Ethics & International Affairs Volume 15.2 (Fall 2001): Articles: Place-Based Environmentalism and Global Warming: Conceptual Contradictions of American Environmentalism [Full Text]

Dec 13, 2001

Until recently, the history of environmentalism was primarily a history of attention to place.1 In the United States, environmentalists have gotten rather good at protecting and managing particular places such as mountains, forests, and watersheds and specific resources such as trees, soil, wildlife, air, and water. Environmentalism has become an enormously popular social movement, with, by some measures, more than 80 percent of Americans considering themselves environmentalists2. Thousands of organizations, ranging from local volunteer groups to national nonprofits, address issues as diverse as open space, air and water pollution, biological diversity, environmental justice, and environmental effects on human health. The successes of this movement have been striking. Our National Parks, National Forests, and wilderness areas are touted as models for the world and are well complemented by state, municipal, and private protected areas. The Endangered Species Act successfully resolves many conflicts between rare creatures and development. Rivers have been cleaned up, and once-spurned urban waterfronts now draw real estate and tourism development. Americans drink cleaner water and breathe cleaner air than much of the rest of the world, and attempts to weaken regulatory frameworks are consistently met with public disapproval.

It has become all too clear, however, that environmental protection requires more than protection of particular places: Concerns about the environment, like so many others, have "gone global." No issue exemplifies this shift quite so well as global warming. Because of the release of heat-trapping "greenhouse gases"-most notably carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels-the earth's climate is gradually becoming warmer3. The latest climate models suggest that average temperatures, both globally and in North America, are likely to rise between three and ten degrees Fahrenheit in the next century4. This is a very rapid rate of change, one to which neither human nor natural systems can easily adapt. It seems increasingly likely that climate change will both exacerbate existing environmental stresses and create entirely new problems. The most likely negative changes include degradation of ecosystems; accelerating loss of biological diversity; disruption and instability of agriculture; rising sea level; more severe weather events like hurricanes, drought, and flooding; worse air pollution (especially ground-level ozone, which is formed during high daytime temperatures); and the spread of certain diseases like malaria and cholera5. Much uncertainty remains about these projections, and there are also possible benefits, such as greater agricultural productivity at high latitudes. But the potential for negative effects is very large.

Despite its past successes, the domestic environmental movement has not yet achieved significant progress on climate change, even though scientists have been ringing alarm bells for at least twenty years6. The implications of this neglect are significant, as several basic and widely accepted ethical principles suggest that the citizens of the United States bear a special responsibility for addressing this situation7. Although the United States accounts for less than five percent of the world's population, its citizens produce roughly a quarter of the carbon emissions each year-making Americans the largest contributors per capita of any major industrialized nation-and there is little indication that this will change soon. In terms of liability for harm (the principle of "polluter pays"), the responsibility of the United States is therefore significant. Along with other developed countries, the United States has reaped a disproportionate benefit from more than 100 years of entirely unregulated use of fossil fuels, and it is unlikely that currently industrializing countries will be permitted to enjoy similar advantages.

Distribution of the burdens of global warming is also likely to be inequitable. Many poor nations are likely to face disproportionate hardships, despite their relatively minor role in creating the problem to date. Although the magnitude of warming is expected to be greater at high latitudes, critical systems nearer to the equator, where most of the world's poor live, are likely to be extremely vulnerable8. Tropical agriculture is already threatened in many places because of high temperatures and poor soils and is likely to suffer further as warming occurs. The combination of rising sea level and increased intensity of tropical storms is a major concern for India and Bangladesh, where coastal flooding already causes loss of life and property. Developing countries that are already hard-pressed to provide minimal levels of subsistence have far less capacity to adapt to environmental disturbances than developed countries with abundant reserves of capital. That resource constraints are likely to undermine the responsiveness of developing countries to environmental threats is of great ethical significance, since imperialism played a significant historical role in causing global inequality. The significance of these inequalities in wealth is greater still if critics of economic globalization and development aid are correct9.

These international and historic relationships, as well as pure self-interest, argue for strong American leadership in confronting global climate change and, in turn, a crucial role for the environmental community in mobilizing domestic political support. The United States and its citizens have not yet embraced either the ecological maxim that "everything is connected" or E. F. Schumaker's exhortation to think globally while acting locally.

Why does this situation persist in the face of a well-organized, otherwise highly effective social movement? Many would argue that U.S. environmentalists simply need to push forward with current modes of operation. They claim that with more funding, more education, more political support, and more time, progress can be made. Drawing on a case study of American environmentalism in the Northern Forest of New England and New York, I will argue that, on the contrary, there are fundamental tensions and even contradictions within environmentalism that inhibit its ability to respond to issues such as global warming. Through a historically informed examination of the discourse of environmentalism I hope to explain some of the underlying causes of these tensions and contradictions10. My aim in this study is constructive-by exploring the shortcomings of traditional environmentalism, I hope to suggest new ways of understanding environmental problems and finding creative solutions to them.

