Tikkun Magazine

Eco-Enchantment and the Limits of Conservation

Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010

Eco-Enchantment and the Limits of Conservation

by James William Gibson
Holt, 2009

by Mark Dowie
MIT Press, 2009

Review by Roger S. Gottlieb

"We have to show the enemy we are serious about defending what is sacred."
--Earth Liberation Front, 1997.

"First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation."
--Indigenous Delegate to World Parks Congress, 2003

"Reenchantment," James Gibson tells us, is a "fundamental rejection of the most basic premises of modern thought and society" embodied by those "who long to rediscover and embrace nature's mystery and grandeur." This profound spiritual shift is manifest in people's willingness to sacrifice themselves to protect individual redwood trees by sitting in them for months, or to risk jail to liberate lab animals. It's manifest in people who, in this industrial age, find God in the ocean, or who pray to eagles or wolves.

The various cultural sources of the reenchantment movement range from a new embrace of Native American attitudes toward the land, a generalized rejection of the worship of corporate profit and scientistic reductionism, and a sense that even traditional religions contain long-neglected teachings that value and celebrate the natural world. Gibson tells the story of our reenchantment through a wide variety of sources -- from Disney movies to animal theme parks, from nature writers to forest-ranger-turned-ethicist Aldo Leopold, from the Gaia Hypothesis to the emotional impact of seeing our planet from space. He also offers a generally sympathetic account of some of the more "extreme" wings of the movement, "eco-warriors" willing to turn to anti-property violence in defense of the wild.

The challenge to conventional beliefs and social structures embodied by reenchantment, not surprisingly, provoked a counterattack, and some of Gibson's best writing details clearly and frighteningly the anti-environmental actions of the Bush administration and its allies. He also describes development within the reenchantment movement. Most important, perhaps, is the idea that "nature" need not be identified with wilderness "somewhere far away," but with the trees, water, and animals right in front of us. It is as crucial to clean Boston Harbor as to preserve tigers in India, and it is as crucial to exchange the over-chemicalized American lawn for native plants as to worry about orchids in Bolivia.

Gibson's story has been told before in different ways -- for example, by historian of ideas Roderick Nash's description of our expanded sense of the rights of nature or by religious scholar Bron Taylor's recent account of nature as sacred in Dark Green Religion -- but it is certainly worth telling again. Gibson's broad learning, personal connection to the material, and lively writing make for valuable reading. And some of his insights -- that reenchantment has given rise to a virtually new form of discourse combining scientific knowledge with poetic or spiritual insight, or that as we take it for granted that people will die for country or faith we should not find it strange that they will sacrifice themselves for whales or rainforests -- are powerful and important.

Yet, these strengths notwithstanding, Gibson's account is not wholly satisfying. I wondered at its comparative exclusion of both large environmental organizations and the environmental justice movement. The many inspiring stories of individuals motivated by enchantment could have been joined by some of the powerful victories won by environmental groups that protect habitat, restore landscapes, lobby, and educate. Even the environmental justice movement, which might be defined as concerned with people rather than other species, began with a commitment to the "sacredness of Mother Earth" and resistance to the poisoning of the land, as well as concerns about human community.

Gibson is at times uncritical of some of the self-indulgence and aestheticism of the reenchanted sensibility. He admires the surfer who loves the power of nature at a beach in California but who nonetheless has to drive there and use artificial materials to make his surfboard; or the hunters who "reunite" with nature in the hunt but do so with modern weapons and Gore-Tex jackets.

Further, Gibson shares a common problem with many who would reject the entrenched industrialism and anthropocentrism of modernity. The culture of enchantment, he tells us, meets human needs in the face of a looming environmental crisis and a spiritually dead technology. But so did, and does, the culture of disenchantment. While Gibson sees that culture as the villain, surely we need to understand both its historic and its continuing appeal if we hope to supplant it. What realities of illness, food production, transportation difficulties, etc., made so many of us so eager to treat nature as an object to be controlled? Moreover, which forms of control are Gibson -- or any one of us -- willing to give up? Or does Gibson think that we can reenchant the world without sacrificing things like jet travel, antibiotics, abundant supplies of varied food even when the local harvest fails, or the (remarkably energy-hungry) Internet?

In Gibson's account, conservationists and environmentalists are the heroes, and while they may have occasional failings -- e.g., a tendency to glorify charismatic megafauna and dramatic landscapes at the expense of less dramatic elements of nature -- they are, he is certain, on the right side of history.

Journalist Mark Dowie's powerful, often depressing but essential narrative brings that certainty into question. Conservation Refugees carefully documents many of the painful, oppressive situations in which the pursuit of an enchanted nature has led to the victimization of human beings, reporting on how native/indigenous groups have been expelled from lands being conserved for and by people of other races and ethnicities.

