Environmental justice lessons for the wilderness romantic

Opinion by Holly Moeller
May 6, 2015, 8:49 p.m.

Dad and I pored over the map, scanning state by state as we tallied our visits to America’s National Parks. “I’ve still got you beat by two,” Dad said at last. “So don’t go taking any more road trips.”

That Dad and I engage in such jocular one-upmanship (though our travel motivation comes first from the desire to see natural wonders) is a perfect example of the particular brand of environmentalism that we both embrace — the preservation of ecosystems in their “natural” state. We also often take our ability to visit such places for granted.

Some would describe such an environmental ethic as characteristic of the privileged members of the American white middle class. Readers of John Muir and Edward Abbey, we romanticize wilderness and abhor its destruction by human advances. More tellingly, we see this wilderness, representative of the epitome of “natural,” as something separate and distinct from the places most of us lead our daily lives. We visit nature, explore the wilderness, experience a romantic ideal of the past. We don’t live there.

By any account, this viewpoint has done a world of good. Here in the United States, it’s led to the 1964 Wilderness Act, the creation of 59 National Parks and the protection of hundreds of threatened species. And it’s motivated us to spend money overseas to save rainforests, adopt endangered animals and fund sustainable development.

But it’s also a viewpoint steeped in privilege — the same sort of privilege that haunts everything from media coverage of Baltimore to our perceptions of life in third world countries. It’s a privilege to be able to travel to national parks, buy organic food or drive an electric car. It’s a privilege to be distanced from the world’s most pressing environmental issues: Rainforest destruction happens on other continents and river cleanups happen in other neighborhoods. It’s a privilege to periodically worry about these issues, rather than confronting them daily. Thanks to various socioeconomic and political forces, it’s a privilege that exists only for a few — namely, members of the developed world’s upper classes.

As with other forms of privilege, environmental privilege comes with some massive blind spots.

First, we’re a step removed from most environmental justice issues. For example, climate change (a phenomenon generated largely by the world’s wealthy) will predominantly affect the world’s poor. As we’ve seen in Nepal, the impacts of natural disasters are magnified by a lack of infrastructure and resources. Yet millions of people live in poverty in low-lying countries like Bangladesh, which are vulnerable to sea level rise, or survive on subsistence agriculture in places like the horn of Africa, where shifting climates could bring massive famines.

Even here in the United States, the NIMBY (not in my backyard) motto applies only to the wealthy. Nuclear waste is placed on Native American lands. Hurricane Katrina highlighted persistent racial and economic divides. Poor communities wait years for the cleanup of local Superfund sites — or just for the installation of a neighborhood park. The poor and disenfranchised have neither voice nor recourse; the wealthy move away and wring their hands from a distance.

We have a second blind spot: our disconnection from our own definition of “nature.” As the products of natural selection, we Homo sapiens are part of the natural world by definition. Yet in our colloquial language, we continue to imply that we, and especially our creations, are separate from anything labeled as “natural.” Problematic though this artificial distinction is, it’s easy to see how it arises considering the contrast between, say, John Muir’s High Sierra wilderness and our modern cityscapes; between the “noble” bald eagle and the “pestilential” city pigeon; or between “all-natural” chicken breasts and “junk food” chicken nuggets. We seem to see human influence as a contaminant, a threat even to ourselves.

By setting ourselves in opposition to nature, we commit a fatal error. We forget something that many living in undeveloped nations understand intimately: the fundamental interconnectedness of our world. We no longer know how to live amidst intact natural systems. Instead, we know how to strip them bare, extract what we need and set up our own infrastructure in their place. We may know how to use individual parts in highly efficient ways, but we lack the wisdom to manage the whole system. As a result, we misjudge our boundaries and easily overstep them: California struggles to sustain its breadbasket in the face of drought; our monoculture crop system spirals through cycles of pests and pesticides; greenhouse gases steadily accumulate in our atmosphere.

Worse, we tend to export our ideology. Our efforts stem from good intentions: the British helped install a series of Egyptian dams to alleviate hunger by stabilizing the water supply — but their success destroyed the balance of the Nile Delta and, ultimately, created a cascade of almost insurmountable challenges. Americans model high-consumption lifestyles while bankrolling the preservation of distant lands as though to atone for the ecosystems they’ve paved over.

To achieve a global, equal, high-quality standard of living is a noble goal. But it is not one that we can attain sustainably while operating on the assumptions of our privileged environmental vantage point. Rather, success will come from a merger of many views and values, from acknowledgement of our continued connectedness with the Earth system and from the respectful incorporation of the local wisdom that still abounds — albeit in our blind spots.

Contact Holly Moeller at hollyvm ‘at’ alumni.stanford.edu.

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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