The Discourse of American Environmentalism

Environmentalism in the United States grew out of diverse sources in the nineteenth century. Most notable were a romanticism that laid the foundation for new aesthetic orientations toward nature and a utilitarian approach to science- and technology-based conservation of natural resources.

Romantic Views of Wilderness and Rurality

European romanticism took root in American soil during the nineteenth century, first in the form of a fascination with the transcendent potential of sublime landscapes and, later, in the form of the growing popularity of wilderness primitivism. Whereas mountains and wilderness had previously been considered barren, frightening, and even downright ugly, these perceptions changed in response to the material and social changes wrought by the industrial revolution. Dramatic mountain landscapes came to be seen as sublimely beautiful, and indigenous peoples took on the glow of noble savages. Both nature and people living in a "state of nature" were increasingly seen as exotic, fascinating, and inspiring11.

This trend was closely tied to the development of tourism, an entirely new social phenomenon. Thanks to increased wealth and leisure time and improved transportation, tourism extended literary and artistic visions of romantic landscapes into the realm of actual experience, first for the wealthy and later for members of the growing middle class. City-dwellers could now escape the monotony, unattractiveness, and social tumult of the urban landscape and immerse themselves for a time in a world they considered new, uplifting, and exciting precisely because they perceived it as opposite to and apart from their daily lives. Their activities might include scenic touring; the athletic recreation of hiking or mountain climbing; or, with the rise of a certain nostalgia for the passing American frontier, primitivist fantasies of hunting, fishing, and wilderness exploration.

Meanwhile, scenic and wilderness areas were increasingly threatened by the spread of development and resource extraction-which was required to satisfy the growing material needs and wants of urban populations. Both tourists and the commercial entrepreneurs who profited from them became avid supporters of efforts to protect mountain landscapes and conserve land. In the Northeast, tourism was crucial to bringing about lasting protection of the Adirondack Park in New York, White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, and other areas12. While recreational tourism has diversified greatly since then, its role in supporting and shaping environmentalism has remained largely unchanged. As was the case one hundred years ago, many environmental organizations rely heavily on recreational tourism as a means of engaging existing members and recruiting new ones, and on tourism-related businesses for financial and political support.

What unifies various forms of romantic tourism is that they emerge from and reproduce a view of nature that is anything but "natural" or objective. Rather, they are structured by a historically specific discourse that has grown up in dialectical relationship to the everyday experience of modern life. Moreover, tourism relies on a variety of commercial institutions that are intimately bound to the world of industrial capitalism that middle- and upper-class tourists seek to escape13. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, John Urry refers to the resulting perspective as the "tourist gaze," which involves socially organized concepts and experiences focused on a perceived "otherness" of places and people outside the realm of the familiar. The tourist gaze characterizes a variety of leisure-oriented pursuits-not just what we typically think of as "tourism," but also many forms of outdoor recreation, as well as an environmental education that emphasizes an exoticized nature rather than human interactions with the environment. This perceptual lens tells us more about ourselves (and our nostalgic yearnings for pristine environments and idyllic human societies) than about any objective reality of the places we visit. Paradoxically, the imagined otherness that is experienced through tourism is often construed as the place where we are most "at home" in the world, or the place where we discover and express our best and truest selves. By creating an imagined world where the social constraints of everyday life are loosened, the tourist experience provides us with a space that is uniquely suited to the modern emphasis on individualization and self-actualization14.

Tourism involves an objectification of nature, of rural landscapes, and of the human communities that inhabit them. "Real" nature is represented as unchanging and untouched by human influence when, in fact, even the most "pristine" wilderness areas have long been subject to both natural and anthropogenic disturbance and change. Residents of rural areas can thus more easily be ignored or, at best, idealized as blending harmoniously into their "natural" surroundings, thus taking on its characteristic of otherness. These objectifications typically take on a positive cast in contemporary environmentalism, which relies on the construction of attractive images of the places it seeks to protect in order to draw popular and financial support. In other contexts, however, negative stereotypes may prevail, including those of "rednecks" and "hicks" associated with rural backwardness and, not coincidentally, with activities like mining, logging, or hunting. Neither of these positive or negative representations offers much insight into the complex and heterogeneous realities to be found in rural society, while both encourage a false view of rural communities as fundamentally different and apart from "normal" life in the modern world.

Given the long and continuing migration of political and economic power to urban and corporate centers, these views have had serious implications for people living in economically and politically marginal rural areas. If the best nature is pristine and endangered, then it must be "protected," which often means excluding materially productive land uses. In some cases, as in the Northern Forest, protection may also involve allowing certain prescribed land uses (usually those that are aesthetically pleasing) to continue in a similarly idealized vision of "traditional" working landscapes. Either way, the process of objectification is a form of conceptual power that helps to make this assertion of control over the places where others live politically feasible and morally palatable. This situation is by no means restricted to the United States or other developed countries. In places like the rainforests of Amazonia and Indonesia, or the Himalayas of Nepal, indigenous and other rural inhabitants who have little political clout are frequently overwhelmed by internationally funded conservation initiatives that, fueled by well-meaning desires to protect forests, mountains, and biodiversity, can be ignorant of or even hostile toward local subsistence needs and cultures15.

