporate leaders who choose profits over societal well-being. This is social planning from the top down. A more democratic system will leave these decisions to the people who will actually be affected by the choices, not wealthy men living in hermetically-sealed and gated communities. The United States has done this to varying degrees; laws such as the Clean Water or Clean Air Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, these are steps in the right direction, yet looking at the state of our planet’s ecosystems, it should be clear that there is much work to do. What we are skating around here is democratic socialism, a concept supported by many of this nation’s great thinkers, environmental or otherwise. Essentially, democratic socialism is about justice—social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice—which is why so many advocates for the poor, labor leaders, civil rights advocates, and conservationists have embraced its principles. Democratic socialism is a large term with widespread implications and I will not delve too deeply into all of them, though there are many resources available. Instead I am focusing on the conservation and environmental implications. In this system, society, whether on the local, state, or national level, would be granted a say in how the natural world is managed, allowing a hands-off approach for wilderness areas and a more involved approach to managing our global health. Business interests must answer to us.
Let’s look for a moment at fossil fuels. It has been accepted in the scientific community for decades that releasing million-year-old carbon back into our atmosphere will have catastrophic effects on our global climate. It has already caused a tremendous amount of damage; glaciers and icecaps are disappearing at an alarming rate, species such as migratory birds are forced to reckon with the changes to our seasons, global weather has become more unpredictable and severe, ocean levels and temperatures are rising, and yet atmospheric carbon continues to increase at an alarming rate. So why do we continue to use this dangerous and outdated energy source? Why is the next “green energy” technology always a few years away, only to never fully materialize? Fossil fuels are very profitable. That is what it comes down to. It’s not that the rewards are greater than the risks, it’s that the risks are irrelevant to those reaping the rewards. Introducing democracy into this system means that society has a say in how our energy is created and how fossil fuels are used. If, as a society, we decide that the continued exploitation of ancient carbon to power our homes, businesses, and cars is unacceptable, that the risk to our families, our fellow humans, and our planet is simply too great, then we can decide to put serious restrictions on those corporations who currently burn fossil fuels with relative impunity while also rewarding those using, improving, and inventing alternative methods. In this way, we give people a choice in how the environment we all live in, learn from, and enjoy is treated. This will, I believe, drastically change how we approach conservation on a large scale. Society will be permitted to make changes that will benefit our society and environment, not only profit-margins. We could, for example, agree to rely more on food and products produced locally, instead of burning huge amounts of fuel shipping these things across the oceans, often multiple times. Yet, on the small scale, for example the choices of an individual business which is not necessarily hemmed in by a broader law, a more practical solution than society-wide democracy is required. This could be accomplished by allowing workers a democratic say in how their businesses conduct themselves. In the previous example, corporate leaders, given the choice between polluting the water or air to increase profits or making a sacrifice for the public good, chose profits. If, however, decisions were not left to a few rulers at the top, but instead democratically distributed to all workers, we can imagine a very different outcome. Workers given the choice between more profit and polluting the air their children breathe or the rivers on which they swim, boat, or fish may reach a very different conclusion than corporate leaders who can afford to insulate themselves from these effects. Again, democracy, this time in the workplace, can be used to protect our shared environment.
There are requirements, however, for democracy to work effectively. First, voter restrictions must be abolished. There are far too many ways to deny citizens the right to vote. Voter suppression is a very real concern in modern America and needs to be addressed before any expansion of democracy can occur. Additionally, the population must be informed and connected to the issues. This is the job of our education system and media, which, unfortunately, are a far cry from what is required, as seen in the large percentages of Americans claiming to be “skeptical” of such accepted scientific theories as climate change and evolution. Science education in this country lags behind much of the industrial world and thus scientific literacy is very low. This is important because while there is certainly an aspect to appreciating nature that is beyond scientific knowledge, residing in the realms of beauty and wonder, having an understanding of ecosystems adds great depth to the experience. I believe that it is no coincidence that our nation’s great conservationists, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Henry David Thoreau, Jane Goodall, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, John Muir, and many more were all fluent in ecology and science more generally. It is essential to understand how these systems function to truly appreciate their beauty and their significance. We therefore place a tremendous amount of importance on our education system, and there is no doubt it needs to be reformed to ensure all students, no matter where they live or where they come from, are given the gift of a scientific education. However, this is much too large a topic, and one I am quite ignorant about, so let’s stop here before I embarrass myself and turn to another very important tool for informing a democratic public: the media.
