Before meeting Dave Foreman at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I spent three days backpacking in the Pecos Wilderness Area, a two-hundred-thousand-acre tract granted the highest level of federal protection. Along the way I experienced frost, sunburn, hail, rain, dehydration, and swollen streams — and I loved every minute of it. Clearly, like many other Americans, I have what Foreman calls the “wilderness gene.”
It’s thanks to the work of conservationists like Foreman, whom Audubon magazine named one of the hundred Champions of Conservation of the Twentieth Century, that places like the Pecos received protection through the 1964 Wilderness Act. Foreman served for many years as Southwest regional representative of the Wilderness Society, which received widespread bipartisan support, as had the conservation movement as a whole since its founding a century before. Then, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan appointed as secretary of the interior the notorious antienvironmentalist James G. Watt, who once remarked that our responsibility to the land is to “occupy” it until Jesus returns. After that, Republicans began to dismiss concerns about the environment as impediments to economic growth.
As the environmental movement matured, grass-roots organizing was replaced by more professional and career-minded staffers — people who hardly even visited the places they were trying to save. Foreman could only watch helplessly as millions of acres in his native West — areas that were prime candidates for federal wilderness designation — were denied protection by the government and instead marked as fair game for the timber industry. Wilderness lovers had run out of options. The nonviolence of the civil-rights era was still fresh in the nation’s memory, but the more recent writings of Edward Abbey — particularly his novel The Monkeywrench Gang — lent new appeal to the use of violence in defense of nature. One of many activists who took Abbey’s message to heart, Foreman cofounded the radical environmental-protection group Earth First!
In its original manifestation, Earth First! was by no means the countercultural organization it eventually became. Overtly patriotic and steeped in cowboy mythology, it announced its goal of returning “vigor, joy, and enthusiasm to the tired, unimaginative environmental movement.” Its members wanted to dream big, to slow down the machine of industrial society, and, as Susan Zakin puts it in her book Coyotes and Town Dogs (an account of the group’s origins), to “ask for more than you can get.” Forget a national park here, a wildlife preserve there, so many of them isolated islands of habitat surrounded by development. What was needed instead was conservation on a continental scale — not primarily for humans, but for the creatures that had been living here since long before we arrived. Foreman and his allies envisioned a future when wolves would once again be able to roam unmolested from Mexico to Alaska.
In the meantime, Earth First! took up the more immediate task of defending beloved canyons, mesas, and forests by following Abbey’s dictum that “if wilderness is outlawed, only outlaws can save wilderness.” In Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching (Abbzug Press) and Confessions of an Eco-Warrior (Three Rivers Press) Foreman vigorously defends tree-spiking — putting metal spikes in trees to damage loggers’ saws — and other forms of sabotage, placing them within the honorable American tradition of resistance exemplified by the Boston Tea Party. Human life, Foreman said, must always be respected in such acts; machines, not living beings, were the target. As for Foreman, he suffered permanent knee damage after being dragged beneath a truck whose driver was attempting to run him over at a blockade in Oregon.
“No compromise with slaveholders!” declared nineteenth-century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!” bellowed Foreman in 1980.
Foreman eventually left Earth First! after less than a decade. The group was outgrowing its original close-knit character and changing its focus, he says, due to the influence of Marxist and anarchist members. To Foreman, these were not changes for the better. Another sure sign that the game was up for him was the morning in 1989 when he awoke in bed to find three FBI agents pointing guns in his face. (He was arrested for conspiracy to sabotage power lines but was later acquitted of the charges against him.)
Foreman had never intended Earth First! to be revolutionary. If conservation lay at its heart, he felt, then its intent was ultimately conservative. But the Right saw it differently.
“You dirty communist bastard! Why don’t you go back to Russia!” screamed Les Moore, the heavy-equipment operator who tried to run Foreman over in 1983.
“But, Les,” Foreman replied, “I’m a registered Republican.”
