Wilderness environmentalism


The environmental movement’s most singular and stunning achievement is the introduction into human history of an awareness of and care for other animals and ecosystems beyond human needs.  The refusal to reduce the earth to a storehouse of resources, the insistence on the value of whales beyond meat and redwoods beyond lumber, the love of wilderness, is a rare insight that has transformed the world. 

The hostile takeover of the environmental movement by the misnamed environmental justice movement (EJM) is a denial of this insight and a disaster for the many beings and ecosystems that constitute the more than human world.  And since the natural world remains the necessary ground of the human world no matter how much we try to hide that fact behind technological triumphalism, disasters for the natural world are inevitably disasters for humans.  History is littered with the ruins of civilizations that valued social issues over ecological survival.  Only at our peril do we forget that nature is the ground of possibility for human survival.  

Despite the name, the Environmental Justice Movement is not about the environment, but about people and their issues.  As they constantly celebrate, the EJM is “about people and the places they live, work, and play.”  Largely emerging out of the civil rights movement and the toxics movement, EJM is concerned not with environmental justice but social justice.  These groups are concerned with what groups of people do to other groups of people and how human institutions systematically impact certain groups in society. 

 EJ groups worry about toxics and lead paint and asthma and many other issues on the long list of industrial ills.  Importantly, the concerns are almost entirely human-centered and often involve supporting cultural practices and jobs that are clearly damaging to the environment.  So, for example, the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles supported the right of landscape workers in California to use leaf-blowers regardless of the pollution to the environment (and the adverse impact on people’s health).  Last year CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) traveled to Salt Lake City to denounce Robert Redford for opposing President Bush’s opening of southern Utah wilderness lands to increased oil and gas drilling because they simplistically state that more drilling lowers fuel prices.  With this logic, any and all exploitations of the natural world must be performed to satisfy any possible human needs. 

The SWOP letter makes this clear when it argues against preserving the environment at the cost of jobs.  This logic, the logic of humanism wherein “man is the measure of all things,” excludes consideration of wilderness, of other animals, of nature.  EJ groups are not noted advocates for biodiversity, for wolves, tigers, and polar bears.   This is evident in the focus and missions of the vast majority of EJ groups, as can be seen in the work of EJM leaders Robert Bullard and Lois Gibbs.

The focus of the EJM on humans and their endless issues is neither surprising nor distressing.  They are doing what they claim and have a right to do.   The disaster emerges when EJ groups hurl charges of racism at traditional environmental groups  AND when these traditional environmental groups are cowed into abandoning a focus on nature.  Along with others, the Sierra Club has led the efforts at appeasement, declaring that “The struggle for environmental justice in this country and around the globe must be the primary goal of the Sierra Club during its second century.” 

Further, “the Sierra Club recognizes that to achieve our mission of environmental protection and a sustainable future for the planet, we must attain social justice and human rights at home and around the globe.”  If the Sierra Club is going to get around to planetary protection after solving war, torture, poverty, and prostitution, we are in for a long wait.  In the 1960s the Sierra Club led a ferocious and expensive campaign to prevent the damming of the Grand Canyon.  An EJ perspective would have advised the Sierra Club to be thankful for the extra electricity and jobs and to spend their money on lead paint issues.  I for one am glad that the Sierra Club decided to save the Grand Canyon.       

A particularly pernicious aspect of the deformation of environmental groups into social justice groups is that it is unnecessary.  The world needs many types of groups.  There are thousands of groups, governments, and businesses spending trillions of dollars addressing social problems.  Wilderness environmental groups are spending a relative pittance on ecosystem and biodiversity issues.  Is it not worth it to have someone trying to speak for the trees?  The myriad environmental crises infecting the earth and us provide ample evidence that when we forget to care for wilderness, the world outside of human design, the otherness that surrounds us and puts us in our place, we lose our way.

Kevin DeLuca is an associate professor of communications at the University of Utah. He studies social movements and wrote the book Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism. DeLuca explores humanity's relations to nature and how those relations are mediated and transformed by technological and ideological discourse.