For a system with more democracy to be successful, the voting public must be well-informed and engaged, both of which fall to our woeful media. Science coverage in the popular media is essentially non-existent and when it does crop up it is either a manufactured scare-piece about black holes being formed in Switzerland, or a piece of research being presented only as an oddity—behold: glow-in-the-dark mice! Significant research is rarely presented. Additionally, environmental coverage is almost exclusively about the politics or the “debate” and rarely about the issue itself. The Keystone Pipeline is often discussed, but is almost always portrayed as a debate with one head on each side of a split screen promoting their own “truths.” Facts about the pipeline, such as how many permanent jobs it will actually create, the true risks of spills, where the oil will actually go, are often relegated to soundbites, slung between lobbyists or lawyers, or think-tank representatives. It is no wonder voter-engagement is so low. This, along with education, is a subject I will leave to someone more informed but I will say that I believe that by changing the capitalist system on which our society, including our media, is based we can change the media too. There is no doubt in my mind that when profits are deemphasized, the quality of the media will increase. If corporate owners no longer dictate choices, then journalists will be allowed to apply the ethics they are taught in journalism school.
A significant barrier to conservation being created directly by corporate interests and eaten up by the media are the massive misinformation campaigns which are currently being waged, largely in the United States. The most egregious example of this is the climate change denial campaign funded by oils companies such as Exxon-Mobile. Drawing from the lessons of the tobacco industry’s campaign looking to create doubt about the link between cancer and smoking (even going so far as to hire the same corrupt scientists), the oil industry has funded countless scientists with questionable credentials and even more questionable ethics, to cast doubt over the accepted scientific consensus of human-caused global climate change. Think tanks and other front groups with absurd and somewhat frighteningly Orwellian names such as Friends of Science (no seriously), funded mostly by the oil industry, pay scientists to pump out articles, papers, and books meant to spread doubt, often being published by the think tanks themselves and thus dodging the accepted practice of publishing in peer-reviewed journals. A famous example of the kind of misinformation being spread is the unfortunately named Oregon Petition, an often-cited document claiming to present signatures from 31,000 scientists who are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change. This is meant to cast doubt on the science by showing that there is a controversy in the scientific community. Aside from the fact that science is not a democratic system—the number of detractors does not change the facts or evidence—it turns out many, if not most, of these signatures were fraudulent. Nearly all of the signatures are unverifiable, and sometimes illegible. Signatories were asked to sign their name (no need to print it) check the box showing their level of education, and then write in their academic field. That was all the information they were asked give. There are many fake signatures, duplicates, and some joke signatures (Perry Mason is a climate change denialist?) Those few that did seem to be from actual Ph.D.’s were mostly from largely unrelated fields such as engineering. None of this, however, has stopped climate change deniers using the Oregon Petition as evidence of a nonexistent controversy.
Meanwhile, these same think-tanks and scientists do their best to portray the environmental movement as alarmist, radical, and dangerous. They claim moving away from fossil fuels will devastate our economy and cost us countless jobs. They of course forget to mention that any new energy sources will also require many employees, or that jobs on oil rigs or in coal mines are not exactly high on the desirability scale. The goal is not to win the argument, it is to keep the controversy alive. An infamous tobacco industry memo issued in 1969 read: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy… If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health. Doubt is also the limit of our product.” This is essentially the same strategy pursued by the oil industry today. By creating doubt, they can continue to pump our society full of a product that is extremely harmful to everyone. The “real facts” about smoking and health are the same as the “real facts” about fossil fuels and climate change, they have been well established by the scientific community and in both cases should no longer be in doubt. This misinformation campaign, based on greed, has the potential to do tremendous and irreversible damage to our planet; in fact, it already has. The United States has continued to drag its feet and refused to make substantial changes. Half of our politicians either believe the “real facts” being spread by the think-tanks, or are in the same fossil fuel industry pockets as the think tanks themselves. The phony controversy needs to be stopped by better science education and a responsible media who is not willing to continue promoting the “controversy” based on “fairness.” Allowing oil industry schills to spread their pseudoscientific nonsense is not fair or balanced, it is allowing oneself to become a mouthpiece for corporate greed. It should not be tolerated. Finally, by loosening the grip of capitalism and limiting corporate power, the motivation to continue these campaigns will disappear.