In Coyotes and Town Dogs, Zakin describes the incident as “the only documented case of one-upmanship by an environmentalist lying on his back in the mud, a fat rubber tire inches from his face.”
After his departure from Earth First!, Foreman returned to the hard work of wilderness preservation, founding the Wildlands Project and editing and publishing Wild Earth magazine for twelve years, until it folded earlier this year. According to author Michael Frome, Foreman has read and digested more books on wilderness and the environment than perhaps anyone else alive. He’s written his fair share, too. Among his more recent books are The Big Outside (Three Rivers Press), coauthored with Howie Wolke; The Lobo Outback Funeral Home (Johnson Books), a novel; and Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century (Island Press). He currently has two additional books awaiting publication: The Myth(s) of the Environmental Movement and The War against Nature.
It is remarkable the degree to which mainstream environmental groups have caught up with the original goals of Earth First! The removal of dams has become common policy for achieving ecological restoration of rivers. And scientists and conservationists alike are taking seriously the “megalinkage” model of preserving wildlife corridors that would connect volcanoes in Central America to the Brooks Range in Alaska — thus saving not just individual species but whole ecosystems.
For decades Foreman has helped inject passion, courage, and muscle into the environmental movement when it needed it most. At fifty-nine, he is still doing so through the newly formed Rewilding Institute. As for his former radicalism, Foreman no longer advocates monkeywrenching, though neither does he disavow what he did. These days he appears to find it more productive to tap into what he sees as an existing social consensus favoring conservation.
Lloyd: You’re currently finishing a new book called The Myth(s) of the Environmental Movement. What are some of those myths?
Foreman: The standard myth of the environmental movement is that with the first Earth Day, in 1970, wilderness conservation broadened its concern to include issues such as urbanization and the impact of technology and pollution on human health. I think this is a myth because I see conservation and environmentalism as two separate movements. They’re sister movements, certainly, and they need to work together, but I think it’s historically and operationally inaccurate to think of them as a single movement. And trying to cram the two movements together has led to problems. For example, some leftist, social-justice-oriented environmentalists don’t know the first thing about conservation and dismiss wilderness as a bourgeois irrelevancy. Both movements would be stronger if they were kept separate.
I hate the word environment. You can love a forest. You can love a mountain. You can love a plant. But how can you love an abstract concept like the environment? To talk about forests, mountains, meadows, and rivers has much greater force. You can drill for oil in “ANWR,” but it’s a lot harder to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because the full name has more power. The environmental movement should have called itself “the human-health movement,” because that’s basically what it cares about: the impact of pollution, urbanization, and everything else on human health.
The other myth of environmentalism is the stereotype that accompanies it: that environmentalists are hip, overeducated, vegetarian urbanites who wear Birkenstocks, don’t like guns, and constitute a special-interest group within the Democratic Party. There are many people out there who would otherwise support conservation but are turned off by this stereotype. These are the people we need to reach, and they include plenty of folks who hunt and fish. The Sierra Club — 20 percent of whose members hunt or fish — finally has a hunter-angler outreach program to bridge this gap. And other groups of conservation-minded hunters and anglers are forming.
The base of support for both environmentalism and conservation right now is within the progressive movement and the Democratic Party, because the Republican Party has been hijacked by nut cases. I mean, even Barry Goldwater [former U.S. senator and father of the modern conservative movement] said back in 1989 that the Republican Party had been taken over by kooks. These people have destroyed the very idea of conservatism, because they aren’t conservative at all; they are radicals bent on repealing the twentieth century, and they’ve been very effective.
I hate the word environment. You can love a forest. You can love a mountain. You can love a plant. But how can you love an abstract concept like the environment?
Lloyd: Few people today would guess that Republican Senator Trent Lott supported the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s. At what point did the environment become such a partisan issue?
