Interview of Tom Butler ― Resistance Radio

Browse all episodes of Resistance Radio or listen to audio of this interview:
Download mp3

Derrick Jensen: Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Tom Butler. He’s the board president of Northeast Wilderness Trust, a regional land trust that conserves forever-wild landscapes, and the editorial projects director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. A longtime conservation activist and writer, his books include Wildlands Philanthropy, Plundering Appalachia, ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, and most recently, the co-edited volume Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth.

So, thank you for being with me, and also, thank you for your work.

Tom Butler: Well, it’s a pleasure to be with you, Derrick.

DJ: Today—thank you—let’s talk about, and I would love to have you back another time to talk about other things, but right now I want to talk about this “movement,” do we call it? This whatever we call it called “new environmentalism.” It’s really emerged in the last—how long?

TB: Three or four years.

DJ: Tell us about new environmentalism.

TB: This is a body of thinking. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a movement, but a body of thinking that has emerged in the last several years really under the aegis of a number of leading spokespersons. One of them is the science journalist Emma Maris, who wrote a book called Rambunctious Garden, Mssrs. Nordhaus and Shellenberger, who cofounded the Breakthrough Institute. There’s an academic named Earl Ellis who’s been put in= this camp. And then probably, most notably within the conservation movement, Peter Kareiva, the eminent scientist who is currently the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy. All these folks would be prominent spokespeople in this camp.

You’ve termed it “new environmentalism.” There’s actually not a single term that these people use to self-identify. They’ve been called alternatively new environmentalists, new conservationists, neo-greens, post-modern greens. There’s a range of monikers that have been used to identify these folks and the general body of thinking, but if I can encapsulate what that is, for the most part they’ve described a scenario in which, they believe or they assert, that we’re now in a new geological epoch, and it’s called the “Anthropocene,” the age of humanity, the age of man. We are, that is, our species, are essentially now the de facto planetary managers. It’s here, the earth is here, for better or ill, we’re now in the driver’s seat.

One of the things they often like to hold up and also to critique is to create a straw man of the wilderness movement and the wilderness idea and talk and bash the idea of pristine wilderness and say, well, if that ever did exist, that is, pristine wilderness, that’s all gone now, and trying to work on protecting wilderness and thinking about the wilderness idea—all that is vaguely romantic and ineffective, and that sort of thinking poorly serves today’s conservation movement.

Another big meme articulated by these folks, most especially Peter Kareiva, is that nature is highly resilient, and that this notion of fragility that environmentalism sprang up around, that nature was somehow fragile and that humans could kill it or damage it gravely is not quite right. Really, the key characteristic of nature is resilience. That’s the one we should be focused on, not fragility.

The last few things that really characterize this body of thought are really more in terms of conservation movement tactics. Here’s where it gets fairly interesting and in some ways really dangerous, how these ideas that are articulated within large NGOs and within graduate schools and the philanthropic community where they percolate down to specific conservation movement tactics.

One of the key things these folks have been arguing about is that focusing on protected areas, parks, wilderness areas, other kinds of protected conservation lands, that that’s kind of old school, and that the future is really about managed landscapes, landscapes that people manipulate for human ends, and that should really be the focus of most conservation action.

Instead of focusing on preventing extinction, which is what most of us thought conservation was about, preventing human-caused extinction, really they assert that the focus should be on maintaining so-called ecosystem services, those things that nature provides that support human economies. That should be conservation’s primary goal.

The last {inaudible] of those strategic points: they talk about how conservationists shouldn’t really critique capitalism–that’s probably not a good tactic—but should rather partner with corporations to achieve better results. In fact, Peter Kareiva, in a rather famous quote from one of his essays, says, “Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.”

So that’s the new environmentalism in a nutshell.

DJ: Isn’t there also a fabulous quote by him about how we need to protect nature only for man? What was his quote about that? There’s a pretty famous one.

TB: Sure. I think you’re thinking of a quote that he published in a paper with coauthors a few years ago that was published by the Breakthrough Institute where he said, let’s see, I think it was the . . . I’m sorry. Yes, is this what you meant? “The second major shift we urge is that conservationists should focus foremost on regions where the degradation of ecosystem services most severely threatens the well-being of people.” Is that the one you were thinking of?

DJ: Yeah . . .

