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#766 - Walking North on a Southbound Train, Part 1, 02-Apr-2003

Published June 25, 2003

by David W. Orr**

An old farmer once told me a story of a wily fox that he came
to know well, and its interactions with his unfortunate dog.
One day, as he tells it, the fox began to run in circles just
outside the radius of the dog's tether, followed by the
frantically barking dog. After a few laps the tether was
wrapped around the post, at which point the fox strutted in to
devour the dog's food while the helpless mutt looked on.
Something like that has happened to all of us who believe that
nature and ecosystems are worth preserving and that this is a
matter of obligation, spirit, true economy, and common sense.
Someone or something has run us in circles, tied us up, and is
eating our lunch. It is time to ask who and why and how we
might respond. Here is what we know:

(1) Despite occasional success, overall we are losing the epic
struggle to preserve the habitability of the earth. The
overwhelming fact is that virtually all important ecological
indicators are in decline. The human population increased
three-fold in the twentieth century and will likely grow
further before leveling off at 8-11 billion. The loss of
species continues and will likely increase in coming decades.
Human-driven climatic change is occurring more rapidly than
many scientists thought possible even a few years ago. There is
no political or economic movement presently underway sufficient
to stop the process short of a doubling or tripling of the
background rate of 280 ppm CO2. On the horizon are other
threats in the form of self-replicating technologies that may
place humankind and natural systems in even greater jeopardy.

(2) The forces of denial in the United States are more militant
and brazen than ever. Every day millions in this country alone
hear that those concerned about the environment are
"extremists," "wackos," or worse. A former Wyoming senator
charges that the environmental movement is "a front for these
terrorists," and no significant Washington politician utters
any objection.[1] And people holding such opinions have been
appointed to strategic positions throughout the federal

(3) The movement to preserve a habitable planet is caught in
the crossfire between fundamentalists of the
corporate-dominated global economy and those of atavistic
religious movements. It is far easier to see the latter than
the former, but in a longer perspective the forces of perpetual
economic expansion will be perceived to be at least as
dangerous as those of a purely religious sort. That danger is
now magnified by a new rightwing doctrine gaining the status of
national policy that permits the United States to strike
preemptively at any country deemed to be an enemy without
resort to international law, morality, common sense, or public
debate. In the words of one analyst, this is "a strategy to use
American military force to permit the continued offloading onto
the rest of the world of the ecological costs of the existing
U.S. economy -- without any short-term sacrifices on the part
of U.S. capitalism, the U.S. political elite or U.S.

(4) Fundamentalists either economic or religious require
dependably loathsome enemies. For Osama bin Laden, the United
States and George W. Bush admirably serve that purpose. It is
no less true that the foundering presidency of Mr. Bush was
revitalized by the activities of Mr. Bin Laden and subsequently
by the less agreeable attributes of Saddam Hussein. Each is
fulfilled and defined by an utterly vile enemy.

(5) There has been a steep erosion of democracy and civil
liberties in the United States, driven by what former president
Jimmy Carter describes as "a core group of conservatives who
are trying to realize long-pent-up ambitions under the cover of
the proclaimed war against terrorism."[3] There is a strong
antidemocratic movement on the right wing of American politics
that would limit voting rights, reduce access to information,
prevent full disclosure of the conduct of public business, and
reduce public control of military affairs.

(6) In the 1990s, massive amounts of wealth were transferred
from the poor and middle classes to the richest. By one
estimate "the financial wealth of the top 1% exceeds the
combined household financial wealth of the bottom 95%."[4] Much
of this transfer of wealth was simply theft. In the California
energy "crisis" alone, an estimated $30 billion was diverted by
those utilities that effectively defrauded the state and its

(7) For nearly a quarter century, government at all levels has
been under constant attack by the extreme right wing, with the
clear intention of eroding our capacity to forge collective
solutions. The assumption is now common that markets are
"moral" but that publicly created political solutions are not.
The result is a continuation of what a Republican president,
Teddy Roosevelt, once described as "a riot of individualistic
materialism, under which complete freedom for the individual...
turned out in practice to mean perfect freedom for the strong
to wrong the weak" (quoted by C. Meine, unpublished

(8) The U.S. government's strategy, once revealed by Ronald
Reagan's director of the Office of the Budget, David Stockman,
has been to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy and
increase military spending, there by creating a severe fiscal
crisis that requires cutting expenditures for health,
education, mass transit, the environment, and cities.

