The Green Insurgents

There’s been numerous waves of apostasy breaking over environmentalism in the last decade or so. Stewart Brand, a countercultural icon, is perhaps the most famous example. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus crashed down on the green movement in the mid-2000s, forcing it to swallow a hard, introspective reckoning (which, unsurprisingly, it didn’t appreciate). More recently, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas, two prominent UK journalists–each with impeccable environmentalist credentials–have taken to forcefully advocating for nuclear power, which has incurred the wrath of European greens.

Now comes Peter Kareiva, a highly reputable ecologist, who has a prominent position with a mainstream environmental organization, and he is basically calling on the entire green establishment to abandon some of its most cherished credos and take a different approach to wildlife and land conservation.

For the full sweep of the Kareiva story, you have to start with Paul Voosen’s excellent profile in Greenwire. Then swing on over to Andy Revkin at Dot Earth for some highlights of this heretical talk by Kareiva.

Judging by the reaction of readers in the Dot Earth thread, and that of some of Kareiva’s colleagues quoted in the Greenwire piece, I think it’s safe to say that the Ecological Society of America got it right with this tweet:

Peter Kareiva, making waves with his vision of “conservation in the Anthropocene,” in the Breakthrough Journal.

That would be this essay, which lays out his vision (and criticism of outdated environmental ideology), including this passage:

Conservation’s binaries — growth or nature, prosperity or biodiversity — have marginalized it in a world that will soon add at least two billion more people. In the developing world, efforts to constrain growth and protect forests from agriculture are unfair, if not unethical, when directed at the 2.5 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day and the one billion who are chronically hungry. By pitting people against nature, conservationists actually create an atmosphere in which people see nature as the enemy. If people don’t believe conservation is in their own best interests, then it will never be a societal priority. Conservation must demonstrate how the fates of nature and of people are deeply intertwined — and then offer new strategies for promoting the health and prosperity of both.

To the Breakthrough Institute’s credit, it has elicited and published rebuttals to the Kareiva essay. One is from Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. Suckling takes offense to just about everything Kareiva says, which should be no surprise, given the well known aims and tactics of the Center for Biological Diversity. If you’re not familiar with either Suckling or his organization, then this long and revealing New Yorker 1999 article by Nicholas Lemann is a must-read. It’s called, “No People Allowed.” Here’s an excerpt, quoting one of Suckling’s work colleagues:

The center’s enemies aren’t wrong to perceive it as a threat. It acts on behalf of plants and animals (it is now campaigning for the reintroduction of jaguars and grizzly bears), but if it keeps winning the immediate impact will be on people. Settlements would be reduced, structures would be taken down, jobs would be lost. “We will have to inflict severe economic pain,” Robin Silver told me.

Coincidentally, I wrote a feature article in 1999 that discussed an infamous case the Center for Biological Diversity had been involved in. My story appeared in The Sciences, which is now (sadly) defunct. I had gone that year to southern Arizona to report on the controversial case of the Ferugginous pygmy owl being listed as a federally endangered species. I wrote:

From a scientific point of view, the listing of the owl was an iffy call–so much so that even some wildlife biologists have questioned it. The bird is one of four subspecies  of the pygmy owl, which ranges all the way from Arizona to Argentina. The cactus ferugginous pygmy owl inhabits the northern part of that territory, and though is is scarce in Arizona, it is doing just fine in southern Texas and much of Mexico. Since Arizona lies at one edge of the subspecies’ habitat, it’s really no surprise that the bird’s numbers are lower there.

As I recounted in my story, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition in 1993 with the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to have the bird listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA):

The case dragged on for years, as the FWS mined the small amounts of existing data to try and determine whether the listing was warranted. Each step of the way, the center, which is based in Tucson, sued and pushed and sued and pushed, until finally in 1997 the owl made the federal list…Many people–even respected environmentalists–suspect that the center chose the owl not because of the bird’s own plight but because its wide-ranging habitat made a convenient tool for arresting development on a large scale in the Sonoran Desert.