Equally important is how these popular views of nature shape the awareness and definition of environmental problems. Infatuation with wild, pristine nature tends to steer our attention away from our own impacts on the larger "nature" that surrounds us, especially where these impacts are indirect or subtle, as is the case with climate change. As William Cronon points out, "To the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead" 16. Thus, we "get back to nature" by driving on the interstate or flying in a plane and then using the latest high-tech outdoor gear. We "get away from it all" by making a flurry of commercial transactions with travel agents, adventure outfitters, and ecotourism guides. Meanwhile, we define as "problems" those activities, like development and clear-cutting, that have obvious effects and can be attributed to others.

If our principal goal is to keep roads out of wilderness or protect scenery from rapacious timber corporations, it becomes much easier to ignore the implications of our own personal and seemingly insignificant actions. Instead of emphasizing the role of consumer demand in driving the degradation of wilderness, resource extraction in more mundane landscapes, and the buildup of greenhouse gases that threaten rare and common places alike, we can point at the proximate destroyers of pristine nature and confirm our personal sense of virtue by supporting environmental groups that seek to stop them. Lost is consideration of the extraordinary amount of resources used and waste generated by Americans per capita. Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees have developed a method for calculating the "ecological footprint" of individuals and communities based on the land area required to produce various goods, and including the estimated forest land that would be required to sequester carbon emitted from burning fossil fuels. They estimate that there are approximately 1.5 hectares of productive land available for each human, and that the average North American uses the equivalent of between four and five hectares. "If everyone on Earth lived like the average Canadian or American, we would need at least three such planets to live sustainably"17. Moreover, there is little reason to expect that middle- and upper-class environmentalists contribute any less to the problem than do others. Those who live in large homes on biologically impoverished suburban plots of land and travel to the mountains on weekends or to exotic "ecotourism" destinations for vacation, undoubtedly have a greater negative impact on the environment than do average citizens.

These popular views of wilderness and rurality are well illustrated in the Northern Forest. This region covers twenty-six million acres in the northern reaches of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It is characterized by relatively remote and often mountainous landscapes; a high proportion of corporate-owned timberland; historic dependence on both industrial forestry and tourism; and small, rural communities, many of which suffer from persistent poverty18. In the past decade, a range of state, regional and national environmental organizations-mostly based outside the region-have formed a coalition called the Northern Forest Alliance (NFA) and attempted to develop innovative approaches to conservation in this region.

Recognizing the long history of human activity in the area, and also responding to local resistance to their initial efforts, environmentalists have sought not just to protect pristine ecosystems, but also to incorporate rural communities and the "working forest" into a larger-scale regional model for managing rural landscapes. At the same time, the Northern Forest Alliance continues to reproduce core elements of traditional environmentalist discourse in ways that tend to rule out serious consideration of issues and relationships that extend beyond rural areas-including human activities that tie together urban and rural, as well as the global-scale problems that affect both place and region, city and country. In this model, despite its acknowledgment of human elements, pristine nature persists as a sort of gold standard against which other conditions are judged. Wilderness remains central, either explicitly or implied by the use of photographs and narrative descriptions of dramatic landscapes where people are either absent or found launching canoes, donning backpacks, or sitting atop remote peaks. Forests that have been commercially managed for nearly two centuries are referred to as "wildlands," and low-impact forestry that "mimics natural conditions" is urged19.

The representation of wilderness as "other" has been modified and expanded to include rurality. This is also reflected in the way rural people are incorporated into visions of the Northern Forest. In promotional materials, residents are relentlessly portrayed as inhabiting a unique and enduring culture. They are said to "have a connection to the land fewer and fewer Americans experience or understand. They have grown up hunting, fishing, trapping, and walking in the woods"20. Although such nostalgic images do represent real aspects of rural identity, they downplay the fact that these rural communities have had close economic and social ties to surrounding urban areas throughout their history, and have been repeatedly transformed by technological, economic, and demographic changes. Like the rest of us, people in the Northern Forest drive their cars to Wal-Mart, watch TV in the evening, take vacations in Florida, and work in a variety of jobs that have little to do with the forest, from carpentry to service industries to government. At the same time, real differences between the Northern Forest and adjacent areas are often discounted or misinterpreted. Communities in this region are both economically and politically marginalized, and poverty is consistently worse than the national average21. This difference, however, results not from any inherent condition, as is often assumed, but from the region's distance from centers of wealth and power. Especially important have been absentee ownership of land and capital, and the continuing shift of political influence to urban areas22. By de-emphasizing these inequitable relationships and portraying communities as quaint artifacts of a simpler, idealized place and time, the imagined landscape of the Northern Forest-and of commercial tourism-is maintained.