(9) Our problems are systemic in nature and will have to be
solved at the system level.

(10) There are yet good possibilities for averting the worst of
what may lie ahead.

In short, the movement to preserve the habitability of the
earth is failing, and we ought to ask why. The reasons can be
found neither in the lack of effort or good intention by
thousands of scientists, activists, and concerned citizens nor
in a lack of information, data, logic, and scientific evidence.
On these counts the movement has grown impressively, as has the
quality and quantity of scientific evidence and rational
discourse on which it rests. But we must look more deeply at
how this movement is manifest in the larger arena in which
public attitudes are formed and the way in which it influences
the conduct of the public business.

We are failing, first, because for 20 years or longer we have
tried to be reasonable on the terms of the opposition, in the
belief that we could persuade the powerful if we only offered
enough reason, data, evidence, and logic. We have quantified
the decline of species, ecosystems, and now planetary systems
in exhaustive detail. We bent over backward to accommodate the
style and intellectual predilections of self-described
"conservatives" and those for whom the economy is far more
important than the environment, in the belief that politeness
and good evidence stated in their terms would win the day.
Accordingly, we put the case for the earth and coming
generations in the language of economics, science, and law.
With remarkably few exceptions we have been reasonable,
erudite, clever, cautiously informative, and -- relative to the
magnitude of the challenges before us -- ineffective. In short,
we do science, write books, publish articles, develop
professional societies, attend conferences, and converse
learnedly. But they do politics, take over the courts,[5]
control the media, and manipulate the fears and resentments
endemic to a rapidly changing society.

The movement to preserve a habitable Earth is failing, too,
because it is fractured into different factions, groups, and
arcane philosophies. In this respect it has come to resemble
the nineteenth century European socialist movement, which
became bitterly divided into warring factions, each more eager
to be right than right and effective. When the world was
finally ready for better ideas about how to decently organize
industrial society, that movement delivered Bolshevism, and the
rest, as they say, is history. The left historically has
exhausted itself in bloody internecine quarrels, the strategy,
as David Brower once described it, of drawing the wagons into a
circle and shooting inward. The right generally suffers no such
fracturing, in large part because their agenda is formed around
less complicated aims having to do with pecuniary advantage.

Further, I think Jack Turner is right in saying that we are
failing because all too often we are complacent and lack
passion. "We are," in his words, "a nation of environmental
cowards... willing to accept substitutes, imitations,
semblances, and fakes -- a diminished wild. We accept abstract
information in place of personal experience and
communication."[6] Effective protest, he continues, "is
grounded in anger and we are not (consciously) angry. Anger
nourishes hope and fuels rebellion, it presumes a judgment,
presumes how things ought to be and aren't, presumes a caring.
Emotion remains the best evidence of belief and value.
Unfortunately, there is little connection between our emotions
and the wild" (pgs. 21-22). We are endlessly busy trading
email, doing research, writing papers, and attending
conferences in exotic places, but we go into the wild less and
less often. We are cut off from the source.

Finally, we are losing because we have failed to appreciate the
depth of human needs for transcendence and belonging. We have
allowed those intending to pillage the last of nature to do so
behind the cover of religion, national pride, community, and
family. As a result, the majority of U.S. citizens -- even
those who regard themselves as "environmentalists" -- see
little problem with the goals of human domination of nature and
the perpetual expansion of the human estate on Earth. As
Buddhists would have it, whatever we thought we were doing, we
have built a system based on illusion, greed, and ill will
disguised by patriotism, religious doctrine, and individualism.

[Continued next issue: What is to be done?]


* Reprinted from Conservation Biology Volume 17, No. 2, April
2003, pgs. 348-351. The title comes from Peter Montague,
Rachel's Environment and Health News #570 (October 30, 1997)
available at www.rachel.org.

** David W. Orr is chairperson of the Environmental Studies
Program at Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH 44074, U.S.A.; E-mail:

[1] Walkom, T. 2002. Return of the old, Cold War. The Toronto Star,
28 September: F-1, F-4.

[2] Lieven, A. 2002. The push for war. London Review of Books

[3] Carter, J. 2002. The troubling new face of America. Washington
Post, 5 September.

[4] Gates, J. 2002. Globalization's challenge. Reflections 3(4).

[5] Buccino, S. et al. 2001. Hostile environment: how activist
judges threaten our air, water, and land. Natural Resources
Defense Council, Washington, D.C.

[6] Turner, J. 1996. The abstract wild. University of Arizona
Press, Tucson.