For Gibson, John Muir's celebration of nature and work to create Yosemite National Park are a crucially important step on the road to a new relation to nature. For Dowie, Muir is a patron saint of "fortress conservation," which typically banishes or denies the presence of indigenous peoples in the "wild places" it wishes to preserve. Ironically, Ansel Adams' splendid and influential photos of Yosemite were intentionally constructed to leave out the Indians living there at the time. Even "ecotourism," Dowie argues, is often both environmentally destructive (requiring jet travel, hotels, and food, etc.) and a disaster to natives -- whether in Brazil, Tanzania, Jordan, or Thailand -- who are forcibly displaced to make room for foreigners hungry for a little natural enchantment.

With the export of the American model of exclusionary conservation to the rest of the world, the pattern has been repeated countless times, typically with the cooperation or even the management of the big, international NGOs such as Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, or The Nature Conservancy. Dowie's story is a familiar one of Western and white wealth, arrogance, control, and domination, often aided by complicit local governments and large corporations. The latter benefit from the publicity they get by supporting conservation in one place while destroying ecosystems in others, and find it easier to gain access to "parks" when natives who might resist the poisoning of land and water have been removed. Conservation biologists, enamored of endangered species and ignorant or contemptuous of "untutored natives," add their voices as well. In the end a modernized world is destroying biodiversity though human-induced global warming, world-wide pollution, mining, logging, the introduction of ecosystem-destabilizing exotic species, jet travel, and so forth -- and it is hundreds of millions of semi-nomadic, non-acquisitive, rotational farming tribal peoples who are asked to move, change, and sacrifice. The most vulnerable are being asked to pay the price of the damage caused by those with the most political, economic, and military power.

Dowie is a passionate and engaged writer, highly respected for his broad knowledge and principled political commitment. It is hard not to share his outrage when he describes a tribe evicted at gunpoint as its members' fields are destroyed and their small dwellings burned; an exiled indigenous hunter-gatherer from southern Africa who can only return to visit his ancestor's burial sites when tourists are not "viewing the elephants"; or the Karen community removed from a designated park area in Thailand so that golf courses -- golf courses -- can be built there.

Conservation Refugees provides powerful arguments against the usual justifications for exclusion. For the most part, native groups have been excellent stewards of local ecosystems over the hundreds or thousands of years in which they coexisted with them, typically having cultural/religious reasons to appreciate and protect their environment. They have also developed a priceless accumulation of "traditional environmental knowledge" that remains in many cases an essential element in successful conservation. As well, the impulse to "bring these poor savages into the modern money economy" typically leaves natives desperately poor, living in degraded resettlement camps, turning to alcohol or prostitution, or becoming hunted "poachers" on land they used to live on.

Despite its depressing catalog of oppression and injustice, and the at times overly detailed account of institutional resolutions and international congresses, Conservation Refugees does offer some hope. The good news is that a deeply important global shift in attitudes and practices is occurring, in which "indigenous protected areas" or community-based conservation works to preserve both biological and cultural diversity. Prompted by indigenous self-advocacy and activism with sympathetic support from some Western friends, this development includes the Caring for the Country movement in Australia, where Aborigines are resettling the land, drawing up their own conservation plans, and regaining rights to ecosystems that they had been preserving pretty well for thousands of years. Similar projects, involving millions upon millions of acres of protected lands, at times with biologists and big international NGOs in important supportive roles, see tribal peoples in the driver's seat in parts of the Philippines, Melanesia, Brazil, Colombia, and many other regions. The general principle is that unless local people are involved in, benefit from, and have rights over protected areas, biodiversity -- whatever the maps say about "parks" and "preserves" -- will fail.

Despite their different emphases and concerns, Dowie and Gibson are on the same side. Dowie concludes with the suggestion that we should stop separating out small bits of the world to save while consigning the rest of it to irreversible degradation. Perhaps the whole world should be saved because the whole world is sacred. Such a change in perspective is necessarily political and economic, but it is spiritual as well, precisely the reenchantment that Gibson describes.

In the end we will save the whales, elephants, and rainforest only if we save ourselves as well. And the fight to protect native self-determination and survival is also dependent on massive changes in industrial communities. The tribes may still have some of their land today, but unless the larger world societies change their structures of power, consumption, and self-understanding, they won't have it very long. This is spiritual, this is political, and it is the struggle of our time, a struggle these excellent books help us understand.

Roger S. Gottlieb is contributing editor to Tikkun and professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Two of his recent books are A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future and The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology.

Gottlieb, Roger. 2010. Eco-Enchantment and the Limits of Conservation. Tikkun 25(5): 75

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, contributing editor for Tikkun, and author of A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet’s Future.
tags: Books, Conservation, Environment, Environmental Activism, Reviews