In which I finally take notice of Peter Kareiva

I usually don’t bother with people like Peter Kareiva. His kind would be a dime a dozen, were it not for the fact that he operates in a part of society where dimes are probably considered litter. “Chief Scientist” for the Nature Conservancy, Kareiva has gotten himself some notoriety in recent months for signing on with a growing reactionary criticism of the conservation movement which says, to summarize, that conservation needs to stop thinking so much about non-human species, especially those that don’t offer direct benefit to us all-important humans.

I said what I think of that point of view on Beacon a bit earlier today.

But it’s a point of view that’s wildly popular with a certain sector of society, to wit: the corporate donors that ensured Kareiva’s employer reported $5,406,671,996 in net assets to the IRS in 2013. If one dominant species is properly the be-all and end-all of conservation, then that species’ short-term economic activity becomes more important weighted against the mere survival of lesser species.

We dominate the planet now, Kareiva has argued, and we might as well adopt that as our overarching goal. There are about six or seven logical steps missing in the road from that hard to dispute premise to Kareiva’s conclusion. That hasn’t kept him from becoming a darling of the present-day anti-environmental movement. For instance, he’s found supportive fellow travelers in the Breakthrough Institute (BTI). BTI was founded by the bantamweight environmental pundits Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who turned humiliation at being laughed out of the grassroots habitat protection movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s into success, when philanthropic foundations bought the same line of argument that had caused the redwood defenders mirth.

Again, I don’t usually spend much time paying attention to their ilk. If I spent time pulling apart everything a well-funded antienvironmentalist said in public that happened to be wrong, I’d never have time to write about those unimportant non-human species. Especially if I started with Kareiva and BTI.

Buut in the course of pulling a few things together for my Beacon piece, I found a video by Kareiva on BTI’s site that I just couldn’t ignore. Those of you who know me will understand why almost immediately. Here’s the video. I’ve set it to start at the thing that set me off, 2:45 in. You could watch the whole thing, but why?

Here’s the transcript of that section:

You know, there’s this notion out there, and a lot of us have read these books, read these philosophies, of this pristine wilderness that exists out there in which we can venture — it’s almost always a solitary man — a solitary man can venture and rediscover himself and find himself and be inspired, and somehow learn something more about the universe and themselves [sic].

Henry David Thoreau was a classic take on that.

In the 1960s, when I grew up, I read Edward Abbey. Edward Abbey wrote a book called Desert Solitaire. A fascinating book. I loved it.

I recently discovered his personal journals.

In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey has a couple lines in there in one of the opening chapters about sitting out there in Utah and being by himself and looking up at the stars and writing poetically about “Oh, I’m alone, there’s nobody else around, it is beautiful. I feel nothing but exhilaration and happiness.”

At the same time in his personal diary he wrote “Oh my god, I’m so lonely, why did my wife Rita have to go back to New Jersey?”

It’s a lie! It’s a total lie.

There’s a lot to pick apart here. There’s the odd insistence that expository and lyrical nature writing is the domain of the solitary man. True of John Muir, perhaps, but not of Thoreau, of whom I can only recommend that you read Rebecca Solnit’s deft unraveling of his complicated relationship with solo contemplation. What of Mary Austin, Terry Tempest-Williams, Ann Zwinger or Ellen Meloy? What of those men whose wilderness sojourns were as often as not in the company of others? For fuck’s sake, the genre in the American West essentially began with Frémont, with Powell, with Lewis and Clark, none of whom got any solitude on their journeys. Clarence King with his assistants, John Steinbeck on the boat with Ed Ricketts, any number of desert writers of the 19th and 20th centuries: convivial exploration of the wild world.

Kareiva isn’t the first observer to ding Abbey for misrepresentations of the degree of his solitude at Arches in Desert Solitaire. After the above transcript leaves off, he does mention Rita and their son moving into the trailer with him for the second season, which never gets mentioned in the book. That criticism is fair game.

But his characterization of Abbey’s opening chapter is orthogonal to how the chapter actually reads. It begins:

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.

For myself I’ll take Moab, Utah…

Hardly a paean to the illuminating properties of pristine wilderness.  Later in the chapter, mainly taken up with a description of the surroundings on his arrival, Abbey does wish that his time at Arches will provide redemption of a sort. But it’s a hard-headed and rational redemption he seeks:

I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with the nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.

And then, in Chapter Two, Abbey is engaged in tasks with his coworkers. Worlds apart from Kareiva’s goopy misrepresentation.

As for those journals, I just happen to have them here. Here’s the sum total of what Abbey says in his Arches first season journal about his wife: On August 26, 1956, at the end of a purple-prosed passage describing summer storms, we have Ed saying:

It’s the evenings that are kinda bad; mostly around supper time; I sit down to my steak and beans with only a can of beer for company. Ah then, then I miss her, miss my friends, miss all the crazy irresponsible delights of my old society. But most of all then I miss her, the one true love-passion of my life on earth.

I mean — Rita.