TB: Oh, I bet you were thinking of this one. Okay, here’s a quote. From Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake”—that is, because of its intrinsic value—“a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor.” So there he really encapsulated it in a nutshell that the focus should not be on the intrinsic value of nature or protecting the diversity of life for its own sake, but really this new conservation should be focused on areas that we actively manage or enhance so that you can keep providing ecological services or ecosystem services to the most number of people.

When I read that quote—I don’t know if you have the same thought, Derrick, but I suspect you might have—to me, it just sounded almost exactly like Gifford Pinchot. It’s the same utilitarian ethic applied to conservation.

DJ: It’s funny you mention the thought I had, because one of the things I think of is Gifford Pinchot and one of the things I feel as you have been saying all of these things is a great wave of nausea. I find these arguments really . . . I don’t want to say just problematic, but really harmful. I think these people are doing great harm to the environmental movement. I have a little bit of difficulty even doing an interview about this because it is all so wrongheaded. Where do we even begin to dissect it?

TB: I could not agree with your more. I think it is so wrongheaded, but these are serious people getting serious press time out there in the mainstream, both in academia and, unfortunately, in the mainstream press. I don’t know if you ever look at that old rag called the New York Times, but in particular Shellenberger and Nordhaus have had great success in articulating their views on the editorial pages of the New York Times.

So these are ideas that are percolating beyond just the insular academic world of people who are getting graduate degrees in some environmental studies program somewhere. They’re percolating out into the mainstream. You even see traditional resource industries latching onto this, whereas these postmodern, deconstructionist-oriented, green academics are making very similar arguments as traditional logging and resource and mining industries. That’s been noticed, and those people have latched onto it.

The point you’ve made that these ideas are distressing and damaging and perhaps even nauseating was what prompted a group of us, including the foundation that I work for and another small family foundation, began in . . . actually, Emma Maris’s book was published in 2011, this very influential Breakthrough Institute journal piece by Kareiva and others, and coauthors, was published in 2011, and those ideas were getting such currency percolating out into the broader conservation community that we hosted a meeting to discuss them, to think about them, to really dissect them to see how they were being articulated and what the potential problems were there.

Then we responded in a way, probably not in a very effective way, but in the way that we did with this volume called Keeping the Wild, coedited by many, many luminary conservation writers and thinkers and scientists, dissecting different parts of the so-called new environmentalism and articulating what is both patently absurd and ridiculous and insane about these ideas and also what is very subtly damaging. In probably the most brilliant chapter—there are many, many good essays—but . . .

DJ: It’s a great book, by the way. I’ve read it. It’s a fabulous book.

TB: Well, thank you. My coeditor of the volume, Eileen Crist, wrote just a superb chapter about the way the language of commodification and resourceism so undergirds our whole worldview that we don’t even see it, that our entire world is based on this notion of human supremacy.

She replies to the so-called new environmentalism, to the philosophy of it, I think, in a really excellent and profound way whereas others dissect more of the tactics, for instance, this notion that protected areas, that the traditional tool of conservation, parks wilderness areas, other kinds of strictly protected natural areas, that that’s somehow a tactic or a strategy to be abandoned or at least to be minimized going into the future. That, to me, is an extremely dangerous idea.

Even if we can see that we are moving into the so-called Anthropocene, where the footprint or the boot print of industrial humanity on the biosphere is readily apparent and is going to be laid down in the geological record, even if we concede that, now is not the time to be turning away from the traditional tools of conservation, but to be turning back toward them and amplifying them.

Not to say that just land conservation is going to be sufficient, but it’s absolutely crucial if we’re going to stop or slow down the Sixth Great Extinction.

DJ: I have a few things I want to say. One of them is that I was asked maybe a couple of years ago to write a response to the prompt, basically, “What do you think of the term Anthropocene?” I wrote that I found the term really problematical for a few reasons. One of them is that this culture is . . . part of the reason the world is being killed, is because this culture is incredibly narcissistic.

I just read an essay or an op-ed in the New York Times about difficult decisions that will have to be made through the Anthropocene. They were do we save this creature or that creature? I found the op-ed really, really problematical for a number of reasons. One of them is that’s what this culture has wanted to do from the beginning is play God. That’s the direction of the culture. But another problem I have with it is that they’re talking about all these conditions. Okay, are we going to save this particular shrew, this butterfly, how do we make the decision?

