Thursday, June 17, 2010


The vast majority of my personal exposure to environmentalism--it values, beliefs, and culture--comes from sources that are mostly urban and east of the Mississippi river.  Through working this summer with multiple government agencies in Wyoming (Forest Service, State Parks, etc.), I've become acquainted with a different flavor of environmentalism, one uniquely Western and more grounded in natural resources and the idea of "use."

Exposure to use-oriented western environmentalism has supplied contrast to my mental framework of what environmentalism is.  By use-oriented environmentalism I mean the holding of environmentalist preferences for instrumental reasons: for example limiting fishing, logging, or hunting because it is economically rational in the long-run.  Conversely, the same policies might be supported by environmentalists driven by some existential view about the inherent sanctity of nature.

This distinction is not new.  The idea of conservation was a precursor to the modern environmental movement, but now that the cleavage exists, it increasingly seems that use-oriented environmentalism, grounded in economic rationality, is more connected to reality.  It is more flexible in its methods and better suited to attract mainstream support.  Most current environmental challenges are in fact process issues.  Everybody agrees that the problems should be solved, yet conflict emerges over potential solutions.  Use-oriented environmentalism is free from the baggage of a problem-obsessed ideological edifice and generates action solely within the solution domain.  Ideological environmentalism, although useful when facing unpleasant trade-offs, currently limits too greatly the range of "acceptable" solutions and may in fact be hindering progress on some issues, for example opposition to nuclear energy and genetically modified crops.

The science of ecology, biology, and physics unquestionably support a radically activist environmental policy.  Environmental issues are the single most important topic receiving society's attention; a framework of ecology and environmental physics underpins most other societal issues, and effective environmental solutions will trickle-up and benefit all aspects of society.  Despite these facts, staunch environmentalists must be cunning and strategic.  Promoting use-oriented policies, and describing issues in use-oriented terms, may be a more effective way of achieving environmentalist ends.

1 comment:

  1. Your observations about ideological environmentalism vs. use-oriented environmentalism ring true for me. Or to put it another way:

    Activism to protect Nature from the ravages of the economy and from the typical American lifestyle (traditional environmentalism: the stick) is different than redesigning industry and lifestyles to fit benignly into the natural world (sustainable development: the carrot). See a link to "The Death of Environmentalism" at