Foreman: There are historic ties between real conservatism and conservation. But in 1980 Ronald Reagan declared himself a “sagebrush rebel,” appointing James Watt as secretary of the interior and Anne Gorsuch as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Republican Party became the corporate party, or the nationalist party, or the Christian party, depending on which constituency you belonged to. At the same time, conservationists and environmentalists began to drift more and more toward the Democratic Party and quit talking to Republican members of Congress.
I’m working right now to bridge this partisan divide and get environmentalists and conservationists to start talking to Republican politicians again. If we could get just a half dozen Republican senators and a dozen or so Republican representatives to pay attention to us, we could win some of these narrow votes on environmental issues. I think the reason these people aren’t voting our way is because nobody talks to them.
Lloyd: What do you see as the prospects for conservation and environmental protection during the second term of the Bush administration?
Foreman: I think we could see some truly horrifying things happen. If President Bush gets his way and appoints these so-called Federalists to the Supreme Court, they’re going to repeal some of the major legal accomplishments of the last hundred years. They’re going to say that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which allows the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, has been overused for conservation and environmental and social legislation. And they’re going to declare the Endangered Species Act unconstitutional.
Right now we’re seeing a breakdown of the very idea of the national forests. Bush’s reversal of the Roadless Area Rule on federal lands has transferred authority to the states. Ever since we created the first forest preserve in 1891, these have been federal lands managed under federal standards. We shouldn’t hand them off to the state governors. As badly as the federal lands are managed, the state lands are generally managed worse. But the radical Right wanted to give the national forests and parks to the states because they’re more easily controlled by industry. For all practical purposes, industrial lobbyists are already in charge of the public lands and our conservation laws. And we’re likely to see more of this in the coming years.
Lloyd: Do you see a new movement rising up to oppose these developments?
Foreman: I hope so, but I’m concerned that there is so much pressure on conservationists, from both the Left and the Right, to compromise. We’re seeing a weakening of the movement at a time when we need it to be tougher. Groups are being pressed to sit down and “work things out” with their opponents. But you end up with bad compromises that way.
Lloyd: What special protection does federal wilderness designation provide?
Foreman: The Wilderness Act, which was enacted after World War II, grew out of the realization among citizen conservationists that they could not trust the forest service and the park service to manage federal lands properly and protect wilderness values on those lands. We needed Congress to pass a law establishing a system of national preserves within which you cannot build roads, cut timber, or set up resorts — because the evidence shows that when you build roads for logging, for example, they bring in all kinds of other development, which has a destructive impact on wildlife and the integrity of ecosystems.
Lloyd: Many environmental woes can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution of two centuries ago, but you place the real beginning ten thousand years ago.
Foreman: In light of newer evidence, I’d place it even farther back. We know from the fossil record that there have been five major periods of extinction in the last 500 million years, and what paleontologists, ecologists, and other scientists have realized over the last thirty or forty years is that we’re right in the middle of another mass extinction — this one caused by human beings. If we examine the fossil record over the last forty thousand years, we can see that extinction occurred as human beings spread out across Africa and around the world, encountering and hunting big animals who had never before had any experience with something like us. We caused mass extinctions wherever we went, and plenty of people don’t want to face up to that: that the tribes who came to the Americas caused the extinction of mammoths, mastodons, and other animals. And I acknowledge that my ancestors in Europe did the same thing; plus they probably caused the extinction of the Neanderthals, our closest relatives. It’s not a matter of blaming anybody, but of acknowledging this reality, the evidence for which is pretty strong.
So first came the Stone Age, when highly skilled hunters began to spread around the world. Then came the development of agriculture, which had an impact on nature fundamentally different from anything that had preceded it, because with agriculture we took ourselves out of the existing ecosystem and began to create our own ecosystems. That, in many ways, not only alienated us from nature but freed us from nature and led to our domesticating nature, in the sense that it removed us from the food chain to which all other creatures belong. Suddenly our population took off, since the natural controls were no longer there. Ten thousand years ago, when we first began to practice agriculture, there were probably only 5 to 10 million human beings on the entire planet.
