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.


* 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.

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


by David W. Orr**

[Continued from Rachel's #766.]

What is to be done? To that question there can be no simple or
definitive answer, but I do think there are some obvious places
to begin. The first step requires that we take back public
words such as conservative and patriot, which have been coopted
and put to no good or accurate use. How is it, for example,
that the word conservative came to describe those willing to
run irreversible risks with the Earth? Intending to conserve
nothing, they are not conservatives but vandals now working at
a global scale. How have those driving their sport utility
vehicles to the mall, sporting two American flags and a "God
bless America" bumper sticker come to regard themselves as
patriots? They are not moved by authentic patriotism at all,
but by self indulgence. For that matter how has the great and
noble word liberal been demeaned and slandered as the height of
political and intellectual folly? Unable to defend the
integrity of words, we cannot defend the earth or anything

The integrity of our common language, however, depends a great
deal on the cultivation of discerning intelligence among the
public, and that requires better education than we now offer.
But education has been whittled down to smaller purposes of
passing tests and ensuring large "lifetime earnings" in some
part of the global economy. What passes for education has
become highly technical and specialized, little of which is
aimed to draw out the full human stature of young people. We've
become a nation of specialists and technicians, not broadly
educated and discerning people. Scholars have been too intent
on developing "professional knowledge," arcane theories, and
complicated methodologies, instead of broad knowledge useful to
the wider public. Consequently, fewer and fewer people know
history, how the world works as a physical system, or the
rudiments of the constitution, and fewer have a respectable
political philosophy. We are a people ripe for the plucking.

This leads to a third point. We do not have an environmental
crisis so much as a political crisis. A great majority of
people still wish a decent and habitable world for their
descendants, but those desires are thwarted by the machinery
that ought to connect the popular will to public decisions but
no longer does so. We will have to repair and perhaps reinvent
the institutions of democratic governance for a global world,
and that means dealing with issues that the founders of this
republic did not and could not have anticipated. The process of
political engagement at all levels has become increasingly
Byzantine, confusing, and inaccessible. And in the
mass-consumption society we have all become better consumers
than citizens, which is to say willing participants in our own
undoing. The solution, however difficult, is to reconnect
people with the political process and government at all levels.

Fourth, it is necessary to expose the mythology that surrounds
what Marjorie Kelly calls "the divine rights of capital" and
place democratic controls on corporations and the movement of

We once fought a revolutionary war to establish political
democracy in western societies, but have yet to democratize the
workplace and the ownership of capital. These are still
governed by the same illogic of unquestioned divine right by
which monarchies once ruled. The assumption that corporations
are legal persons and thereby beyond effective public scrutiny,
control, or law is foolishness and worse. The latest corporate
scandals are only that, the latest in a recurring pattern of
illegality, self dealing, and political corruption surpassing
even that of the robber baron era. The solution is to enforce
corporate charters as public license to do business on behalf
of the public that are revocable if and when the terms of the
charter are violated. If private ownership is a good thing, it
should be widely extended, not restricted to the superwealthy.
By the same logic, we must remove the corrupting influence of
money from politics, beginning with corporate campaign
contributions and the hundreds of billions of dollars of public
subsidies for cars, highways, fossil fuels, and nuclear power
that corrupt the democratic process and public policy.

Fifth, political reform requires an active, engaged, and
sometimes enraged citizenry. An example is the Illinois
farmer-citizens who stood for hours to hear Lincoln and Douglas
debate issues of slavery and sectionalism in 1858. Those
debates were full of careful argument, eloquence, and wit.
Those citizens applauded, laughed, and jeered, which is to say
that they followed the flow of argument and heard what was
being said. Later, some died for and because of those same
arguments. They were citizens and were willing to sacrifice a
great deal for that privilege. In our time, while the issues
have grown to global scale with consequences that extend as far
into the future as the mind dares to imagine, political
argument is whittled down to sound bites fitted in between
advertisements. The means whereby citizens are informed have
been increasingly monopolized and manipulated. Only half or
fewer of citizens bother to vote. Some believe public apathy
and political incompetence to be good or at least tolerable. I
do not. Unless we reverse course, apathy and incompetence will
prove to be the undoing of democratic government and all that
depends on a healthy democracy. The nature of what will replace
it is already evident: an unconstrained and well-armed
managerial plutocracy intent on global plunder.