Never mentioned in this is that those are the ones who are on the chopping block. Never mentioned is the possibility of putting technologies on the chopping block. Never mentioned is the possibility of putting certain luxuries on the chopping block.

TB: That’s exactly right. People are so immersed in the techno-sphere that they don’t see it. It’s like the salmon in the stream in the river doesn’t know he’s in water until he’s yanked out of it by someone’s net or fishing line. You don’t see that you’re in the techno-sphere—it’s very, very difficult—until you step out of it to a certain extent.

To me, that’s one of the great and largely unarticulated values and arguments for wilderness protection. The ultimate argument for protecting parks and wilderness areas and other strictly protected natural areas is because of their support of ecological function as home for other members of the land community, our kin. But in terms of their value to people, historically people talked about parks and wilderness areas as great for human recreation, which is true, but culturally, if we’re going to have any chance of turning back a culture that is fundamentally toxic to wild nature, it will mean analyzing and eventually renouncing this full, whole-hearted embrace of the managerial mindset, that we’re going to garden everything, and the entire biosphere essentially will become the techno-sphere.

The way to start thinking outside that is to go get in a wild place where you’re unplugged, to look around and see what the world should look like. At least I’ve found that with myself. The happiest moments that I’ve had in my life pretty much have been in wild settings, when I was outside at least in the near realm [?] of the techno-sphere.

It’s interesting to me, this trajectory of conservation of moving into the so-called Anthropocene and assuming that the role of humanity is as global gardeners or managers of the planetary, overseers of the planetary plantation, that we are . . . it is our destiny, our role to do this. You have leading spokespersons and figures within the mainstream conservation community arguing that that is the direction we must take, for better or worse. Maybe it’s not what we wanted, but for better or worse it’s this globalized form of noblesse oblige. We’re in the driver’s seat now, so we have to do it.

How different that is from what the American conservation movement was 80 years ago. For example, when Robert Marshall and others cofounded the Wilderness Society in the 1930s, do you recall what they wrote? Bob Marshall wrote, “There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.”

Eighty years ago Bob Marshall already was seeing the trajectory of modernity and what that would do to the areas of wilderness, of self-willed land, across the American West and the East as well from the Adironacks. He saw the trajectory of civilization as a tyrannical ambition to conquer everything.

Eighty years later, the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy is saying conservation needs to be about partnering with corporations and managing ecosystems to benefit the most number of people and keep the economy humming along. He’s saying that nature is so resilient that it can recover rapidly from even the most powerful human disturbances—that’s a direct quote from Peter Kareiva as well—and suggesting that this should be the role of conservation in the future.

It’s a dramatically different frame for thinking about humans’ obligations and responsibilities toward the natural world. One is gardenification, and one is setting boundaries against that tyrannical ambition of a conquering force. One is war, is defending against an invading army, and the other is saying we will manage everything for our ends. And if, well, some species go extinct, we know that nature is so resilient it can recover rapidly. That’s too bad. As long as we can maintain enough ecosystem services to support the aspirations of humans, including many, many millions of poor people, then we’re doing the job of conservation.

DJ: A couple of things. One of them is that it is no wonder—it has not been a surprise to me—that all of these people have gotten as much press as they have because their message is completely aligned with the capitalist mindset, with an imperialist mindset.

TB: That’s right.

DJ: So it’s no wonder that the New York Times would feature them. That’s no surprise to me. One of the best lines I ever wrote was one of the first lines I ever wrote. It’s from A Language Older Than Words: “In order to maintain our way of living, we must tell lies to each other and especially to ourselves. It’s not necessary that the lies be particularly believable but merely that they be erected as barriers to truth.”

This is something I’ve really noticed. I became pretty politicized in the 80s and then became an activist in the late 80s. By the mid-90s I had noticed a pattern that about every three or four years, there would be a new darling of the media who was anti-environmental but claiming to be really environmental.

TB: Exactly.

DJ: Greg Easterbrook was what? 1998?

TB: Yep. Then Bjorn Lomborg.

DJ: Yep. 2002. I don’t know who is was in 2005 but it was probably somebody. Then in 2008, 2009, these people come along. Give us another couple of years, there will be new ones. To always articulate then get debunked, but by the time they’re debunked they’ve done their damage.