For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of the ESA, once a species is listed as endangered, the next step is to designate “critical habitat” for the species. That often conflicts with all manner of development or other activity deemed harmful to the “critical habitat.” In the case of the pygmy owl, since one of the initial surveys found nesting birds in the vicinity of a new high school under construction, that was the end of that–temporarily. You can imagine the uproar. That’s what brought me there at the time. I should also mention that Arizona was in the midst of a building boom in the late 1990s, which the owl’s endangered listing threatened to upend.

And that was the whole point. But at what cost? In my article, one conservationist lamented the tradeoff:

The bird is being used “as a blunt instrument to hit developers over the head,” says Kenn Kaufman, a leading bird expert based in Tucson. Sure Kaufman says, it would be nice to preserve the few pygmy owls left in Arizona, “but it would also be nice if we didn’t have a huge proportion of the population hating birds and nature because of the listing.”

As it turns out, the ruckus over the pygmy owl (which was quite locally divisive) eventually spurred a regional conservation plan that reconciled the needs of multiple species, the desert ecosystem and development. It wasn’t easy. It required the dedication of federal and local officials, and grassroots environmentalists, but it happened.

Still, anyone who has followed the fierce battles over endangered species in the last few decades (think snail darter and spotted owl, for example) likely knows about the blowback to environmentalism that resulted.

Kareiva’s Breakthrough essay is more a general critique of the precepts that led environmental  groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity to adopt practices that pitted it against ranchers, developers, and landowners. In many respects, the pitched battles over the Endangered Species Act–the way the ESA became a proxy for something larger–serve as a cautionary lesson for climate change activists, which they seemed to have ignored.

So what might be a more fruitful approach that doesn’t prompt people to hate endangered species and nature? Kareiva sketches that out in his Breakthrough essay:

Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development — development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind. And it will utilize the right kinds of technology to enhance the health and well-being of both human and nonhuman natures. Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures. Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Nature could be a garden — not a carefully manicured and rigid one, but a tangle of species and wildness amidst lands used for food production, mineral extraction, and urban life.

Is that something that greens can get behind? Time will tell.

38 Responses to “The Green Insurgents”

  1. Mary says:

    Yeah, I saw your tweet on this earlier this week and it prompted me to look into the details more. I also watched Peter’s talk in The Long Now seminar series from last summer. In that talk he went into even more detail on how crucial it is to work with agricultural interests–and I’m sure that heads asplode hearing that. <p>He was also a bit more explicit calling out other enviro orgs. Talking about the salmon false claims, he said he spoke to biologists from other groups who were seeing the same data he saw–which did not match the ads they ran. And they admitted that it was the best fundraising year they had…. That’s been my suspicion, but it was interesting to hear it out loud. <p>At the end of the talk there’s chatter and questions with Stewart Brand. When Stewart asked him if TNC will use herbicides on invasive plants, the reaction was funny. (the answer was “yes”, btw) <p>But I found this perspective refreshing. I’m glad it’s come to light.

  2. Tom Fuller says:

    Keith, this is a really, really good post. This is what I always imagined blogging would bring to the table.

  3. Jarmo says:

    What is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement?VHEMT (pronounced vehement) is a movement not an organization. It’s a movement advanced by people who care about life on planet Earth. We’re not just a bunch of misanthropes and anti-social, Malthusian misfits, taking morbid delight whenever disaster strikes humans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Voluntary human extinction is the humanitarian alternative to human disasters.We don’t carry on about how the human race has shown itself to be a greedy, amoral parasite on the once-healthy face of this planet. That type of negativity offers no solution to the inexorable horrors which human activity is causing.Rather, The Movement presents an encouraging alternative to the callous exploitation and wholesale destruction of Earth’s ecology.As VHEMT Volunteers know, the hopeful alternative to the extinction of millions of species of plants and animals is the voluntary extinction of one species: Homo sapiens… us.Each time another one of us decides to not add another one of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom.When every human chooses to stop breeding, Earth’s biosphere will be allowed to return to its former glory, and all remaining creatures will be free to live, die, evolve (if they believe in evolution), and will perhaps pass away, as so many of Nature’s “experiments” have done throughout the eons. It’s going to take all of us going.