Utilitarian Conservation of Resources

Just as romanticism helped establish a preservationist tradition, materialist concerns led to a different but compatible emphasis on the conservation and management of natural resources. At the same time that tourism helped bring about protection of the Adirondack and White Mountains as scenic oases, downstate industries urged the protection of forests in the same areas. Many industrialists subscribed to the theory-arguable at the time and since disproved-that deforestation would cause rivers to dry up and disrupt power generation and commercial transportation23. Government officials and some elements of the timber industry also urged the creation of forest reserves and the adoption of modern "scientific" management to insure a continuous supply of merchantable timber24. Unlike preservationism, utilitarian conservation emphasized the role of natural resources in supplying material needs and was explicit about the role of nature in promoting economic growth. Early conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot stressed the productive efficiencies of specialized scientific knowledge and technical expertise, especially as administered by centralized bureaucracies. Their goal was to rationalize the production of commodities and to maximize efficiency, productivity, and ultimately, profitability as a means of providing for the public good. This "techno-scientific managerialism" extends beyond the place-based environmentalism discussed here to the new, global rhetoric of "sustainable development," which advocates that the earth itself be managed to maximize long-term production25.

This approach rests on the assumption that the behavior of natural systems can be predicted, thereby allowing their exploitation to be safely increased to a point approaching their "carrying capacity" or "maximum sustainable yield." Beginning in the late nineteenth century, this involved a radical departure from traditions of decentralized local knowledge and management. Key tasks included systematic measurement, mapping, and statistical representation of forests; the application of scientific techniques to predict responses to management; the assemblage of tracts of land large enough to allow for economies of scale; and the application of bureaucratic management (either public or private) to assure consistency and uniformity26. Another important conceptual foundation is the utilitarian assumption that maximizing the total sum of benefits should take precedence over local claims to resources. This tenet has been effectively tied to centralized, production-based management, as well as to shifts toward higher levels of political control. In addition to increasing commodity production, it has helped to bring about a radical shift in land-tenure regimes and political authority, thereby disrupting and diminishing local subsistence practices in places as diverse as Indonesia, India, and the United States27.

While utilitarian conservation and management may seem at odds with a romanticized view of nature, on a practical level the two perspectives have been very much intertwined. The timber industry and (until recently) the U.S. Forest Service have focused on the production of commodities while nodding to romanticism through the practice of "multiple use management," which emphasizes recreation and the maintenance of a natural aesthetic. For their part, wilderness advocates draw heavily on the science of conservation biology, with its particularistic and quantitative focus on biological diversity (diversity must be catalogued because it is the number of species that counts, and the places with the highest numbers that count the most) and the closely related emphasis on the need for large-scale, externally managed "ecological reserves." These new reserves are reminiscent of the earlier instances of productively managed forest reserves, in that they are often seen as storehouses of genetic material that can be efficiently extracted, productively manipulated, and eventually commodified.

In the Northern Forest, calls for the restoration of large wilderness areas, in addition to evoking romantic themes, also stress the economic benefits of tourism28. Meanwhile, proposals for both wilderness and mixed-use "wildlands" are based on a rational application of scientific data concerning such factors as the existence of rare species, the productivity of soils, and the potential for recreational use29. Perhaps most significant is the implicit suggestion that protecting core areas of wilderness, surrounding them with carefully managed forest, and underpinning both undertakings with scientific knowledge and managerial expertise will meet the needs and desires of all groups-from local residents to urban vacationers to the timber industry. At its core, this model represents a marriage of romanticism and techno-scientific managerialism whereby, armed with enough knowledge and expertise, any significant limitations on personal freedom or substantial reform of existing political and economic systems can be avoided. Romanticism has been subsumed within a cornucopian managerialism that assures us that, if we are smart enough, we can have it all.

Climate Change and the Northern Forest Agenda

That climate change has serious implications for forests in the northeastern United States has been suggested for more than a decade; recently, a strong scientific consensus has emerged. As part of the U.S. Assessment on Climate Change, a New England working group has projected the total loss of northern hardwoods and spruce-fir ecosystems from New England by the end of this century. Such transitions are not likely to occur smoothly; significant deterioration of ecosystem health may occur as the result of species shifts, invasive species, and increased outbreaks of disease and forest pests30. Similar impacts on aquatic ecosystems and native wildlife seem likely. These projections suggest that no matter how many acres of land are protected from development or clear-cutting, the Northern Forest may not exist much longer in its current state. Since environmental groups frequently give "maintenance of forest health," "protection of ecosystems," and "preservation of biodiversity" as their goals, one might expect climate change to be an issue of active concern.