Sixth, we need a positive strategy that fires the public
imagination. The public, I believe, knows what we are against
but not what we are for. And there are many things that should
be stopped, but what should be started? The answer to that
question lies in a more coherent agenda formed around what is
being called ecological design as it applies to land use,
buildings, energy systems, transportation, materials, water,
agriculture, forestry, and urban planning. For three decades
and longer we have been developing the ideas, science, and
technological wherewithal to build a sustainable society. The
public knows of these things only in fragments, but not as a
coherent and practical agenda -- indeed the only practical
course available. That is the fault of those in the field of
conservation, and we should start now to put a positive agenda
before the public that includes the human and economic
advantages of better technology, integrated planning, coherent
purposes, and foresight.

Finally, we should expect far more of our leaders than we
presently do. Never has the need for genuine leadership been
greater, and seldom has it been less evident. We cannot be
ruled by ignorant, malicious, greedy, incompetent, and
shortsighted people and expect things to turn out well. If we
are to navigate the challenges of the decades ahead, what E. O.
Wilson calls "the bottleneck," we will need leaders of great
stature, clarity of mind, spiritual depth, courage, and vision.
We need leaders who see patterns that connect us across the
divisions of culture, religion, geography, and time. We need
leadership that draws us together to resolve conflicts, move
quickly from fossil fuels to solar power, reverse global
environmental deterioration, and empower us to provide shelter,
food, medical care, decent livelihood, and education for
everyone. We need leadership that is capable of energizing
genuine commitment to old and venerable traditions as well as
new visions for a global civilization that preserves and honors
local cultures, economies, and knowledge.

Imagine a world in which those who purport to lead us must
first make a pilgrimage to ground zero at Hiroshima and
publicly pledge "never again." Imagine a world in which those
who purport to lead us must go to Auschwitz and the Killing
Fields and pledge publicly "never again." Imagine a world in
which leaders must go to Bhopal and say to the victims "We are
truly sorry. This will never happen again, anywhere." Imagine,
too, those pilgrim leaders going to hundreds of places where
love, kindness, forgiveness, sacrifice, compassion, wisdom,
ecological ingenuity, and foresight have been evident.

Imagine a world in which those who purport to lead us must help
identify places around the world degraded by human actions and
help initiate their restoration. Some areas might take as long
as 1000 years to restore, such as the Aral Sea, the Harrapan
region in India, the forests of Lebanon, soil fertility in the
Middle East, Chesapeake Bay, and the North Atlantic cod
fishery. Imagine a world in which those who intend to lead help
lift our sights above the daily crisis to the far horizon of
what could be.

Imagine, too, leaders with the kind of humility demonstrated by
Czech President, Vaclav Havel[2]: "In time I have become a good
deal less sure of myself, a good deal more humble... every day
I suffer more and more from stage fright; every day I am more
afraid that I won't be up to the job... more and more often, I
am afraid that I will fall woefully short of expectations, that
I will somehow reveal my own lack of qualifications for the
job, that despite my good faith I will make even greater
mistakes, that I will cease to be trustworthy and therefore
lose the right to do what I do."

Self-described realists will dismiss the idea of better
leadership as muddle-headed. Some will see in it some global
conspiracy or another. Prospective leaders will profess
sympathy but say they do not have the time to improve
themselves further. And those least qualified to lead will pay
no attention at all. But it is not up to any of them to
prescribe for us. We are now citizens of the earth joined in a
common enterprise with many variations. We have every right to
insist that those who purport to lead us be worthy of the task.
Imagine such a time! Imagine a time, not far off, when we might
all be on board a train heading north!


* 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] Kelly, M. 2001. The divine right of capital.
Barrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

[2] Havel, V. 2002. A farewell to politics. The New York Review
of Books 24 October, pg. 4.

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