On the same day as hundreds of protesters were getting arrested in London for their part in the Extinction Rebellion, a debate was brewing across the Atlantic that goes right to the heart of what may be required to save the planet.
Sierra Magazine editor Jason Mark began the debate with a short essay titled “An Immodest Proposal.” It is time, he proposed, for the US to create nature preserves which highly restrict human access. In the spirit of “thinking out loud,” Mark suggested that the biocentric values prominent in the American conservation movement may warrant the designation of landscapes in which wildlife protection is prioritized over human interests. The only way to effectively do this, Mark floated, is to keep people out. “Here, on the edge of the sixth mass extinction, it’s more urgent than ever to establish preserves that would be for wild nature alone.”
To Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden and someone leading the charge for better environmental thinking in this new Anthropocene epoch, something about Mark’s proposal stunk. In addition to what she interpreted as an insensitivity to the indigenous people removed to make way for many US parks, Marris found Mark’s proposed separation of humans from nature unhelpful. “Yes, many of our current modes of interaction with the nonhuman world are destructive and thoughtless,” conceded Marris. “But walling-off nature from people isn’t the answer, in my opinion. The answer is to learn or return to positive relationships with nature.”
Bucking the national political trend, Marris and Mark got on the phone to talk respectfully with each other about their differences. During their conversation, Marris admitted that if you read Mark’s provocation primarily – as he said he meant it – as “a letter to dudes from Bend and Boulder with four-digit REI dividends” then she could be somewhat sympathetic to the idea that “nature shouldn’t serve them at the expense of the plants and animals who call public lands home.” (Ethan Linck memorably put the same point directly to over-zealous bikers and trail runners as “Your Stoke Won’t Save Us”).
Mark, for his part, also gave some ground. He made it clear that the exclusion of everyone except “working scientists” from a preserve allowed space for “native indigenous groups who want to use it as a living laboratory for traditional ecological knowledge.”
As they wrestled with what these troubled times demand from conservation, both of these thoughtful commentators could clearly hear each other’s complaints. Despite some important differences, they were willing to search for some middle ground they both might occupy.
The Extinction Rebellion, by contrast, is distinctly not in pursuit of middle ground.
The movement insists that “Conventional approaches of voting, lobbying, petitions and protest have failed….The time for denial is over.” The protests in London have illustrated that a considerable number of people appear to share that view. (Including, it turns out, one of the UK’s major political parties). In the light of the urgency, the philosophical cutting and dicing that characterizes the Marris/Mark debate is entirely absent. Their description of the emergency now arriving makes it clear the Extinction Rebellion’s moral outrage is focused on both the existential threats now faced by humans and on the parallel threats faced by biodiversity.
As an environmental ethicist by profession, the debate between Marris and Mark is inherently interesting to me. Where should the ethical lens be focused? Do the interests of biodiversity take precedence over exploitative human ones? In what ways is ethnocentrism tied into the history of environmental destruction? In times of crisis, how should our moral priorities be ordered? To me these are big questions. I literally earn my daily bread by considering them.
In a contrast of styles, the lumping of it all together by the Extinction Rebellion is certainly inspiring. There is no doubt it is well past time to get real. But the brazenness of the package raises its own set of questions. Is this really all just one fight? Aren’t there nuances that need to be laid bare, particularly painful injustices that need to be addressed first? While fighting one fight, can you miss others that are just as important? Is the action in London, through its in-your-face character, simply going to piss people off and detract from the critical message it contains?
None of these questions – neither the philosophically subtle ones nor the pragmatic ones about how to most effectively create change – are easy to answer.
What both the Mark/Marris exchange and the Extinction Rebellion’s actions do make clear is that how a message is delivered remains at least as important as what the message contains. When people need to be moved, the memo has to reach them in a way they are prepared to hear.
When Mayor of London Sadiq Khan told the protesters at the Extinction Rebellion that he “shared their passion” but that it was time to return the city back to “business as usual,” the terms in which he delivered his plea generated a Twitter-storm of push-back.
It is obvious that there is no single means of delivering a message. It requires a cacophony of voices, a symphony of expressions, and repeated and respectful prodding to find people’s action and attention buttons. Not everyone is going to get it right first time.
While conservationists and activists explore these different voices, there is something else needed in return.
This has to be a two-way street.
Those the activists and writers are trying to reach need to step out from their normal listening spaces and pay attention to what is being asked. Respectful speaking demands respectful and attentive listening. It means appreciating the fact the speakers are not there simply because they enjoy making noise. It involves recognizing when a murmur in the background must shift to become an urgent priority in the foreground.
Earth week is an annual opportunity to re-focus the mind on the difficult tasks ahead. Important for all of these tasks is to recognize how acquiring new skills for listening is just as critical as turning up the volume when speaking.
Image by David Holt