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.