More-recent developments have continued to liberate us from the confines of nature, including the use of fossil fuels, industrialization, and modern medicine. This began five hundred years ago, as European countries began to explore and colonize the rest of the world, and industrialization upped the ante.
Now extinction is being caused by sheer numbers alone. There are 6 billion of us, and more of us are using heightened technology. The recent growth of the middle class in China and India is accompanied by expanded greenhouse-gas emissions, both from the industrialization of those countries and from the exploding use of automobiles there.
Lloyd: To the extent that extinction is rooted in human history and global culture, it seems a part of our historical trajectory. Is there any reason to believe, if the Europeans hadn’t colonized the globe, that it wouldn’t have happened eventually with, say, Native American culture?
Foreman: Well, look at what the Aztecs and the Mayans did to their ecosystems: they flayed the land just as badly as the Assyrians and the Babylonians did. It’s hard to find an example of a sustainable human society. We always seem to outgrow our way, and over the last fifty thousand years, it seems that what we’ve done is convert more and more of the earth into living space for human beings, leaving less and less room for other species, and that’s what drives extinction.
Nobody is paying much attention to population growth anymore. In 1970, when I first got involved with conservation, population growth was at the top of everybody’s list. Now there are twice as many people in the world, and we pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Even the Sierra Club doesn’t talk about overpopulation anymore; it’s too controversial. If we’re not going to talk about the fundamental cause of ecological damage, then I’m not sure what can be done to reduce it in the long term. As important as it is to live more simply, I think we have to acknowledge that no matter how simply we live, the diversity of life just can’t exist in the presence of too many human beings.
Lloyd: What has the developing field of conservation biology taught us?
Foreman: About thirty years ago, as field biologists all over the world began to recognize the incredible rate of extinction, they also began to ask what we could do about it: specifically, how could we apply the lessons of ecological research to designing protected areas? Our national parks and wilderness areas were initially designed to be nice to look at — and they were inspiring. But the question now became: how can we protect the diversity of species within the parks? That was the genesis of conservation biology, which was really launched by my friend Michael Soule. For the last twenty-five years I’ve been trying to explain conservation biology to conservationists, from the Sierra Club to local grass-roots groups, to show how we can use that research to accomplish much more of what we want to do on the ground.
The concept of “rewilding” was also developed by Michael Soule, about ten years ago, as research began to accumulate about the important contribution of large carnivores to the health of entire ecosystems. The research shows that when you remove large carnivores, you get all kinds of negative repercussions down through the food chain. For example, right now in the Appalachian Mountains we’re seeing the disappearance of ginseng. One reason is that deer are overbrowsing it. Why? Because we’ve killed off the deer’s natural predators, the cougars and the wolves, allowing the deer population to explode.
We also have the wonderful ecological experiment of Yellowstone National Park, where the park service exterminated all the wolves and mountain lions by 1930. After they were gone, willows disappeared from all the streams in Yellowstone because the elk were browsing the young willows away. Similarly, for seventy years, no aspen sent up shoots higher than a couple of feet, because the elk were browsing those away, too. Without the wolves to manage them, the elk grew big, fat, and lazy, and they overbrowsed. But since the wolves were reintroduced in 1995, the elk have had to hide in the tall timber and keep moving, and now willows and aspens are coming back in along the streams. And beavers are showing up again, because the waterside trees are returning.
Lloyd: Yet conservation biology has also shown that Yellowstone, as large as it is, still is not big enough.
Foreman: This is where continental-scale conservation comes in: “megalinkages.” We don’t have large intact habitats anymore, outside of the Arctic, so we have to explore how to link up protected areas to allow wildlife to move back and forth between them. This is one of the most exciting developments in conservation today.
