It is hard to avoid being cynical about American politics. In the year 2000 we appointed (not really elected) as president of the United States a man who openly and proudly opposes environmental protection. Although he promised, during his campaign, to heal the deep splits in the United States and bring us together as a people, George W. Bush has instead flaunted his disregard for nature and those who value it by appointing rabid anti-environmentalists to key cabinet positions. As one of his first actions in office, Bush withdrew funds for all international family planning programs that offer abortion as an option, which will almost certainly exacerbate the ultimate cause of the extinction crisis: human overpopulation. Ironically, he and his ilk call themselves pro-life, conveniently forgetting that life includes more than human embryos. Just as ironically, Bush's rise to power comes at a time when public support for conservation is ostensibly high. How could this happen? How could a people who value nature choose as their president someone who so clearly does not? Has democracy failed?
What has failed is not democracy, but compassion for living things. What we have lost as a people is not an election, but a visceral connection to nature. Our degeneration of awareness has proceeded for decades, but we are just beginning to see the brutal consequences. After Earth Day 1970, we became comfortable in the assumption that new knowledge about ecology and new activism to protect the environment would save the earth. Meanwhile, individual citizens became more and more detached from the world outside their windows. Conservation is not a priority for us because nature is a million miles away from our daily lives of making money, socializing, and self-indulging. There was hardly a murmur of protest when our public schools dropped environmental education from their curricula, nary a whimper when our universities let natural history and organismic biology die. Nature is so removed from the world of the average American that it has become an abstraction. It is something that occasionally entertains us on television, not a world we live in and depend on, inhabited by creatures who fill us with wonder and awe. Nature is no longer a tangible, breathing part of our lives. We may tell a pollster that we value nature—indeed most of us do. But when hard (or even easy) choices must be made, such as whether to drive our car or take mass transit, or pay higher energy prices in exchange for tearing down hydroelectric dams or protecting Alaska's North Slope, we buckle. We yield to short-term self-interest. Nature no longer entertains us when conserving it becomes inconvenient.
David Orr's essay, as readers of this journal have come to expect, is a devastating critique of business as usual, in this case the current state of American politics. Orr specifically targets the Republicans and right-wingers, represented most poignantly by George W. Bush. I do not disagree with Orr's assessment, but wish to add that the unspoken 10 commandments he identifies in modern politics extend across virtually the entire political spectrum in the United States. Although the most egregious examples of vicious, anti-nature politics in recent years reside in the Republican camp, the Democrats and the left wing are only barely less culpable. Democrats, too, appeal to our resentments and fears, not our rationality and compassion. They obfuscate, confuse, demonize, and politicize just as avidly and effectively as the Republicans. They cater almost as disgustingly to the giant corporations. Until quite recently, the record of the Democrats on conservation issues was no better than that of the Republicans. Indeed, some of the most stunning environmental achievements in recent U.S. history, including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and a presidential order banning the use of poisons for predator control ( later overturned), occurred during the presidency of the conservative Republican Richard M. Nixon. This should not surprise us; after all, conservation and conservative have the same root. What should surprise and baffle us is that the so-called conservatives have abandoned true conservatism—the conservation of our life-support systems and evolutionary kin. Although Al Gore undoubtedly would have been friendlier to the environment than George Bush, neither put conservation at the top of their agenda. Why should they? Few voters who went to the polls in November 2000 had biodiversity on their minds. The media, especially television, did their best to convince people that the environment was a trivial issue in the election.
Orr's essay ranges well beyond conservation, as it should. His call for genuine politics and authentic leadership should resonate with all thoughtful people, in the United States and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the most pressing task for our elected officials is to guide society toward a solution to the extinction crisis. We must assure that succeeding generations of humans and nonhumans will inherit an Earth as rich and inspiring as the one we know now. The charge of a genuine leader is to lead us toward ecological sustainability. Conservationists should not apologize for putting the preservation of biodiversity above all other issues on their agenda. Certainly, social justice, alleviation of poverty and suffering, peace, and other humanitarian concerns are valid and intimately intertwined with environmental issues, but they pale before the prospect of losing half of all species on Earth over the next few decades. Conservation biologists and educators have failed to get this message across to the people. They have been unable to arouse a profound respect for life.
Pointing the finger at ourselves, the Republicans, the media, educators, or any particular group will not get us as far as we need to go. Orr suggests, in quoting from Thomas Berry's “Great Work,” that we need a moral recalibration of our place in nature. I agree. Morality is ultimately a personal matter, but it is compelled by the sanction or censure of society. However politically incorrect, we must judge human actions as right or wrong, determined largely, as Aldo Leopold urged, by their effects on the biotic community. Unless a substantial number of people make communion with wild nature a central part of their lives, I doubt our culture will ever develop the esthetic appreciation, empathy, and understanding necessary to transcend the nature-as-entertainment syndrome. As William Cronon observed in his book Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, (1991, Norton, New York), urbanization and the concomitant loss of contact with nature encourage people to see themselves above nature. Our world is rapidly becoming more urban and disengaged. Our schools, from kindergarten through the university, could potentially rescue us from this alienation by providing to every student a genuine education in natural history, fully informed by the sciences of ecology and evolutionary biology. Instead, they have virtually abandoned this pursuit in favor of getting every kid “on line” and have placed micro-science above macro-science in status, respectability, and funding.
Conservation biologists, as scientists and as citizens, must do their part to develop a politics that is adamantly pro-life. People cannot love and respect nature authentically in the absence of personal, physical contact with the wild. Although exposure to nature does not always generate love and respect, as the behavior of ATV-straddling yahoos roaring across the countryside makes painfully clear, personal contact accompanied by guidance from a skilled and compassionate teacher offers our best hope. As teachers, parents, neighbors, and citizens, conservation biologists can provide this kind of education and serve as role models. A public so educated will be more inclined to elect politicians who follow Orr's rewritten 10 commandments for the conduct of public life.
On the immediate front, the Society for Conservation Biology must strengthen its involvement in public policy. Our recent membership poll shows broad support for such activity. I personally doubt that we can do or say much that would influence the Bush Administration directly—their ideology and political agenda are embedded in stone—but we can assist those stalwart souls who wage the broader political battle. We can work with sympathetic congresspersons and agency staff (i.e., not political appointees) to help them persist in truth and goodness during these dark times. We can feed information to conservation activists, making them more credible and, perhaps, more effective. Becoming more radically activist as a professional organization is not a sensible option because we could lose what little influence we have with the agencies and Congress, which still include some intelligent and ethical folks.
Above all, conservation biologists must set an example of dedication to science in the service of conservation. The professional integrity we demonstrate in pursuit of the most honorable task in human history cannot help but inspire others. No cause is more righteous than the defense of life, but we must never resort to unethical, deceitful, or scientifically sloppy means in an attempt to achieve that end. Our role in the defense of nature is different from that of the activist. We must have an unwavering commitment to the highest ideals of science. We will ultimately have our greatest influence when we pursue our science as objectively and rigorously as possible, never putting the answer before the question, never letting a preconceived notion of the “right” solution get in the way of honest and open inquiry. We can be true conservatives, both pro-life and pro-science, and we can provide decisionmakers and society at large with defensible solutions to conservation problems. That is no mean role in the rewriting of politics.