Thursday, April 28, 2005

If you've seen one tree...
Reader Mark Paris made the following comment on my post about the discovery of a surviving Ivory Billed Woodpecker.
I truly hope the ivory-bill can survive, but I am not sanguine. This latest announcement is likely to bring out the contrarians of every stripe. You have perhaps heard right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh telling the tale that there is more forest today than 100 years ago? This will just encourage them. Of course, if you drive through the rural South you will see the forests he is talking about. For the most part they are nearly sterile, monoculture pine plantations with all the trees lined up like so many corn stalks, just waiting for the pulpwood cutters. This is not ivory-bill habitat.

I completely agree. That distinction between forest and land with trees on it is a hard one to get across to many people. The parallel I often use is to compare a putting green to virgin prairie. They're both mostly grass. It still doesn't work very often. I often had this conversation with my late father.

Part of the problem is that many people can only value nature in terms of its utilitarian or monetary value to humans. What good is a forest? It's pretty to look at and profitable to log. Therefore, there is little difference between virgin forest and a mono-crop tree farm. Trees are trees. This attitude was almost universal among Dad's generation and distressingly common even now. It was arguing this issue that led me to notice that disconnect that Lakoff talks about in his work on framing and metaphor.

Though they love nature in their own way, the majority of people in the West have become strongly anti-environmental over the last thirty years. More than cultural wedge issues, it was the incompetent way that the environmental movement communicated its values that enabled the Republican Party gain its lock on Alaska and the intermountain West. Lumber companies have closed mills all over the West because they can ship uncut logs to Asia for lower cost processing closer to the market. Into the mill towns, impoverished by layoffs at the mill, walk environmental activists who announce, "you can't log that hillside because it's the habitat of an endangered species." The lumber companies, seeing a god given opportunity to deflect attention away from themselves, shout, "you're losing your jobs because the bi-coastal elites won't let you log the forests!"

They say "jobs, families, schools" and we say "little birdies." And we lose every time. Our environmental arguments might be watertight within our own worldview, but we are completely incoherent to the rural West. It's worse than speaking another language; we might as well be babbling nonsense syllables because from their worldview there is just no sense in anything we say. We do more harm than good when we go to their town meetings and say, "little birdies have rights, too." We need to craft arguments that speak their language.

My Dad's utilitarian worldview was informed by his experiences in the depression. People over there want wood, people over here need jobs, there's a tree... , It would be almost immoral not to cut the forest under those circumstances. And yet, he was a man of the West. He hunted and fished, camped and hiked as long as he could. When he retired he built a house in the forest, five miles out of the nearest small town. He understood the conservationist position that some forests should be saved for hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping in the future. He understood the quinine argument; who knows what miracle drugs might lurk unknown in the woods? He even understood the pure science argument; think of the knowledge that might be lost before we can learn it.

I can recite all of these arguments, but they don't really work for me. I find myself wondering what happens when we have cured all of the diseases, cataloged all of the plants and animals, and nobody wants to experience nature any more. Can we pave it all then? I was obviously traumatized by the movie "Silent Running." To me, the answer to the question, "what use is the forest?" is "it doesn't have to have any use." The rest of nature is its own justification and has as much right to exist as we do.

If it came down to a complete us or them choice between the human race and the rest of nature, I suppose I’d side with humanity, but it would take a lot of convincing to make me believe that was the only choice.

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