Really, we’ve got to look at the landscape through the eyes of a wolf or a cougar and identify what parts of North America are still suitable for these animals. One thing we’re recognizing is the damaging impact of highways on ecosystem health. We recently had a workshop in Arizona that looked at the spine of the continent — the Rocky Mountains — from this standpoint. We’ve gotten highway departments and rental-car companies involved in identifying which highways are barriers to lynx, mountain lions, bighorn sheep — you name it. The highway engineers love this problem; it’s a technical challenge for them: how to design roads that aren’t a barrier to wildlife movement and don’t cause roadkills. Florida has already done some reengineering, putting tunnels under interstates for alligators and cougars to go through. You have to study each animal to know what it needs.
The great conservationist Aldo Leopold warned against trying to come up with economic arguments for protecting nature, because when you do that, you basically accept the premise that nature doesn’t have any value in and of itself.
Lloyd: Why are highway departments and rental-car companies suddenly interested in working with conservationists?
Foreman: If you look at the number of people killed every year in collisions with wildlife, and at the insurance cost of damaged vehicles, you’ll understand why. Also, people who work for a highway department don’t like having to drag dead animals off the road all the time; it gets to you.
Lloyd: Your real reason for removing highway barriers to wildlife movement is to protect the ecosystem, but the motives of the groups you just mentioned are more human-centered.
Foreman: You’re right, and that illustrates one of my main concerns about what’s happened to the conservation movement: there’s too much pressure to talk about things solely in terms of people. A long time ago the great conservationist Aldo Leopold warned against trying to come up with economic arguments for protecting nature, because when you do that, you basically accept the premise that nature doesn’t have any value in and of itself — that only things that are economically valuable should be protected.
Lloyd: You got into trouble once, a long time ago, when you said that a grizzly bear is just as valuable as a human being. Obviously that statement isn’t going to go over well with many people.
Foreman: No, it’s not. But a grizzly bear isn’t here for our benefit. She’s here for herself, and I think we need to recognize that. For that reason, when I go into grizzly-bear country, I don’t carry a gun, because I don’t want to have to deal with the possibility of shooting a bear.
I think it’s OK to use economic arguments to a certain degree, but at the same time, conservationists need to make it clear that the reason we do what we do is because we love nature. I think that nature appeals to an awful lot of people. After all, why do people watch nature shows on television? Why do they buy wildlife calendars? It’s not because animals are worth money. We’re just fascinated by them. And so I’ve taken on the task, as I travel around the country, of telling conservationists: Don’t apologize for loving nature. Don’t apologize for caring about other species. Celebrate that. Make your motive clear even while you show how protecting nature also has other benefits.
Lloyd: You’ve helped reintroduce endangered black-footed ferrets to northern Chihuahua, Mexico.
Foreman: That was a huge success. The black-footed ferret, just like the ivory-billed woodpecker, had been given up as extinct. After a few were found, we were able to bring them back to zoos and do captive breeding until there were enough to release back into the wild. That doesn’t mean we’ve saved the black-footed ferret by any means, but it does give me hope, to have actually been there and helped release them. I didn’t touch a ferret, because it probably would have bitten my finger off, but just being there was really quite exhilarating.
The anticonservationists try to use our successes as evidence that there’s not a problem, but the only reason that we’ve been able to reintroduce the black-footed ferret, the whooping crane, the California condor, and others is because we’ve worked so hard for it. Why did any of us do that? Why were people enthusiastic about it? Because there is some part of people that does care about wild creatures, and conservationists can appeal to that part. We don’t have to appeal to short-term self-interest. If we do it right, these critters are going to make the argument for us.
Lloyd: Faced with the difficult task of preserving wilderness, though, aren’t people ultimately going to ask what’s in it for them?
Foreman: Yes, to a certain extent, but I think we can also challenge people with questions like “Do we have the generosity of spirit and the greatness of heart to share the earth with other species?” That appeals to something deep in us. And that’s the way religions have always approached problems: by appealing to something beyond self-interest. I think conservationists used to do that more. That’s part of the problem with the environmental movement today: the Left is afraid to talk about values and standards, to encourage people to practice good behavior — which, ultimately, is a form of long-term self-interest anyway. After all, what kind of legacy do we want to leave for our grandkids? How do we want to be remembered?