A review of published literature from the Northern Forest Alliance and several member organizations shows, however, that climate change, though not totally absent, is rarely mentioned in the context of forest or ecosystem protection31. My interviews with members of these same groups confirmed that there is currently little room for climate change on the Northern Forest policy agenda. Out of eleven informants, none offered climate change as relevant to their work until I specifically drew attention to the problem. This tendency persists even when existing initiatives are explicitly subjected to critical scrutiny. At the annual meeting of the NFA in 2000, member organizations agreed on the need to step back from business as usual and reexamine the goals and methods of their work. As the meeting's chairperson put it, "We need to really look critically at our role-to cast it wide open is really our responsibility today." Yet discussions focused entirely on how best to reach long-accepted goals of public land acquisition, development restrictions, and establishment of new wilderness areas. Neither climate change nor the similarly diffuse problem of acid rain was mentioned, despite recent scientific and popular articles pointing to their likely impacts on the region's forests32.

When an external stimulus, such as a high-profile scientific report or a direct question as asked in my interviews, draws attention to the problem of climate change, it is seldom the subject of sustained discussion. When the New England Assessment's projections were released this year, the Appalachian Mountain Club's magazine, AMC Outdoors, published a short summary article noting the considerable threat to the region's forests33. Yet several months later, after increased press coverage of climate change and the Kyoto Protocol, the magazine had offered no additional coverage, and a staff member indicated that the issue remains absent from the group's agenda.

This lack of organizational notice does not, however, necessarily reflect the personal views of professionals. When asked if climate change should be an issue of concern in the Northern Forest, ten of the eleven informants voiced concern and two worried that it could largely negate their current efforts. Yet most of these professionals could see little role for themselves or their organizations in addressing the issue, and several confirmed that it has simply never been considered within the alliance. One person who plays a key leadership role felt that "as a community we should not be casting a blind eye to global warming," but added that "who would best address that I don't know." Not only does the issue not fit existing categories, but no alternative arrangement or reconsideration of priorities is in sight. This omission reflects continuity in the traditional focus on nonhuman nature, as well as a marginally expanded view that now includes idealized rural landscapes. The Northern Forest remains "out there," a place on the map, an ecosystem, and a culture to be protected and enjoyed.

This inertia is reinforced by the sheer magnitude and complexity of the challenge. Another senior leader within the NFA summed up the reaction of many: "There are only so many [issues] that you can pay attention to. The prospect of global warming shifts the playing table-the prospect that the area you're protecting this year will not support the species that you've protected it for because the climate will change throws in a factor that's beyond our ability to measure, let alone think about. It's a little too demoralizing, too big, to work it into the day-to-day policy debate."

Also important is the organizational and professional legacy that developed along with the conceptual framework of place-based environmentalism. Most organizations have structures and goals that are tightly focused on the protection of particular places, making it difficult for them to adapt to global problems. Of particular importance is the likelihood that those who have ascended to positions of leadership-having been steeped in slowly-changing professional norms and practices-will exhibit the risk-aversion that often accompanies organizational responsibility. Leaders may be slower to recognize the need for change than the membership that supports them. I have observed several instances where either laypersons or entry-level professionals have suggested the need to include climate change in the Northern Forest agenda, only to have this concern dismissed by senior professionals, usually on the grounds that organizations must stay focused on existing objectives in order to be successful. Such a position reveals an implicit definition of success that is grounded in organizational survival or growth, rather than in stated goals of forest and ecosystem protection. This internalization of long-established professional practices and organizational goals, along with the lack of coverage in magazines like AMC Outdoors, constitutes a lack of leadership that inhibits the mobilization of popular concern. Moreover, by suggesting that existing initiatives will be effective in "saving the forest," these messages foster a sense of complacency and may, in the end, have the unintended consequence of actually suppressing latent public support.

Despite the degree to which climate change has so far been excluded from this discourse, the interest that professionals express in private, along with substantial (albeit uneven) media coverage, suggests that there is potential for its increased consideration in the future. This, of course, begs the question of what can or should be done about the problem. When asked about this, informants saw solutions to climate change as fundamentally technical, such as increasing energy efficiency through the design of transportation and manufacturing systems. When I drew attention to the energy consumption involved in recreational tourism, informants routinely stressed the need to increase fuel efficiency. The possibility of limiting travel or otherwise altering behavior was entirely discounted, with the occasional exception of calls for better mass transit.

Informants often stressed the notion that tourism offers a unique opportunity to reach people with an educational message and thereby raise awareness of environmental problems. I offered the suggestion that promoting tourism may perpetuate an overarching ethic of consumption and reinforce the ideas that "real" nature exists only in special places far from home and that travel to and from those places is environmentally benign. In response, informants argued that the benefits of tourism outweighed these potential drawbacks, but did so without offering any clear rationale. The crucial point is not that this claim is false-such a conclusion lies beyond the scope of this study-but that the supposed benefits of tourism are taken largely as a matter of faith. According to this view, the value of personal mobility and of education focused on wild nature are essentially inviolate. Meanwhile, solutions to tourism-related consumption, as with other forms of energy use, lie in the realm of science and technology rather than changes in human behavior.