All this aside, I still believe the most important and effective way to protect our wilderness is to get people into it. Experiencing nature first hand is undoubtedly the first step in creating a new conservationist. This is why places like Forest Park are so important; urban natural areas allow anyone to experience nature firsthand. This should be promoted to all the citizens of our cities. To quote the Olmsted Report on Portland Parks, “a liberal provision of parks in a city is one of the surest manifestations of the intelligence, degree of civilization and progressiveness of its citizens.” Allowing people to explore nature sparks curiosity, the first step in successful education and hopefully in engagement and activism. Any way we can bring people together for a shared cause is a step in the right direction. Changing our nation’s current approach to environmental issues will take the support of the majority and to do this we need a lot more nature-lovers, environmentalists, and conservationists. We need to promote equal access to parks and encourage our fellow citizens to take advantage of the opportunities places like Forest Park provide. Additionally, wilderness areas, like those created by the Wilderness Act, are essential, and should be experienced by many more people. Currently, when hiking in a wilderness area you are likely to encounter many people from one sect of society: largely white, middle-class, often college educated people and their families. There are many reasons for this unequal access, the love of nature is often passed on from parent to child, it can be difficult and time consuming to reach these more remote wilderness areas, and there is the expensive and seemingly exclusionary REI culture that often surrounds outdoor recreation. I believe strongly that these barriers can and should be removed. Wilderness shouldn’t be a privilege. The more people we can get into the woods, mountains, deserts, or coasts of this country, the more allies conservation will find. I also think that there exists a natural partnership between conservationists and those advocating for other forms of social change which all could benefit from. Whether pushing for worker’s rights, civil rights, or environmental rights, we can find common cause and a shared objective. Standing united, there are many more of us than them.
Many of the changes we need in our society are linked. Changing our economic system, changing workers relationship to their businesses, opening up opportunities to all, and giving every citizen a voice in social planning can benefit our society not only by providing social and economic justice, but also by building a coalition with the desire and the power to enact environmental reform. I believe this is our greatest hope as a country and as a planet to rescue our damaged and disappearing ecosystems and preserve wilderness for the ages. Bob Marshall recognized this, one of the heroes of American conservation, he was also a strong critic of American capitalism. He stood with workers, even being arrested in a united front demonstration, worked to start a program that would allow low-income workers a chance to more easily explore wild places, and worked to remove barriers that kept minority groups out of wilderness areas. Despite being independently wealthy, he continued to perform difficult and physical work until his sudden death at the age of 38 after which he gave his remaining fortune, about $1.5 million in 1939, to three causes: first, a fund to promote “the theory of production for use and not profit,” second, to promote the continuation of civil liberties, and finally to preserve wilderness. Bob Marshall, needless to say, was a true American hero and one with which many more people should be familiar.
Make no mistake, this would be a radical change from our current political system. We are talking about giving the poor and downtrodden an equal voice in how our society and environment is managed. This kind of change will not come easily. However, with the current state of American capitalism—the racial and economic injustices which have always existed laid bare—with the looming threat of global climate change, the shocking loss of wilderness and species, and the degradation of our oceans, this is undoubtedly an extremely important time in the history of our planet. Maybe now we can join together to demand change. If we are to be successful, we will need a mass movement; a revolution of the people to demand a government and economic system that works for us and the environment. It won’t be easy. This system has been entrenched for centuries and closely watched over by the vanguard of the powerful. They will demonize and smear groups and leaders, they will attempt to divide the mass into factions which can be more easily dealt with and pitted against each other, they will call for small changes designed to placate without sacrificing their own power. This has all been done before. It is going on now. In order to be successful, we must stand together in solidarity, not allow ourselves to be divided, and think big, not permit ourselves to be persuaded, bought, or duped by half-measures and phony concessions. With so much at stake, we must succeed where others have failed. It is time to stand up to the abuses of our capitalistic system and reclaim this land for all the people, not just those with money. Our shared environment affects all of us and our nation’s wilderness can inspire and bring us together. To quote Walt Whitman, “Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths—animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies—or it will dwindle and pale.” Maybe in wilderness we can find the strength to stand together and fight for that vital democracy this nation has promised us; maybe in saving wilderness we can save ourselves.