Lloyd: Have your attempts at bipartisan appeal suffered at all because of your earlier involvement in Earth First!?
Foreman: Probably to some degree, but that connection comes up much less frequently now. It’s also a serious misunderstanding of Earth First!, because we were really rednecks for wilderness. I’ve been a registered Republican all my life. As a college student in the sixties I was the New Mexico chairman of Young Americans for Freedom and worked on Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president. I consider myself a true conservative. But true conservatism is dead in America. I hate the current Republican Party, but I’m equally disappointed with the Democrats.
Lloyd: You come from a ranching family.
Foreman: Well, a farming family. We were dry-land, pinto-bean farmers out in eastern New Mexico, not ranchers. George Bush was born with a silver spoon in his mouth; I was born with a dirt clod in mine. [Laughter.]
Lloyd: The urban/rural split that has long infected the environmental movement seems to be as bad as ever. How would you, as an activist with a rural upbringing, go about amending this?
Foreman: Well, for one thing, by combatting the stereotype — by calling ourselves “conservationists” instead of “environmentalists,” and by encouraging rural groups, like the ones in West Virginia that are fighting mountaintop removal, to stand at the front of the movement.
I also think urban environmentalists and Sierra Club people need to try harder to understand rural, small-town America. That doesn’t mean we compromise or make deals with the radicals. Rather, it means that we find our friends on the other side and work with them. This is easy for me to do, because most of my extended family live in mobile homes out in the sticks. That’s where I come from. But because so many urban environmentalists don’t understand rural America, they don’t understand that there are people out there who love nature and share some of their values. We don’t have to give in to our opponents to reach those people.
Lloyd: Where I live, in rural east Tennessee, a lot of hunters and anglers have “Sportsmen for Bush” bumper stickers.
Foreman: Bush is a phony redneck, but he takes in the real rednecks, because the Right has been able to stereotype the environmental movement as being pro–gun control. “They’re going to take away your guns,” the right-wingers cry, and a lot of hunters fall for it. But a lot of other hunters who voted for Bush the first time around didn’t vote for him this time. “What good are the guns,” they said, “if we don’t have any places to hunt?”
The Sierra Club does not support gun control, and we’ve got to let hunters know that. Unfortunately it does do other things that play into the Right’s stereotypes. For example, the Sierra Club’s anti-SUV campaign in the late nineties smacked of elitism. When the Sierra Club launched its campaign, I was at a meeting of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance board of directors. We were camping out, and every one of us had an SUV. How else am I going to haul my gear to the river or get back to trail heads? I’ve always wanted to start a group called “Four-Wheelers for Wilderness,” because there are a lot of responsible four-wheelers. Sure, I wish SUVs got thirty miles to the gallon, and they could if we pressured the car companies, but we won’t get there by attacking the cultural idea of an SUV or pickup truck.
Lloyd: Edward Abbey seemed to be able to bridge the divide between conservationists and sportsmen.
Foreman: Abbey appealed to a lot of people who did not like the Sierra Club and did not think of themselves as environmentalists. In Earth First! it was the right-wing Republicans who monkeywrenched and the leftists who chose civil disobedience. The right-wingers were the Edward Abbey crowd.
It’s sort of a split between individualism and communitarianism. My Scotch-Irish ancestors were very individualistic and believed that sometimes you just have to take the law into your own hands. Earth First! was sort of a rural redneck vigilante movement to protect nature. But we always distinguished between destruction of property and harming other people.
Lloyd: Many noteworthy conservationists — such as David Brower, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold — grew up with deep religious roots. Your own upbringing was Christian fundamentalist. What good did it afford you?
Foreman: Well, it gave me my evangelical public-speaking style. [Laughter.] I think it also made me comfortable talking about values and encouraging people to practice good behavior, to think about something besides themselves. I think the belief in our inherent tendency to sin also gave me a realistic view of human nature. I don’t expect people to be good, the way a lot of progressives do, so I’m not disappointed as often.