This emphasis on tourism-based "education" is significant because it tends to advocate popular "win-win" solutions rather than cultivating a deeper understanding of the complex human relationship to the environment. It reflects an attempt to manage public opinion and is thus in keeping with the control-oriented, managerialist approach described above. In the case of global warming, even those who fear that improved technology may not be an adequate solution are reluctant to recognize this publicly for fear that it may lead to despair and a loss of popular support. A common refrain is that "we wouldn't want to scare people." What goes unconsidered is the possibility that fear, if based on sound information and open discussion, may be an appropriate response and that it can lead to a more realistic appraisal, realignment of goals, and new possibilities for action. In lieu of this, education becomes a technical exercise in the manipulation of public opinion within a framework of self-imposed but predictable constraints. Whatever appears unlikely goes unspoken-the result being a system that has little capacity to adapt to changing conditions. The implicit goal becomes a conservative one of maintaining stability and influence rather than investigating and responding to new or changing problems.

Whether they are focused on technology or on education, ideas about how to manage the problem of climate change are directly related to the much older tradition of techno-scientific managerialism. Despite references to "sustainability," these ideas rely on the longstanding assumption that economic growth can be indefinitely prolonged in order to produce the maximum possible satisfaction of human wants and needs. And, crucially, they assume that the behavior of the system in question-in this case, the global carbon cycle as it is affected by human behavior and as it interacts with climate-can be predicted and therefore effectively managed.

This may not be the case. Despite the value of existing climate models for devising policy scenarios, their use as predictive tools is sharply limited. This is not just because of the complexity of the climate system, but because both levels of carbon dioxide and global average temperature are already approaching levels that have no precedent in the historical climate record. The climate system is entering a phase for which we have no reliable data for making predictions and, unlike smaller ecosystems, there is no possibility of running experiments prior to developing management scenarios (there is only one Earth to experiment with). As a result, and in addition to the possible deleterious changes noted above, scientists are particularly concerned about climate "surprises," scenarios whereby climate changes rapidly in unexpected ways34. This uncertainty suggests that it would be prudent to take bold steps to reduce emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gasses.

All of this suggests the need to reexamine human wants and needs so that instead of pushing to maximize production within physical and biological constraints (constraints that simply are not predictable in this case), we seek to minimize consumption within cultural and psychological constraints-and, moreover, to readjust those constraints where possible. This need not involve great hardship. Given both the poor correlation between increased material wealth (beyond basic subsistence needs) and personal satisfaction, not to mention the sheer volume of our excess consumption, considerable reductions are possible. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that basic changes in personal consumption, mostly in the realms of electricity use, climate control, and transportation, can reduce the average American's carbon emissions by roughly one-third, from 15,000 to 10,000 pounds per year35. Further reductions can be achieved through changing consumption patterns of food and consumer goods, neither of which are included in those calculations. Changing transportation patterns holds especially great potential, since this accounts for 36 percent of all carbon emissions. If combined with more efficient technology, this sort of realignment of priorities would substantially reduce the threat of global warming, as well as variety of other environmental problems.

While the political and psychological challenges are considerable, a drive to change our patterns of consumption radically is in keeping with a long line of environmentalist thinking that emphasizes not just place, but everyday places where ordinary life is lived, places where the sort of nostalgic fantasies inherent in tourism are a poor fit. We need only remember Thoreau's admonition to simplify and "live deliberately" in order to "suck out all the marrow of life"36. From a more managerial perspective, the forester Aldo Leopold offered the crucial insight that ethics, even when focused specifically on "the land," must evolve along with our changing technology and thus with the nature of our effects. More recently, Terry Tempest Williams has said, "Sometimes the most radical thing you can do is stay at home"37. Unfortunately, despite the popularity of these writers, the subversive sentiments that make up the core of their work tend to be neglected by mainstream environmentalism precisely because they are at odds with its consumptivist undercurrents.


In the end, the combination of romanticism and utilitarianism that has given rise to place-based environmentalism seems a poor model for dealing with global-scale problems. These traditions emerge from and, in turn, help support the larger political-economic system of modern, industrial capitalism. While the role of resource conservation in maintaining commodity production is obvious enough, adherents of romantic tourism have also emphasized a similar function for temporary forays into wild nature. Though often couched in terms of individual health, both physical and psychological, the therapeutic and restorative function of recreational tourism is important socially and economically as well. This was voiced a century ago by Teddy Roosevelt, who saw wilderness challenges as a way to develop "that vigorous manliness for . . . which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone"38. Today, organized wilderness programs like Outward Bound have become not just rites of passage for wealthy adolescents (in itself an important social function), but a widely accepted strategy for reintegrating troubled youth into society and for facilitating corporate training and executive team building. In all of these cases, wilderness has been harnessed not only to produce direct economic benefits from tourism, but to reinforce a social and economic order that creates significant environmental problems. The same holds true for individuals and families who go on wilderness adventures or vacation in the country and return refreshed and invigorated to the daily grind, which is made more bearable by pleasurable anticipation of the next escape to an exotic destination.

