by Jim Britell

Activists must oppose bad environmental projects (like the Makah Whale hunt) even when promoted by or designed to financially benefit minorities, or the oppressed and disenfranchised. Paradoxically, not opposing them can lead to worse ethical failings than racism, colonialism and the other "isms".


What ethical issues arise for activists when good people or good causes are the beneficiaries of environmentally destructive projects? Should we stand aside or pull our punches when faced with projects that are clearly bad for the environment, but have financial or other benefits for the disabled, minorities or other oppressed and disenfranchised people?

These days, many bad environmental problems arrive packaged in attractive wrappings . The Makah Whale hunt is an example - a bad environmental project, advocated by people who should be our allies and whose overall goals we strongly support.

Like the whale hunt, many projects activists face today are not as easy to categorize as they used to be. Once our main problems seemed simple and straightforward and usually involved "bad actors" who wanted to punch roads into Roadless Areas so they could clear-cut old growth trees. Our enemies were the bad guys, we were the good guys and our roles seemed fairly straightforward. Not so any more. Increasingly we are confronted with issues that are ethically difficult: proposals to construct roads in wilderness areas to build resorts for disabled people; or the transfer of federal forest land to Indian tribes for them to log in furtherance of economic self-sufficiency.

Projects like the above - because of their beneficiaries - are very difficult for some activists to reject out of hand. This essay explains why we must oppose bad projects whose beneficiaries are good causes, and paradoxically, why not opposing them may lead us into ethical failings even worse than racism, colonialism or any of the other "isms".

A few years ago, forest activists in New Mexico were subject to much virulent criticism for opposing an old growth timber sale that would directly benefit a Hispanic-owned timber company. Forest activists who opposed the timber sale were hung in effigy by an angry mob, whose participants included leaders of other progressive movements. Accused by some of their former allies of elevating the urban, white, and environmental agenda above respect for Hispanic needs and values, forest activist were also attacked by feminists who advocated the sale because of long-standing cultural traditions of the Hispanic community. Well-intentioned activists were wrongly accused of colonialism and racism.

In the New Mexico timber sale and the Makah whale hunt, the basic notion the proponents advanced is that anything an indigenous minority anywhere has ever done, or claimed to have done at any time in the past, is to be considered a tradition and respected as an integral component of an irreplaceable culture. Disagree and you may be labeled as a racist or a colonialist.

The Bible says no man can serve two masters. The forest activists' primary responsibilities and constituents are things that have no voice like birds, fish, trees, and plants. Extractive industry has always been keen to move forest-protection arguments away from harmless, defenseless species to our alleged insensitivity to the human hostages they always put in front of their schemes that cannot be justified on their intrinsic merits.

Forest activists have certain non-negotiable positions that are: 1. the inviolability of Roadless Areas to entry, road building, and logging; 2. the complete protection of remaining old growth forests, which we consider sacred; and 3. the necessity to retain a full complement of God's creatures in viable ecosystems. If groups or individuals advance schemes and projects that violate these core beliefs and values, we must oppose them. While forest activists should always be supportive of other progressive movements, we expect mutual support that requires others understand our position and our core values that we hold as sincerely as they hold theirs.

Five points on the racism/colonialism argument:
1. The "jobs" argument as it relates to its impact on human minorities and the oppressed is not a relevant consideration of whether to oppose bad environmental projects.

In the short run, most bad environmental practices create some jobs and benefit some humans. And some really bad projects often help many people and may even keep them alive. The results of damaging activities may fund local school budgets or medical clinics, or direct badly needed funds to victims of injustice. But environmentalists must not only exclude the effects such as those just noted in evaluating whether to oppose bad projects; they must exclude consideration of its effects upon all humans. Why? Because paradoxically this is the most humane strategy in the long run, and besides, it is the law.

In decisions whether to protect a particular endangered species and anticipating the possibility of bad projects with seemingly beneficial impacts, the framers of the Endangered Species Act precluded factoring in the effects upon people. Not because they were insensitive, but as elected politicians, they knew perfectly well that once any weight in a listing decision was given to the effects on people then no species would ever be protected. In any particular situation, the short-term needs of the local people affected would always prove more compelling than the long-term requirements of another species.

This is the core of the fallacy and hypocrisy of the current efforts to return environmental enforcement to local control, such as Governor Kitzhaber's promotion of the "En Libra" process where Western governors and local officials would assume more responsibility for enforcing federal environmental laws. Elected officials (even an environmentalist elected to office) will not place their constituents' survivability below the survivability of other species - at least not one who expects to remain in office. Pine Martens and salmon do not elect legislators and governors. Their human constituents elect them.

This phenomenon was illustrated by an incident in rural China. Last year an American environmental expert and a village elder were observing a 12-inch outfall pipe from an illegal pulp mill that discharged a gushing yellow witches' brew of toxic chemicals 24-hours a day. The outfall was upstream from where the village directly drew its drinking water. The American asked why the pipe had not been shut off. The elder explained that he knew contaminated drinking water would affect the villagers' health and that the effects might start showing up in a year or so. But he said if the pipe was shut off tomorrow, the plant would close and the men in the village would all lose their jobs and his people could start dying of starvation within a week. So given the circumstances, he had no choice but to oppose shutting off the outfall pipe.

Any person's welfare is an important concern to us - but concerns are different from responsibilities. Humans are capable of taking care of themselves and they can solicit additional help from their elected officials and attorneys. Forest activists are tasked with the duty, and officials are bound by the law, to reject all the heartbreaking reasons why chambers of commerce, school boards, churches, minorities, and other groups are justified to destroy another species in their search for short-term jobs.

If forest activists become morally and ethically confused about projects that favor humans, they will fail in their first responsibility to the trees, birds, plants, and fish that depend on them as spokespersons to go to meetings, write letters, and make phone calls on their behalf. All humans, whether good or bad actors, look after their own interests already - probably too well.

2. If a policy is consistently and evenhandedly applied to all, it is not discriminatory.

Racism is the differential and selective treatment of individuals and/or groups based on their ethnic origin, religion, or color. Forest activists have opposed timber sales by Caucasian-owned companies and we have opposed timber sales by Hispanic-owned companies too. Our opposition is evenhanded...color- and race-blind and applied consistently to all bad sales. It is not fair to characterize our attitudes or behaviors as "racist." Forest activists may be stubborn and willful, at times even stupid or insensitive, but we are not racists.

3. Speciesism is the worse "ism"

Advancing a project that ranks human interests and human values (no matter which particular humans) in a superior position over the interests of all other species, is really "Speciesism." That is worse than all other "isms" because it is discrimination and insensitivity toward creatures that cannot speak or defend themselves. Sexism, racism, and colonialism are prejudices directed against humans who can write, speak, and organize to defend their interests. Species involved in a timber sale like Goshawks, Flammulated Owls, Pine Martens, black bears, neo-tropical migrant bird species, wolverines, and cougars, can not protect themselves against humans.

4. Allowing "custom and culture" arguments leads to absurd conclusions.

Endorsing and respecting the idea that an ethnic group can destroy forests because of deep-rooted, cultural, and/or social traditions, despite what opinions outsiders may have, is no different from endorsing clitoridectomies of girls in Africa or the stoning of adulteresses in Afghanistan. Whether it is respect for women's rights or protection of forests, when core values of any Western progressive movement come up against the longstanding traditions of other cultures, all progressive movements must place their own core values first. In opposing a timber sale, forest activists are no more "racist" than feminists are "colonialist and racist" to oppose rural India's tradition of the burning of widows, or the tradition of clitoridectomy of young women in Africa.

5. Little concessions to minorities that do small harm in one place may lead to precedents that do great harm to minority interests in other places.

Even when a project is marginal in its impact, such as killing one or two whales or clear-cutting a remote stand of trees, these minor projects, allowed as a special case or by waivers, may serve as important precedents for future projects with larger consequences. Unlike autocratic, kleptocratic, or feudal governments, it is the essence of democratic governments operating under the rule of law, that government decisions are based on precedent and case law - not on whims and impulse. Thus even seemingly harmless exceptions may provide extraordinary precedents or undermine critical legal arguments when applied in international forums.

To allow the Makah whale hunt, for example, we violated a long-standing interpretation that exceptions to endangered species conventions for indigenous hunting for "subsistence" purposes, were only allowed for "food subsistence." To finagle the Makah whale hunt, the U.S. stretched the concept of "subsistence" to include "cultural subsistence" so now a very bad precedent is set under which any county may argue that whaling is part of their "cultural subsistence." And that argument has already begun to be heard.

Even worse, giving a "break" to indigenous people in the United States may dramatically hurt indigenous interests worldwide. Waiving an environmental law out of respect for, and in response to, agitation by a sympathetic-appearing minority may appear humane, but the whole world watches very carefully what the U.S. does. We have to be careful not to send a message to the rest of the world that tough environmental laws and the inviability of preserves and set-asides are OK to bend a little if local folks complain enough and jobs, jobs, jobs are at stake.

In places like Africa or the Amazon where people are desperately poor, the local clamor for jobs is usually from miners and farmers trying to survive by encroaching on preserves that protect the remaining indigenous native people. So a paradox is created. Our efforts to help a few indigenous minorities here can provide precedents that damage large numbers of indigenous minorities elsewhere. At a minimum, bad precedents make it difficult and hypocritical for our government to advocate for strong, impartial enforcement of the laws in other countries. The result of lax enforcement of U.S. environmental laws is always borne the most painfully, not in Wyoming or the Everglades or the forests of Idaho, but in Borneo, Africa, and the Amazon.

Every time our government waives or forbears any environmental law to "put people back in the equation" or to "provide a balanced approach" to help a local community increase or maintain jobs, we provide a ready-made text for a press release for every Third World government, from Nigeria to Indonesia, who lets an oil company enter a tribal reserve to drill for oil or who won't remove gold miners who have encroached on tribal reserves.

Forest activists must always remember, that no matter what the color of a person's skin, no matter what his ethnic background, sexual preference or economic status, the worst form of discrimination anyone can possibly engage in, is to deprive a person of their right to be advised in no uncertain terms when their behavior is destructive to the environment and thus to all species whether vertebrate, invertebrate, sentient or non-sentient. Destructive projects may help some humans here at the expense of many humans there. Or help a few humans now at the expense of many humans later. But in a world where all humans, all species, and all systems depend on each other and interact in ways we cannot yet understand, no net benefit can accrue to the human family from environmentally destructive schemes.

©1996 Jim Britell
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