  4. Lazar says:

    “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people”

    This sounds an awful lot like soci*lism for the environmental movement. “Instead of” also sounds a lot like those binaries he’s criticizing. Species X doesn’t benefit the widest number of people? Kill it! Call me old fashioned, but I believe in protecting the Golden toad and Baiji dolphin for their own sakes… whoops, too late.

    *Other* than that, I broadly agree with what I think he’s saying!

  5. Menth says:

    Exceptional article Keith. Best thing I’ve read all week.

  6. KingOchaos says:

    Jarmo, the problem with the VHEMT movement, is it will result in the extinction of a small subset of us homo sapiens.(problem is not really the word im looking for, maybe solution?) Whilst the rest of us go on blindly ignoring the nutters in the corner… so as a form of natural selection, it should weed out the self loathers in the population rather nicely, but other than that, it seems rather foolish to me. At this stage in the evolutionary race, we are winning 😉 (whoo hoo go us! It rocks to be a human)    I think that the general populace in richer nations, are much more environmentally conscience than they were just going back a few decades. There has been a shift in our thinking… (although im sure a few of us red necks, when we see the add about the endangered fluffy whats a me bob, involuntarily have the words “FINISH HIM” pop into our heads, i choose to blame Sony’s PlayStation.) But the majority of us, just write off extreme views as nuts, and dont give it a second thought, this character  Peter Kareiva, seems to be showing uncharacteristic pragmatism for an environmentalist. And he is right on the money. We are the most highly evolved animal, we have overcome all threats to our survival as a species, by banding together, and destroying the threat. If environmentalism is perceived, or becomes a threat to the survival of the majority of us.. We will band together and destroy it…(democratically, you would hope)  This is just a basic reality, that rather obviously, must be worked around.

  7. MarkB says:

    ..No, that is not something greens can get behind. Those who define themselves as greens are so weighed down by misanthropy that they can’t possibly retreat from their neo-malthusian definition of man as fundamentally damaging to the planet.

  8. Jarmo says:

    #6, – I put this stuff about VHEMT on display because IMO it captures the basic idea and contradictions of environmentalism so well. 

  9. gryp says:

    I’m afraid using TNC to talk to hardcore environmentalists will be a gigantic fail.  They don’t trust this place, and with good reason, as the press exposed TNC a corporate extension over 10 years ago.  This article and the Breakthrough alliance only solidifies that.  You are asking them to succumb to power and this will not happen.  Monibot and Lynas are better for this, not TNC.Haywood and Martinez pretty much nailed the essay by pointing out that the premiss of Kareiva et al has no couter-factual and therefore is not a proper logical argument.  I don’t know the facts of biodiversity loss, but Kareiva et al looks quite optimistic and misses the point that biodiversity and humanity are linked, not separate, nor is the conservation movement a simple minded machine.  Kareiva never deals with the logical arguments in their rebuttal to Haywood/Martinez.I’ll add that if this article was to speak to mainstream conservationists, they miss the mark completely.  If so, all they did was build a gigantic strawman, set it on fire, and dance around it.

  10. Lazar says:

    grypo is correct, Haywood & Martinez make good counter arguments and the response by Kareiva, Lalasz & Marvier is rather weak.

    “Conservation is not yet as enlightened as Lisa Hayward and Barbara Martinez would like to believe.”

    Mind-reading empty assertion.

    “Indeed, the same survey that Hayward and Martinez cite as revealing concern among conservationists for alleviating poverty also exposes room for improvement.1 For instance, in only 10 percent of responses did conservationists most strongly agree with the statement, “conservation priorities should be set by the people most affected by them.””

    Empty assertions. Why “should”? Why is this an “improvement”? How does one measure “affect” [effect]? What is the cutoff point for “most”? Who decides? Supposing that someone somehow decides that European fishermen currently opposing fishing quotas are “most affected”, and those fishermen vote fish stocks together with their livelihoods into oblivion… what would that “improvement” have to do with “conservation” as it is recognizably defined? This is a blind, irrational rule for assigning arbitrary power.