The current fusion of romantic preservationism and utilitarian conservation and management has grown out of and reinforces a political-economic system that requires continuous accumulation of capital; draws on the appropriation of both human labor and natural wealth as a means of achieving that growth; distributes both accumulated wealth and the wastes of production inequitably; and seeks to ensure that those pools of labor and resources remain "sustainable." More important to the maintenance of that system than the presence or absence of "positive" environmental values is a persistent dialectic of conflicting values. People value the scenic beauty of dramatic landscapes and the transcendent possibilities of non-human nature, but they also value the material wealth and convenience of a modern lifestyle. These preferences come into conflict to the extent that use of materials and energy threatens the wild nature that middle- and upper-class residents of the developed world seek to enjoy. Yet both continued economic expansion and therapeutic leisure are essential to the maintenance of this social system. The logic of the combined romantic and utilitarian discourse that characterizes place-based environmentalism insists that this conflict can be overcome by the creative and innovative possibilities of technology and managerial expertise.

Climate change suggests that we would do well to look to other models for alternative modes of action. This need not entail grand schemes for revolutionizing society and the world capitalist system. As desirable as that may be in theory, it also appears to be one of the few possibilities even less likely than weaning Americans from their profligate use of energy. But there is reason for hope if we look to the energetic and creative alternatives to traditional environmentalism that have emerged in recent years. Among these can be counted numerous de-centralized, grassroots movements that tend to work outside of existing organizational and power structures and thereby to press for fundamental changes that diverge from the status quo. Examples include transnational, grassroots networks focused on the resistance of natural-resource dependent communities to corporate encroachment,39 and the environmental justice movement in the United States, with its emphasis on prevention over compromise. Similar models of decentralized civic action have begun to emerge in recent years to confront the problem of global climate change. Organizations like Clean Air-Cool Planet, Climate Solutions, Cities for Climate Action, and many others have been actively engaging the general public, local and state governments, communities of faith, and business and industry with an eye toward making concrete changes in infrastructure and reducing consumption40. These efforts can both bring about real change at the local level and help push for more comprehensive national and international efforts.

These approaches involve a common acceptance of material and social realities and seek to move forward with concrete agendas of environmental and social justice, rather than to recreate an imagined past of idealized nature or invent new, and similarly idealized, social utopias. A related effort lies in the discipline of industrial ecology, which accepts the fact of energy and material consumption and seeks to develop new, systemic approaches to industrial management-in effect, an attempt to mimic natural process not on the periphery of "wild" nature but in the heart of modern life41. When combined with an ethic of minimal consumption, industrial ecology offers hope of an ecologically sound future that looks forward rather than backward. These diverse efforts create spaces for experimenting with new alternatives and combinations that lie outside of the entrenched paradigms of romantic preservation and technical managerialism and by which significant social and environmental change may actually be achievable.

New strategies need not spurn the value of relatively unmanaged nature. Whether "wild" places are understood as sacred elements of creation, irreplaceable remnants of an evolutionary past, or simply places for quiet and contemplation, there is ample reason to preserve them where possible. But clearly the protection of nature will first depend on our willingness to address pervasive global challenges realistically.


