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.

Unfair and destructive
Ben Gillock
Ben Gillock
Feb 09, 2010 06:09 PM
Mr. DeLuca,

I have been working on a thoughtful, constructive response to your article, but it is taking too long and I have dishes to do. So please excuse me if I am a bit blunt.

Your article is well-intentioned, but misguided and destructive. It is an unfair characterization of the Environmental Justice movement, and it exemplifies the kind of thinking that prevents environmentalists from reclaiming a popular (read: people-powered) mandate for change.

EJM is not simply about addressing "social issues." In fact the first principle stated in the EJM's founding document is that "Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction." EJ recognizes that the well-being of non-humans is intimately linked to the well being of humans, and that both non-humans and humans suffer under the domination of a global industrial economy. Colonization and habitat destruction go hand in hand. Decolonization and habitat restoration surely will as well.

You pit the human world against the non-human - which is of course the case when the human world is dominated by the industrial economy. The people the EJM serves suffer from the dominant culture as well - and mainstream, white, preservationist environmentalism is a part of that culture. It pulls land away from those who live in right relation to it and sets it aside for the enjoyment of those who work for the machine.

A good antidote for this kind of thinking is available in the writings of Derek Jensen. He is very clear that he prioritizes the non-human and the wild over the human - but he also explores how the domination of non-humans is fundamentally related to the domination of those that are seen as "less-human" by the dominant culture - women, POC, etc.

Now, I do have problems with EJ groups that are fixated on creating or keeping wage-slave jobs for their communities - but then I have a job, so I can't really relate. However, your use of the CORE and LA gardeners as examples of the EJM is highly problematic. And the bit about the Grand Canyon? That was FOX News-worthy manipulation. Find me an EJ group, a legit one, that has ever spoken out in favor of a large dam. Now try looking for EJ groups that have spoken out Against dams - there are thousands... Same goes for Oil and Gas, Nukes, most industrial development, most suburban development, etc.

To take these two organizations, who are clearly violating the principles of the EJM, and hold them up as examples of EJM - it is beyond ignorant, it seems to be a willful distortion of what EJ is about.

The EJ activists working in my part of the world are dedicated environmentalists, working to help Chicano and Native folks get their families healthy, and off of the bad medicine that is the global industrial economy. They are working on traditional farming (which creates much better habitat for non-humans, and is often organic), seed-saving (biodiversity), and teaching kids how to be in right relation with their non-human community, working to preserve land-based lifestyles against the tide of "educated" white folks (like myself) whose migration to their lands has fundamentally undermined their traditional economy. They are working against water privatization and nuclear waste production. They are working against oil & gas drilling, against the development of subdivisions. These are things that are very important for non-humans. EJ activists work within a framework of relationships - whether among humans, or between humans and the rest of the creatures on the earth. For you to simply lump these hard-working folks with people (who may also be people of color) advocating for oil drilling, for the jobs...? That is like having people of color lump all white folks together with those who enslaved and colonized their ancestors (although the latter is more understandable, given the circumstances).

I suspect that the reason you are able to write an article like this is because you do not have many relationships with EJM activists. I do, and I can tell you that they are deeply committed to creating a world in which all creatures are honored, in which relations between humans and non-humans has found its sacred balance. I think that if you stepped out of your assumptions and arrogance for a moment, you might find that these people are worthy partners in a shared struggle to make things right.

I wish you all the best in your path. Please forgive my harsh words - but I had to hear them (and harsher than this!) myself many times before I managed to shift away from my comfortable, privileged perspective (which had me making much the same kind of argument that you do here).



Wilderness environmentalism
Caroline Pufalt
Caroline Pufalt
Feb 09, 2010 06:11 PM
Sometimes the immediate aims of environmenal justice may appear to be in contradiction with good conservation. But the examples Mr. DeLuca uses are not such. Environmetal justice highlights cases in which negative impacts, often side effects or externalities of our industrial way of life, are endured disproportionately by certain groups, often minorities. A glaring example is "cancer alley" in Louisiana, where the pollution from oil refineries impacts poor and minority communities. To call a push for jobs from drilling on public lands in lieu of conservation is not environmental justice, it is just another example of expediency instead of sound employment policy. The "right" to use leaf blowers ( which subjects the user to noise and pollution) in lieu of a rake and exercise, is environmental justice on its head. Again there may be many aspects of employment in lawncare that are in need of some good old fashion labor justice, but don't twist it to blame common environmetal goods like clean air and quietness.
I am a union steward, a wilderness advocate and a Sierra Club member and find no contradictions among those roles.
Environmental Justice, Wilderness, Humans
Teri Underwood
Teri Underwood
Feb 09, 2010 06:59 PM
I read your opinion piece with great interest, thinking immediately "this must be a younger person"--only because when I was younger I had similar thoughts. But then I began to realize that if you do not lift up those in poverty and assail human rights--nature will ultimately suffer. All things are connected. Wilderness laws protect wild land, education teaches people to vote, good parents teach their children to be responsible and to vote. You can not separate taking care of the humans from taking care of the wilderness and taking care of animals--they are all in the same realm, connected, and come from a value-based center.
Enviro hubris
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Feb 10, 2010 11:34 AM
The writer's opening sentence is way over the top -- as if no person ever cared about other creatures and plants until John Muir came along! Get real.