So that’s one thing I want to say, to put that part in context. The other thing I want to say is there are solid scientists who are saying that the oceans could be devoid of fish by 2045, 2050. The oceans could be dead. And also, even if you don’t go into the future, if you weighed all the fish in the oceans in 1870 and called that 100 percent, and then you weighed them now, that would be 10 percent. And this is after 1870, after a lot of overfishing already.

So what I really want to bring up is, in terms of management, which is just a fancy word for theft, but if we talk about managing landscapes, are there any—and I’m always uncomfortable with the word any, so I don’t want to hold you to this because then you give one example or you say no, there’s not, and they give one example and we’re all shot down—but can you think of any landscapes that have been managed by a human supremacist mindset that have not been significantly harmed by that management?

The reason I put “human supremacist mindset,” and this is something we may or may not talk about in a minute, is that I’m fully aware that the local Indians here would make management decisions using fire, using all sorts of other means, but they did so planning on living there for 500 years. And the Tolowa lived where I live now for at least 12,500 years, which means in any realistic sense they’re living here sustainably, so I’m not talking about “management” because I don’t think what they did was manage. What they did was have a long-term relationship with the land.

But back to the original question, would you buy a used car from these people? They say, oh we can manage the earth. But can they actually manage anything without destroying it?

TB: No. No, I don’t think there is any example that you could articulate. Of course it depends upon what you term . . .

DJ: Right right right.

TB: . . . on what your definition of success is. If your definition of success is a landscape that maintains enough ecological function to filter water and produce clean air and maybe support some pollinators and some pollination services and some soil building, well, that level of ecological function that supports that range of ecosystem services—I hate that phrase because it even has a frame, to serve whom?

DJ: I want to talk about that in a second but let’s [inaudible]

TB: To serve humanity. But I’ll answer the question. You could get that range potentially . . . I mean all kinds of different landscapes produce some level of ecosystem services. There may be a non-native tree plantation which is doing some of that, but that’s very different from a landscape which supports all of its native species, supports the kinds of variation over time scales for that landscape, which in large part depends upon a whole range of natural processes, so in area this landscape has to be large enough to be influenced by natural processes so you get that variation over time in natural succession.

That is a tremendously different standard if you’re wanting a landscape to be so healthy that all of its native species are present and in normal ranges of abundance and diversity so that they’re fulfilling their ecological roles. We’re not talking about a handful of token wolves somewhere but wolves in populations that are ecologically effective, serving their top-down role in the ecosystem. So that’s a totally different standard.

To circle back to your question, no, I don’t believe there is any example that we could offer of a major biome anywhere on earth that has been actively managed within the time frame of industrial humanity where all of those things are still present unless we’re talking specifically about areas that were conserved and were not exploited for human resources.

DJ: I want to mention two beings whom I only recently heard about. Have you ever heard of black-skinned, pink-tusked elephants?

TB: No, I have not.

DJ: That’s because they were native to China and were exterminated by agriculture. How about Mesopotamian elephants?

TB: No.

DJ: Same deal, Near East. My point being that those were early casualties of the managerial ethos in terms of agriculture. I’d never heard of pink-tusked elephants before, until maybe six months ago. Part of the problem here is that if you are the beneficiary of . . .

Okay, so I wrote a book on anarchism and some of the problems of anarchism, and it’s going to come out in a year and a half or two years or something. Anyway, one of the things I was talking about is that there’s a lot of support in anarchism for pornography, and a lot of males have written defenses of pornography.

And there, as I was writing this, I was like wait a second, as a member of the oppressor class, you don’t actually get to write something about members of a subjugated class and say that it doesn’t hurt them.

It’s the same with the managerial ethos here. They’re talking about managing. What they mean by managing is removing resources for our use. As a member of an oppressor class, as a white person living in the 1830s, I don’t get to write an essay saying slavery isn’t harmful. Do you see what I’m getting at?

TB: I do see what you’re getting at. Your point is completely valid. I agree with you. This problem of who writes, who creates the frames, who promotes language that helps the notion, this idea of human hegemony and this human empire, stay an uncritiqued worldview. Unfortunately too often it is not just the resource exploiters. This language is now so widely embraced even in unthinking ways.

I’ll give you the example of the phrase which we often hear among conservation circles of working landscapes, so-called working landscapes. That phrase was originally articulated and pioneered by some PR firm hired by the forest industry in Maine. The first time I think that was ever used people were getting hammered in Maine for these gigantic clear-cuts, so pretty soon you started seeing ads saying well that that’s not an ugly clear-cut, it’s a “working forest.”