On September 15 Abbey quotes from a letter from Rita in which she decrees that their marriage at an end, and he writes:

Terrible words; they make living rather difficult. Therefore, I must go back to her at once, even though she writes that there is nothing for me to come home to except “a glimpse of what could have been.” I must go back; three or four days, and then I leave this place. Probably forever. A lovely place, but tourists have come to depress me terribly. I can’t bear to look a tourist in the face anymore.

That’s what Kareiva is talking about when he says Abbey’s longing for a hardheaded communion with the beauty of the slickrock country while pining for his wife as their marriage crumbled is “a total lie.” As if a person’s heart can’t be broken in two directions at once.

Kareiva recorded this video in 2011, but I just saw it today — like I said, I generally have more significant targets for my time and attention — and I was primed to respond badly to what he said about Abbey and Desert Solitaire. In the interests of full disclosure, I share here my immediate reaction on Twitter:

I would like to take this opportunity to say that I regret that intemperate response. But I can’t without telling a total lie.

I have spent much of the last month grieving a change in my life I did not ask for or want, longing for the company of the one I love and being deeply sad. I have also seen simple, quiet things in the desert, those I meet out walking or those who come peer at me through my window as I work, that fill me with joy. And I write in some detail about those things. I exclude the sadness, mostly, because everyone whose business it is already knows about it.

So I write about verdins. One came to eat mandarins off the shelves outside my window today:


Is it really that hard to understand that I could grieve my lover’s absence and rejoice in this little subtly colored spark at my window? That both of those pangs could coexist in my heart?

If I don’t offer up my private pain for public delectation, is that verdin a “total lie”?

Kareiva’s main argument is that conservation is doomed unless it reorients itself to focus first on the welfare of human beings.

I don’t think he’s qualified to make that determination until he learns what it’s like to be a human being.

8 thoughts on “In which I finally take notice of Peter Kareiva

  1. Bill Worzel

    Dog I hate the self-righteous hypocrisy of people like this. Beyond the stupidity of self-preening and the need to justify taking their 30 pieces of silver to throw the environment under the bus, I wonder whether they’ve ever really been “out in the great unknown.”

    I have been so lonely that it has brought me to tears out alone in the wilderness, but that does not reduce the pleasure that I’ve taken from being there – sometimes hours or even minutes later. Nor did it mean that I never wanted to go back to the wilderness or that I got nothing from it.

    Abbey wrote with wonderful eloquence of the need of civilized people to use wilderness to refresh and restore their spirit. He was NOT saying that the only sensible thing to do if you love the wilderness was to become a hermit. And as an aside, he pointed out that being a hermit just means you’re waiting for the bulldozer to show up at your front door.

    Tell you what…I’ll hold him, you hit him!

  2. David

    I’ve had one interaction with Peter Kareiva. Some years back he published an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune. I don’t remember exactly what he was writing about, but I do remember that it struck me as much too narrowly focused on the USA when so many conservation issues transcend national borders. His email address appeared at the bottom of the piece, so I fired one off to him telling him that. To his credit, I received what seemed a considered response just a couple hours later.

    (The cynics among you will say he probably had one of his minions write it. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but even if that is the case, I was then, and remain, impressed that I got any response at all.)

    I hope Kareiva will respond to Chris’s excellent piece, too, and acknowledge that he really didn’t know what he was talking about when this 2011 video was recorded. Perhaps if he’ll acknowledge that he was wrong about Abbey and environmental literature he’ll also acknowledge that he might be mistaken about other, larger, issues.

  3. Seth Shteir

    Thanks Chris! Great piece of writing. Strange that Kareiva doesn’t understand that lonlieness can be a beautiful emotion- one that brings us closer to the natural world, reflection and friends and loved ones when we return to be with them. To claim that Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is a lie because he longed to be with his wife, too, is a failure to understand the push and pull of human relationships and the power of landscapes to bring us solace. While I might accept that from most people, it does seem harder to excuse in a conservationist who I’d assume has spent considerable time outdoors.

  4. Ed Darrell

    I’ll confess to having a lot of catching up to do.

    But I would note that the first concern of conservationists has ALWAYS been humans, first. By sad experience and a few hundred years of hard study, we have come to understand (those who pay attention) that the rest of creation (I don’t mean to inject religion here, but if you’re religious and you need it, there it is) is the canary in our Spaceship Earth coal mine.

    If we do not focus on all the other species, all the other habitats, all the wild places where humans cannot go, then we do not focus on humans, human habitat, and the places humans spend all too much time.

    John Donne had it right, if paraphrased. Humanity is not an island, and especially not a self-sustaining continent. As goes the desert tortoise, so go we. As go the humpback chub, we follow. We hope not to follow the path of the dusky seaside sparrow, nor the Tasmanian wolf. But we will, if we don’t work like the devil to make sure the rest of creation doesn’t follow them.

    Finally, I love this little cartoon; Earth will survive when humans are gone. We won’t be missed.

  5. Kate

    I don’t think his point is to say non-human species don’t matter but rather to call out the racism, hypocrisy and other messiness in the history of Western environmentalism, which gets mythologized as pure and above human folly when in reality it’s as imperfect as any human school of thought.