    “We admire the accomplishments of his organization in defining critical habitats in the United States, but we do not feel this is a long-term model for sustainable conservation.”

    I’m glad they “feel” that. What is “sustainable conservation”?

    “People need”

    Translation: I assert that people need.

    “forward-looking conservation”

    Whatever that means. Why is preventing extinctions not “forward-looking” nor “sustainable”? Why is preventing extinctions not what “people need”? Why do the authors “admire the accomplishments” which they call not sustainable, not forward-looking, and not what people need?

    “that improves their lives and livelihoods, conservation that protects or restores mangroves, marshes and oyster reefs, which protect human communities from storm surge and rising sea levels.”

    I suppose that which doesn’t serve basic economic needs can be damned. “Conservation” for the soulless.

    Haywood & Martinez:

    “Paleontology suggests that ecosystems can indeed experience large-scale collapse and take many millions of years to recover. The geologic record indicates that oceanic ecosystem collapse during the End Permian and the End Triassic mass extinctions followed from loss of functional redundancy among species; after each collapse it took up to 10 million years for ecosystem stability to be reestablished.”

    Kareiva, Lalasz & Marvier non-respond by ignoring the issue of timescale raised by H&M:

    “Hayward, Martinez, and Suckling fear we overstate the resilience of nature. But the empirical data — both modern studies of ecosystem recovery and the fossil record — demonstrate the ability of nature to bounce back once a perturbation is curtailed.”

    Wanna live on a trashed planet for millions of years?

    And the part pointed to by grypo: H&M write:

    “Scientists are likely to object to the statement “conservation is failing,” given the lack of an appropriate counterfactual argument (i.e., we cannot observe the state of our planet in the absence of the conservation movement).”

    KL&M non-respond:

    “We believe we correctly characterized the failure of conservation, our metrics being the continued loss of habitat and species.”

    KL&M continue:

    “Hayward and Martinez fear any admission of nature’s resilience will give license for unfettered environmental destruction.”

    This is mind-reading.

    “Their concerns are a manifestation of conservationists’ penchant for doom-and-gloom scenarios.”

    More mind-reading, personalization, and irrelevance.

  11. Menth says:

    Shorter VHEMT manifesto: We don’t get laid enough and were often beat up in high school.

  12. BBD says:



    They don’t trust this place, and with good reason, as the press exposed TNC a corporate extension over 10 years ago.

    I don’t know enough (anything, really) about this – is there some information online? I’m a Brit, so TNC isn’t right under my nose, but that’s no excuse for knowing FA about it 😉 I’m not doubting your word btw, but trust and verify etc.

  13. grypo says:

    BBD, The Washington Post did some pretty solid investigory work on TNC in 2001 which resulted in a Senate investigation.  The links within don’t work anymore but if you google the article titles you can get them.   I don’t know the ins and the outs of it all, as I’m not ready to reread it, but it shows why anything coming out of there and TBI would be supect to any grass-roots environmentalist.  So I question this entire endeavor.  I highly doubt this was meant to reach out to environmentalists, as it is pretty insulting, even to mainstream ones.  And, to me, it is a logical mess.  It’s likely more about destroying environmentalism in the eyes of people who don’t pay much attention to it which would probably be why TBI is so interested in it.  

  14. BBD says:

    grypo, thank you. Much appreciated.