And now you see mainstream environmentalists widely embracing this, including Peter Kareiva when he says, “The conservation of the future will be less and less about protected areas and increasingly about working landscapes.”

So you had the mainstream environmental movement totally buy into this frame that landscapes that are manipulated, that are managed, for human resource production—that’s good. Who can be against working? Working is like apple pie and motherhood. No longer do we talk about . . .

DJ: They are working, but they’re working for themselves.

TB: Exactly. I wrote an essay once about wilderness is the ultimate working landscape because it’s the one that works for all the members of the land community. That’s the way a working landscape should be, but that’s not how it’s been framed.

Another one that kills me is when people talk about other members of the biosphere, of the biotic community, of the land community, our kin, our species’ kin, as what? Natural resources. We don’t talk about the other creatures as our fellow travelers, the community of life. We talk about them as natural resources, helping to create this linguistic platform that makes hegemony over the natural world normalized.

The other one that is very subtle but you see all the time—how often do you pick up something from an NGO, from a green group, saying that we have to work to protect our forests. The possessive our there helps reinforce the notion that the forests or the earth or the rivers or whatever is being talked about belongs to us, which of course is completely nonsense. It’s insane.

But it’s a very subtle kind of linguistic quirk that helps to undergird this notion of possession, that the earth is merely this commodity, this big storehouse of resources for human use and enjoyment and profit. Until we get to these deeper ideas and begin to deconstruct that, that language and that worldview, then the strategies that we will employ within the environmental and conservation movements are always going to half-measures. They are going to be incomplete and insufficient.

DJ: The big divide in my mind is never between those who believe in militant resistance and those who don’t. And sometimes I say the big divide is between those who do something and those who do nothing. That’s partly true in terms of activists. Most of us just sit on our butts most of the time. It would be great if there were more people working to protect salmon, protect whatever. But there’s another question that I want to bring up here.

The real question—and one of the big, big problems I see in the mainstream environmental movement, and this goes back to Gifford Pinchot too—is who or what are you trying to protect? It’s like all the so-called solutions to global warming that we see put forward in the mainstream, what they all have in common is they all take industrial civilization as a given . . .

TB: Exactly.

DJ: . . . and the natural world as having to conform to industrial civilization. This comes back to what is environmentalism for. For me . . . okay, this is so cool. I hate using the term my people. So I’m not going to use it then. I just won’t use it. I get the choice.

TB: It’s okay. You can use it if you want to.

DJ: I feel so much more comfortable when . . . I come out of a grassroots activist background, and not an environmental theory . . . I never even heard about any of this environmental theory stuff until I’d already been an activist for years. All the grassroots activists I knew, if you ask them why they’re doing this, they will tell you for the rivers, for the critters, for the trees, because I love bull trout, because I love [inaudible] caribou, because I love the sturgeon. They will tell you about some place that they’re trying to save.

TB: Exactly.

DJ: But so much environmentalism—and Paul Kingsnorth talks about this—so much environmentalism has become not about saving this or that place but about sustaining this culture that is killing the planet.

TB: Exactly. You’re completely right. No, it’s not helpful. It goes back to this age-old predicament within any social change movement of reform or incrementalists versus radicals, structural change agents. And that long-standing tension—that’s just integral to whatever social change movement we could be talking about. There’s always going to be tension between reformers and radicals.

But in the way that this is playing out currently, I think one can reasonably make a case that reform or incremental environmentalism in its perpetuation of all these frames, these cognitive and linguistic frames we’ve been talking about, that reinforce the notion that the earth is here for us, and, gosh, we’ve got to get good at managing it or we’re really toast here, because it’s getting bad out there—
that sort of trajectory or trend in some ways, I think, is more profoundly problematic now because things are so dire.

When there’s such a grave need for questioning and doing a deep systemic analysis of what are truly the drivers of the Sixth Great Extinction crisis, what are truly the drivers of climate change . . . of course climate change is an unintended side effect of a bad culture, of too many people behaving badly. Not because they’re malevolent. I don’t think anybody wakes up in the morning and says I’m going to go out and try to trash the planet today. No, there’s an earth that is overpopulated, a huge number of people . . .

DJ: We can have that discussion, by the way, about the malevolence. That’s another discussion.