This essay draws on both my dissertation research on urban-rural political dynamics in the Northern Forest and on additional fieldwork focused specifically on climate change. The latter includes eleven extended, semi-structured interviews with professional environmentalists; participant observation at two professional workshops on the implications of climate change for protected areas, both of which involved representatives from Northern Forest organizations; and a review of literature and promotional materials from several representative organizations.
1 I use the term "environmentalism" inclusively to cover a range of more specific orientations, including the "preservation" of natural areas, "conservation" of natural resources, and regulation and management of environmental contaminants.
2 Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).
3 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: A Report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2001).
4 Ibid.; see also National Assessment Synthesis Team, Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
5 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001.
6 For examples, see Reid A. Bryson, Climates of Hunger (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977); and National Research Council, Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Second Assessment (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1982).
7 Henry Shue, "Global Environment and International Inequality," International Affairs 75, No. 3 (1999), pp. 531-45.
8 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001.
9 For examples, see Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); and the essays in Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, eds., The Case Against the Global Economy: And for a Turn Toward the Local (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996).
10 For other examples of this approach, which stems from the work of Michel Foucault, see James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); and Escobar, Encountering Development.
11 William Cronon, "The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), pp. 69-90; and Donna Brown, Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
12 Richard Judd, Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); and Philip G. Terrie, Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997).
13 See Brown, Inventing New England.
14 John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Travel and Leisure in Contemporary Societies (New York: Sage, 1990); see also Cronon, "The Trouble with Wilderness."
15 See, for example, Escobar, Encountering Development; Peter Brosius, "Environmental Representations of Indigenous Knowledge," Human Ecology 25, No. 1 (1997), pp. 47-69; and Michael R. Dove, "Writing for, Versus about, the Ethnographic Other: Issues of Engagement and Reflexivity in Working with a Tribal NGO in Indonesia," Identities 6, No. 2 (1999), pp. 47-74.
16 Cronon, "The Trouble with Wilderness," p. 81.
17 Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 1998), p. 13.
18 Richard Dobbs and David Ober, The Northern Forest (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 1995); Christopher McGrory Klyza and Stephen C. Trombulak, The Future of the Northern Forest (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1994); and A. E. Luloff and Mark Nord, "The Forgotten of Northern New England," in Thomas A. Lysine and William W. Falk, eds., Forgotten Places: Uneven Development in Rural America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).
19 Northern Forest Alliance, Wildlands: A Conservation Strategy for the Northern Forest (Montpelier, Vt.: Northern Forest Alliance, 1997).
20 This quote comes from a color poster created by the Northern Forest Alliance in 1998 that bears the heading "Explore the Northern Forest!" and features images of wilderness recreation and dramatic scenery.
21 Luloff and Nord, "The Forgotten of Northern New England"; Stephen Harper, Ted Rankin, and Laura Falk, The Northern Forest Lands Study (Rutland, Vt.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Forest Service, 1990).
22 See Luloff and Nord, "The Forgotten of Northern New England"; and David Vail, "The Internal Conflict: Contract Logging, Chainsaws, and Clearcuts in Maine Forestry" in Tariq Banuri and Frederique Apffel Marglin, eds., Who Will Save the Forests: Knowledge, Power and Environmental Discourse (New York: Zed, 1993).
23 Paul E. Bruns, A New Hampshire Everlasting and Unfallen (Concord, N.H.: Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, 1969); and Gordon B. Dodds, "The Stream-Flow Controversy: A Conservation Turning Point," Journal of American History 56, No. 1 (1969), pp. 59-69.
24 See David Demeritt, Knowledge, Nature and Representation: Clearings for Conservation in the Mane Woods (Vancouver: Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of British Columbia, 1996); and Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959).
25 See, for example, Arturo Escobar, "Constructing Nature: Elements for a Poststructural Ecology," in Richard Peet and Michael Watts, eds., Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements (New York: Routledge, 1996).
26 See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); and Demeritt, Knowledge, Nature, and Representation.
27 For examples, see Nancy Lee Peluso, Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); K. Sivaramakrishnan, Modern Forests: Statemaking and Environmental Change in Colonial Eastern India (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); and Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
28 Northern Forest Alliance, Wildlands: A Conservation Strategy for the Northern Forest (Montpelier, Vt.: Northern Forest Alliance, 1997).
29 Ibid.; see also Appalachian Mountain Club, An Inventory of Biological Recreational, and Forest Resources in the Northern Forest (Gorham, N.H.: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1993).
30 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001; and National Assessment Synthesis Team, Climate Change Impacts on the United States.
31 In addition to literature from the NFA, I examined publications and Web sites of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Vermont Natural Resources Council, The Wilderness Society, Northern Appalachian Restoraton Project/The Northern Forest Forum, and Restore: The North Woods.
32 Robert Braile, "Warming Would Bring Regional Disruptions," The Boston Globe, New Hampshire Weekly, September 10, 2000, p. 1; and Curt Suplee, "Drastic Climate Changes Forecast; Global Warming Likely to Cause Droughts, Coastal Erosion in U.S., Report Says." The Washington Post, June 12, 2000, p. A3.
33 Glen Scherer, "Hot Enough for You? Computers Model a Warming New England," AMC Outdoors (January/February 2001), pp. 22-23.
34 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001.
35 These figures come from the EPA's climate change Web site:
36 Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992), p. 75.
37 From an interview on Fresh Air, WHYY, Philadelphia, May 1995.
38 Quoted in Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 150.
39 For example, see Susan Stonich, "Globalization and the Shrimp Mariculture Industry: The Social Justice and Environmental Quality Implications in Central America," Society and Natural Resources 10, No. 2 (1997), pp. 161-79.
40 See the Web sites for Clean Air-Cool Planet (, Cities for Climate Protection (, Climate Solutions (, and the Massachusetts Climate Action Network (
41 Thomas E. Graedel and Braden R. Allenby, Industrial Ecology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1994).

You may also like

AUG 9, 2023 Podcast

Nuclear Ethics for this Moment

This panel explores ethical questions surrounding nuclear weapons and builds upon a symposium published in the most recent issue of "Ethics & International Affairs."

MAY 10, 2023 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 37.1 (Spring 2023)

The editors of "Ethics & International Affairs" are pleased to present the Spring 2023 issue of the journal! The highlight of this issue is a symposium organized ...

MAY 4, 2023 Article

A New Era for "Ethics & International Affairs"

The editors of Carnegie Council's quarterly journal "Ethics & International Affairs" are proud to announce the beginning of a new era in our publishing history. Starting ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation