Environmental activists must oppose bad environmental projects (like the Makah Indian tribe whale hunt approved by the U.S government) 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 straightforward. Not so any more. Increasingly we are confronted with issues that are ethically difficult: proposals to build roads in wilderness areas for handicapped access, transfer of Federal Forest lands in Alaska and Oregon to Native Americans to log in furtherance of tribal economic self-sufficiency, the construction of industrial wind turbines near rural communities to create alternatives to fossil fuels, and on and on.
Projects like the above—because of their worthy goals and beneficiaries—are very difficult for many activists to reject out of hand. But we must oppose bad projects whose beneficiaries are good causes, because not opposing them may lead us into ethical failings even worse than racism, colonialism or any of the other “-isms.”
Some 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 that included leaders of other progressive movements who accused forest activists of elevating an urban, white, environmental agenda above respect for Hispanic needs and values. Forest activists were also attacked by feminists who advocated the timber sale because of long-standing cultural traditions of the Hispanic community. Well-intentioned forest activists were accused of colonialism and racism.
In the New Mexico timber sale and the Makah whale hunt, the idea the proponents advanced is that environmentally destructive practices an indigenous minority practiced in the past should be respected and accepted today as an integral component of an irreplaceable culture and people who oppose these practices for any reason are racist and colonialist.
But environmental 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 and onto activist’s alleged insensitivity to the human hostages which are always in front of schemes that cannot be justified on their intrinsic merits.
Forest activists have certain non-negotiable positions: 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 reciprocal appreciation that requires other people understand and respect our core values and hold them for as sincere reasons as others may hold theirs.
Five points on the racism/colonialism argument:
- 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 may help very large numbers of needy people. 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 deciding 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 which Republicans are always keen to do. Elected officials (even an environmentalist elected to office) will never 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 do.
This phenomenon was illustrated by an incident in rural China. 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 can take care of themselves and solicit help from their elected officials and attorneys. Forest activists have the duty to reject appeals from chambers of commerce, school boards, churches, minorities, and all other groups to place other species’ viability at risk in search of jobs. If environmental 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 too well already.
- 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. While our attitudes or behaviors may be stubborn and willful, or at times even stupid or insensitive, they are not racist.
- 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 birds, wolverines, and cougars—cannot protect themselves against humans.
- Allowing “custom and culture” arguments leads to absurd conclusions. Endorsing and respecting the idea that an ethnic group can destroy forests or whales 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 highly held political, social and legal core values come up against the longstanding traditions of other cultures, progressive movements must place their core values first. In opposing a timber sale, forest activists are no more “racist” than feminists are “colonialist and racist” to oppose the tradition of clitoridectomy of girls in Africa.
- 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, the United States ignored 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 was immediately made by Japan who began to argue that Japanese whaling was a core Japanese cultural value.
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 must be careful not to send a message to the rest of the world that tough environmental laws and the inviolateness of preserves and set-asides are OK to bend a little if local folks make enough noise. This is because 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 “talking points” for every third world government—from Nigeria to Indonesia—that lets an oil company enter a tribal reserve to drill for oil or that needs an excuse to avoid removing gold miners from tribal reserves.
In India in the1840s, General James Napier was Chief British General and was told of an upcoming suttee, a funeral rite where a man’s widow was thrown onto his funeral pyre and burnt alive. When General Napier forbade the ceremony, the Hindu priests objected saying it was a long-established religious practice which must be respected. Napier said that it was his country’s national custom to hang and then confiscate all the property of people who burnt women alive, so if they went ahead with their customs, he would act according to his.
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. No matter the color of a person’s skin, ethnic background, sexual preference or economic status, we need to be free to stop anyone from harming the environment and other species.
This essay is an excerpt from “Organize to Win Vol 2”
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