TB: Okay, there may be a few. I’ll concede your point. But I think by and large it is a thoughtless and unfortunate side effect of too many people and the technologies we have used, and all of that stems from our ideas, from our worldview, from our bad culture. This is why you almost never hear in mainstream environmentalism—you’ll hear all kinds of things about green energy, about growing our way out of this or that—but you almost never hear any kind of straightforward coming directly at the notion of anthropocentrism, of human centric-ness.

Because that is something that everyone across the political spectrum can agree on, from whether you’re the Cliven Bundy type to the far left end of the spectrum, most of the vast majority of human beings—if you’re an Occupy person talking about well, the pie isn’t divided up right, or if you’re the Cliven Bundy public-lands rancher, from that ilk, pretty much the only thing you’re going to agree on across that political spectrum, the vast majority of people, is that the earth is for us. It’s here for us.

Until ecologists, or specifically conservationists and environmentalists, are willing to go at this question of worldview—I’m repeating myself, I know—the kinds of strategies and tactics that we advance are going to be half-measures or less. They will be utterly insufficient to address the nature of the problem because you simply cannot grow your way into some sort of green nirvana with eight billion consumers driving Priuses with solar panels on the roof. It doesn’t work.

Let’s say even if it were possible that there could be some vast transformation in human consciousness where the elites of the world, the truly rich and powerful, decided, well, you’re right, we’ve got too much, let’s redistribute the wealth, and the fossil fuel industry said, yeah, you’re right, we’re putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we’ll ramp down, we’ll transfer all our assets to solar and wind power, and we’ll grow the green economy, let’s say all that magical thinking could happen, but your underlying worldview was still that we’re going to garden the planet to support human health and welfare and human economic aspirations, we’re still going to try to grow this techno-industrial economy toward wherever, I mean it’s just supposed to grow forever on a finite planet, you would not be solving the extinction crisis.

An ultimate measure of whether your culture is right—at least it seems to many of us—is are you causing other members of the land community to go extinct? Our kin, the products of the same sorts of wild and evolutionary processes that created us, our kin in the community of life, are our actions causing them to go extinct? If so, our culture is not sustainable. Our culture is evil. This is something the mainstream environmental community does not go into in any depth. If you’re trying to promote this candidate that will vote your way a little more, or you’re trying to promote green energy, you’re not going to get to these deeper questions of how the economy is structured, who benefits, what the power relationships are, and what are these linguistic and cognitive frames that undergird this whole human project, this whole notion of human supremacy that everybody agrees on, right to left.

DJ: I love what you’re saying. This is all so great. And I would love to have you back on again because I want to talk about this for hours and hours.

I want to do a quote here from someone where somebody said, “if you take a look at biological success, which is essentially measured by how many of us there are”– that’s the quote, and I’ve ripped that quote apart for a couple of pages in a book I’m doing right now because I think it’s just crazy. What I say, I propose a different measure for biological success than just numbers. Because of course that one is just like computer games or “go forth and multiply” projected on the natural world. Biological success isn’t how many of you there are. Here’s a definition I like, and I want to know what you think.

TB: Yes. What is it?

DJ: A better measure of biological success would be whether the presence and population of a given species improves the health and resilience of a larger biotic community of whom it is a member and on whom it relies for sustenance, thereby insuring its own species survival as well as the survival of other members of its biotic community.

TB: Exactly.

DJ: The point of bringing all that up is that’s a difference . . . you’re talking about how this human supremacism and colonialist mindset affects every part of our discourse.

TB: Every part of our discourse even within the environmental movement, which is what is so frustrating. The one place, you would think, if there’s any social change movement . . . we can’t expect it necessarily from the social justice movement or the peace movement or the women’s movement. It’s got to be coming from the ecological movement who, while partnered with all those other important social change communities, has to be always articulating the primacy of wild nature, the primacy of biotic integrity. Because there is no peace and justice, there are no women’s rights, on a dead planet. We’re saying ecological health has to come first.

If the ecological movement is not dissecting, again, these linguistic and cognitive frames that undergird human supremacy, then who will do it? No one will challenge these sources, which are unarticulated, largely unnoticed sources of power that serve the needs, in the first world, the overdeveloped world, the techno-industrial growth world, primarily serve the needs of large capital.

And that’s another thing. You can write astutely and cogently and consistently about this, but until very recently, how often did you see anyone even raising the “C” world. No one wants to talk about capitalism within the mainstream environmental community because it’s considered too risky or damaging to potential funders and all that.