My upbringing also taught me something about personal responsibility. Protestant fundamentalism proposes a direct relationship between the individual and the higher powers: no intermediaries. You figure it out for yourself. That early training taught me always to question what I was told and to rely on myself.
Lloyd: Some fundamentalists believe the Bible says that we humans are here to subdue the earth. On the other hand, some conservative congregations are beginning to talk about “environmental stewardship.”
Foreman: The Evangelical Environmental Network and other groups have come to the defense of the Endangered Species Act and are in favor of protecting endangered species from a purely moral standpoint: they say it’s a sin to destroy God’s creation. Meanwhile, secular conservation groups are backing away from ethical arguments for saving endangered species, making economic arguments or saying that we may find a cure for cancer in the Amazon.
Some national evangelical leaders are even talking about global warming. I think they’re terrific allies to have. This underscores the need to promote conservation without handcuffing it to other issues, so that we can work with any allies who come along.
Lloyd: Let’s say that the dream of a continent-wide linkage among national parks, national forests, preserves, and private wilderness lands becomes a reality. A hundred years from now, how do you envision humankind’s relationship with that environment?
Foreman: I think that civilization and real wilderness can coexist in North America and elsewhere, but we’ve got to allow room for wilderness and wild creatures. A favorite word of mine is wildeor, which goes back to the time of Beowulf and the origins of the English language. It means the “self-willed beast.” From the very beginning, civilization has tried to domesticate the beasts, and if we can’t domesticate them, then we destroy them. We’ve got to allow land to be wilderness, which means, in Old English, “self-willed land.” Letting some things have a will of their own, not trying to control everything — that is the challenge.
Lloyd: The United States is a relatively young country compared with the rest of the world. A number of conservation-minded observers have argued that it’s time for us to grow up and out of the early pioneering-and-conquering stage of our history.
Foreman: Well, the whole world needs to outgrow that stage. It’s not fair to single out the U.S. Just as America has led the world in the destruction of nature, it has also led the world in the conservation of nature. We have a kind of split-personality heritage. Progressives are much quicker to criticize the U.S. than they are to criticize other countries, but I think we can be proud of the good things the United States has done: the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Wilderness Act, and the Endangered Species Act are all high points of Western civilization. But pride in our achievements is different from the kind of nationalism that George Bush and the neoconservatives are pushing now.
I’ve been a registered Republican all my life. As a college student in the sixties I . . . worked on Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president. I consider myself a true conservative. But true conservatism is dead in America.
Lloyd: I was surprised to learn that you received your first death threat in 1973, long before you cofounded Earth First!
Foreman: The only death threats I’ve ever been sent came when I worked with the Wilderness Society in the seventies.
Lloyd: Why do you think that is? Is it perhaps due in part to Earth First!’s own show of force — at least against inanimate objects?
Foreman: I think so. When you show that you aren’t going to back down, that you’re going to defend yourself, your opponents are going to respect you more. Another stereotype of the environmentalists is that they’re wimps, and the Right doesn’t respect that.
In some ways my fight with the anticonservationists — and particularly with the redneck anticonservationists — is like a feud between two clans of Scots.
Lloyd: President Bush wants to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If it comes down to it, do you support using Earth First!–type tactics to prevent this?
Foreman: Well, I think civil disobedience would certainly be called for to block oil-exploration groups from going into the refuge. But as far as I’m concerned, Earth First! doesn’t really exist anymore. People who call themselves members of Earth First! are basically part of the international anarchist animal-rights movement — though there are people sitting in trees in the Pacific Northwest, and even in the East, trying to prevent logging, and I honor them for what they’re doing. To put yourself on the line like that is still appropriate.
Lloyd: What would it take to make more environmentalists defend natural resources by whatever means necessary, short of hurting people?