  15. Amazing to me that Karieva’s ramblings, which totally skirt the issues of resource depletion, aside from assorted platitudnal nonsense, keep getting anointed as Very Serious Thinking simply because it sticks a corporate sponsored stick in the eye of “greens”. No clear-eyed view can conclude but that environmentalism is losing. Still. Odds are very, very slim for victory. Go travel in Asia. Or the world’s oceans and behold the Anthropocene — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Toxic Tuna (whats left of their populations), acidic oceans, accelerating extinction rates across the globe, etc, etc. That so many of the cognescenti prioritize telling environmentalists how they are fighting for a lost cause, how ineffectual they are, and indulge in schadenfreude about it, when there is no basis in fact for any significant successes of any kind on their part says much more about them, than about “being green.” There is this myth of a green movement in the US (witness the absence of any of evidence of instantiated success) that folks seem to feel this need to perpetuate. But reality is TNC types own the narrative and in are in almost complete control. Karieva is a technocrat using shiny logic and status (NAS!) that works for Goldman Sachs, basically. His job is to make limousine liberals — and Romney types — feel better about themselves and full on extractionism. And he’s good at it. One of the standout bits of this elitist absurdity is when Karieva, and his media groupies let us all know that environmentalists, you know, don’t understand poor people. <sarcasm>But Exxon Mobil and the rest of TNCs funders/backers, well, they’re on it. All they wanna do is feed the world, after all. Just look at how well the citizenry of the nations they extract resources from end up.<sarcasm/>

  16. Lazar says:

    “it is a logical mess”


  17. Eli Rabett says:

    Lazar and Walt, so the question obtains, which of Keith’s pet narratives does this feed and why are they his pets?

  18. Tom Fuller says:

    Only a rabbit shut in a cage of his own construction would seize upon such an empty metaphor to describe his own lunacy (the cage is unlocked and his rabbit metaphors can be abandoned) and their distance from reality. Sad.

  19. Stu says:

    Lazar @4. In agreement. Biodiversity ‘for the people’ is a limitation. But in a more capitalistic ‘I’m an individual’ way than communistic ‘I am the community’. It’s just here that the individual is the human collective. The real game is where things get all messy and you can simultaneously say that the Golden Toad is worth saving in itself, and people are important too. 

  20. Lazar says:


    Perhaps “populist” would have been more appropriate than soci*list.

    “The real game is where things get all messy”

    Yeah. Kieran Suckling, who is being portrayed, whether fairly or unfairly I don’t know, as the archetypal single minded and stubborn “green”, finds this problem in KL&M…

    “The central problem of Kareiva et al. is that, having created an ideal thesis of conservation devoid of human impacts and interests, they are catapulted to the equally ideal antithesis of a world with only human impacts and interests. The real world of synthesis escapes them.”

    And after reading through the KL&M essay and responses, I can’t imagine an example of environmental destruction which would be delimited in their vision of the future of conservation. Which begs the question whether it can really be classified as conservation.

  21. Steve says:

    Your post “summarizing” the debate between Kareiva and Suckling is unbalanced in that you don’t describe Suckling’s position at all. Instead you summarize media stories about other issues Suckling’s group was involved in in the past. What gives with this purely ad hominen argument?Suckling’s response to Kareiva is thoughtful, persuasive and well-cited.He shows that Kareiva miscited or poorly interpreted most to the scientific studies in his piece. Notice that Kareiva’s response does not attempt to defend against Suckling closer reading of his examples.Suckling also points out that Kareiva’s critique of contemporary environmentalists fails to mention a single contemporary environmentalists. Instead it focuses on 19th century writers. Other than saying “yes, I am focusing on them,” Kareiva has not rebuttal to this obvious point.Finally, with reference to what The Wilderness Act actually says and what contemporary wilderness conservationists actually do, Suckling demonstrates the “wilderness ideal” Kareiva is so hot to destroy is neither held nor cared about conservationists.Over all, Suckling convincingly shows what others on this site also noticed: Kareiva has done little more than create a straw man then set it ablaze. Very exciting, but ultimately not very helpful.

  22. hunter says:

    Jarmo,If we ever hear from you again, we will know that you are just another in a long list misanthorpoic envirocrat cowardly hypocrites.Please, if you are sincere, make arrangements for us to be notified after the fact of your setting the example for us.Otherwise, don’t bother to post anything with the idea of demoonstrating reason, commitment or sanity.You are simply a disgusting example self loathing.Bad day to you.