And now it’s been nice to see at least in the last few years Naomi Kleinberg’s brand new book, Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth, Jerry Mander’s book, The Capitalism Papers. At least some folks with relatively mainstream credibility are talking about the problem of mega-technologies including our economic technology which is techo-industrial growth capitalism. The structural problems with that are not simply a maldistribution of wealth but killing the biosphere. So there’s been at least a little bit of progress, at least it seems to me. I’m curious to know what you think about that.

DJ: I think there’s been some progress until you tell me about quotes by Bob Marshall, in which case I think, well, we haven’t gotten anywhere. That’s the thing with Lewis Mumford. You read Lewis Mumford and he’s laying it out, too, . . .

TB: Yes. Eighty years ago. Seventy years ago.

DJ: . . . and of course if you talk to, if you read what any of the indigenous people were saying 500 years ago, it’s all . . . once again this analysis of the dominant culture being destructive of the planet, it’s going to go back to the beginning of the dominant culture. There have been a few people who get it. I wish there were more.

We’ve only got two minutes left, and I want to [inaudible] the asterisk of environmental services. But maybe we should save that for another time.

What would you like . . . Okay, so somebody later tonight says, Oh, I heard this great radio interview today. It was fabulous. And the other person says, what was it about? What do you want them to say? Star Wars, 20 years later, I remember use the force. What do you want people to take away from this, their one take-home message that they really understand in their hearts?

TB: That the notion of human supremacy is fanciful. It’s an aberration. It’s not just an aberration. First of all, it’s maladaptive. But it’s also simply wrong. It’s wrong-headed and it is not accurate. And any kind of, repeating myself again, but any kind of language or cognitive framing that suggests that the earth is here for humanity, and that we have either the obligation or the responsibility to manage it, is a wrong-headed and dangerous notion.

One of the best ways of renouncing that is to be actively plugged into the conservation movement, particularly the wing of that movement that is working for specific places and creatures. This is to me one of the great things about the American wilderness movement. Within the context of this industrial growth society, this industrialization that swept across the continent, you had this counter-revolutionary force, this group of people that said no, some places we won’t log, we won’t ranch, we won’t mine. Some places we will set aside because nature, wild places, and wild creatures have the right to exist for their own sake.

To me that was a remarkable and profoundly hopeful idea because it expanded the sphere of our ethical concern to all the members of the land community, and that is a hopeful thing. Plugging into that still vital American wilderness movement is a great way of starting to push back against this so-called Anthropocene idea.

DJ: That would be a great place to end, but I can’t end there. I want to raise one more thing as a teaser because I hope you’ll come back again.

TB: I’d be delighted to.

DJ: This is a teaser for next time. It seems to be that one of the things that is central, and I want you to quickly respond to this, one of the things that is central to this is there’s a notion that only humans have purpose and only humans have the wherewithal to be able to manage a forest. And the question becomes who is better at taking care of a forest, humans or the forest itself?

TB: We can tell. If we look at the health—particularly of the landscape where I live, let’s just say, the northeastern U.S. temperate forest—for the time period before Europeans settled this landscape, forests existed for a long period of time. We know what was here when Euro-Americans got to this landscape, and we know what’s here now. The evidence suggests that the forests were far healthier than before we actively managed or manipulated them. My short answer of course is that nature knows best, nature bats last, and nature knows now to run a forest far better than humans ever will because of our incomplete knowledge.

The other point on that is that the idea that humans ever could have that capacity, having come out of this system that produces wildness and that we would want to so control the levers, or to use a mechanistic metaphor, the levers and the pulleys of natural systems so that we get to decide how the trajectory of evolutionary processes go, evolutionary flourishing, to me that is crazy for both ethical reasons and for utilitarian ones.

Because our knowledge is always going to be incomplete, there is no evidence to suggest that our activities are going to be able to sustain the planet’s life support systems in a way that is going to support all of the members of the community of life, including us.

So for both biocentric and utilitarian reasons, we have every reason to try to manipulate as little as possible and with a great deal of humility and try to manage what we must in nature’s shadow as best we can, mirroring nature’s richness and integrity, and not assuming that human cleverness is adequate to do the job.

DJ: Thank you so much for everything you’ve said. I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Tom Butler. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on October 19th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

Comments are closed.