Foreman: I think that when the shit hits the fan with climate change, it’s going to wake a lot of people up. Some of the more recent findings on the consequences of the greenhouse effect indicate that it could hit fairly soon.
What is it about humans that we don’t think very long term? A problem really has to hit us over the head before we’ll deal with it. What helped drive enthusiasm for Earth Day in 1970 was that people were actually feeling the effects of pollution. It was right there in the air and water. Unfortunately, I think people will have to feel the catastrophic effects of climate change before they do something about it.
The neocons and the radical libertarians and the corporatists might never wake up. Their theory is that Earth is totally resilient, an endless storehouse of resources. They don’t believe in ecology. They don’t believe we can affect the global climate. They have to pooh-pooh all of the damage that we’re doing to Earth, because it doesn’t fit their theory.
Lloyd: The fallenness of all humanity and all human institutions is a core tenet of conservative Protestant theology, but in the eyes of the neocons, the market we’ve created is infallible.
Foreman: The radical Right is deeply divided when it comes to views of human nature. I think traditional conservatives have been very much manipulated by corporate and neoconservative interests. The Right has been very effective at fighting a “culture war,” whereas many in the progressive community for a long time didn’t realize there was a culture war. They just kept doing things that reinforced the stereotype that the corporatists were feeding to the populace.
Lloyd: If we can’t trust government agencies to protect our wild lands, and recycling and hybrid cars are not enough, what do you propose the average citizen do to conserve the environment?
Foreman: Conservation works best when conservationists know and love specific places and specific critters, because then they’ll work their hearts out for them and make sure that the politicians do something. So we’ve got to know our natural areas, and then get involved with conservation groups and make our voices heard. George Bush isn’t going to listen to us, and his political appointees aren’t going to listen to us, but I’m convinced there are Republican members of Congress who, if they hear enough from their constituents, will make some changes.
My friend Brian O’Donnell was with the Alaska Wilderness League back in the late nineties, when Alaska Senator Ted Stevens put in a rider that would have allowed tourism companies to land helicopters in wilderness areas in Alaska. Stevens was the chair of the Senate transportation committee and a really vindictive guy. All of the conservation groups said, “Well, we’ve lost this one.” But Brian had a strategy. Congressmen Frank Wolf of Virginia and Ralph Regula of Ohio were the Republican chairs of the transportation committee in the House. Brian convinced hunters and anglers in their districts, groups affiliated with the NRA, to write to Regula and Wolf and say this rider was an outrage and would spoil the hunting experience in Alaska. When Stevens’s bill came through the House for approval, Regula and Wolf led the fight to defeat it.
That’s the kind of strategy we need nationally right now, to convince Republican senators and representatives to vote for conservation. To do this, we need to go outside the circle of people that urban environmentalists feel comfortable with and talk to those who are turned off by the environmentalist stereotype, but who agree with us on protecting wilderness and wildlife.
Lloyd: In the conclusion of Rewilding North America you say that you are not optimistic, but you are hopeful. How do you make that distinction?
Foreman: I think hope is much more realistic than optimism. People who are optimistic just aren’t paying attention. But we human beings need a glimmer of hope out there. And so my task, as I see it, is to create an achievable vision of how civilization and wilderness can coexist. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or even that it will happen, but it allows me to have hope.
Both liberals and libertarians, who really occupy opposite ends of the same spectrum, have an optimistic view of human nature. They think that human institutions are perfectible and will work in the long run. One of my favorite books is David Ehrenfeld’s The Arrogance of Humanism. He defines humanism as the belief that humans can solve all their problems; that if there’s not a technological solution, there’s a social or political solution; that all resources are either infinite or replaceable; that we will muddle through, and civilization will continue forever. And I’m here to say that it won’t. We won’t.
People call me a Cassandra, after the Trojan prophetess whose dire predictions no one believed. But I don’t mind. After all, Cassandra was right; it’s just that nobody believed her. The hope I have is that people will pay attention to the Cassandras in their midst.