  23. Jack Hughes says:

    @hunter,Jarmo posted a quote from and a link to a parody website (“Voluntary Human Extinction
    It’s clearly a parody – but it differs only in degree from what a lot of mainstream enviros say and think. People like David Attenborough with his “Optimum Population Trust”.

  24. BBD says:

    ‘hunter’ shoots first, asks questions later (?). Perhaps Jarmo should have been wearing an orange tabard and cap? Comedy gold.

  25. Jack Hughes says:

    @BBD – so much green stuff looks like a parody that it’s hard to tell the genuine from the spoof.Here is another example… it a parody – or is it gen ?”Leilani Münter, race car driver and passionate environmentalist … driving at Daytona to Save the Dolphins”Does the “Union of Concerned Petrolheads” really exist ?

  26. Jeremy says:

    Steve’s complaint is right on the money. Keith’s entire summary of Suckling’s response to Kareiva is “Suckling takes offense to just about everything Kareiva says, which should be no surprise, given the well known aims and tactics of the Center for Biological Diversity.”How does someone who extols Kareiva for scientific excellence dismiss his critics with such an unscientific, ad hominen argument?Suckling clearly knows his stuff. His critique is well-reasoned and carefully cited. Until either Keith (or Kareiva) can answer the charges, I have to agree that Kareiva looks to be fighting fantasms of his own imagination, not actual conservationists.

  27. Jarmo says:

    #22,23 – VHEMT seems pretty harmless, though real. Another green solution for the planet 🙂  If you read the Guardian, you’ll be very soon under the impression that bicycling, opposing runways and nuclear power + vegetarianism will save the world.

  28. Lazar says:

    In a discussion of mainstream environmentalism, someone provides vituperative quotes from a group which is to mainstream environmentalism what the KKK are to mainstream American politics, without further explanation.Another individual’s reaction to the quote is blinded by emotion.Is there a lesson here…?

  29. BBD says:

    That’s why I don’t read the Graun. Although there are some here who think I do 😉

  30. Marlowe Johnson says:

    @21indeed. it seems to me that this post says more about Keith and his tribe’s particular view of what constitutes ‘mainstream’ environmentalism than anything else. 

  31. afeman says:

    Use of the word “heretical” from hereon is an automatic ten point deduction.

  32. Dean says:

    Environmentalism has never been monolithic. There have always been groups that “partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures”. And there are others who take a different tack. It’s not like nobody is trying to do what Kareiva and Breakthrough want with regards to conservation. 

  33. willard says:

    > Perhaps “populist” would have been more appropriate than soci*list.

    Comment #15 would be a better fit for the first epithet.

  34. Lazar says:


  35. willard says:

    Yup. Platitudnal nonsense. Anointed. Very Serious Thinking. Cognescenti. Schadenfreude. Technocrat. Limousine liberals. Elitist absurdity. Media groupies letting us all know that environmentalists, you know, don’t understand poor people.

    Or something along these lines.

    That said, I do enjoy Walter’s zest and gusto in that comment.

  36. Marlowe Johnson says:

    “Media groupies letting us all know that environmentalists, you know, don’t understand poor people.”+1

  37. Michael Larkin says:

    I blame chloroplasts (believed to have been derived from originally free-living cyanobacteria) for the unconscionable way that they polluted the atmosphere of the earth, so that around 1.6 billion years ago, free oxygen began to appear, allowing the evolution of metazoan life-forms during the Phanerozoic.It’s all been downhill from then. Homo sapiens, the only species that has ever given a rat’s arse about any other species, is missing the point: it was the chloroplasts that started the rot””we should return to the halcyon days where things were much nobler and purer. It is surely not beyond our capacity to find some way to return to Eden.

  38. laursaurus says:

    The combox has changed… Anyway, I was sucked in by this brilliant man’s talk! Thank you for posting this Keith. I hope all Tweeters distribute it far and wide. We need to take back our planet from the environmental extremists before it’s too late. How did they pull off that Kony 2012, thing? We need to make this a meme. KAREIVA 2012!The only problem is that he looks like Al Gore with glasses!  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.