Killing the Wolf: When two wrongs doesn’t get you to right…

A persistent question for understanding environmental politics is why are infringements on industry always the last solution?

In arena after arena, the decisions are often made to change everything else about the environment, social interactions, and human life rather than limit the unbridled practices of industry.  Often the preference when it comes to the environment is to treat the ill effects rather than prevent them before they happen.

Why does this happen?

Is it corporate greed, is it a distribution of power in society that favors polluting industries, is it lack of knowledge or understandings?  Or is it something else entirely, that we are afraid of looking foolish.

Killing Wolves

In 1909, Aldo Leopold was on a hike and hunting trip when he spotted wolves below his party.  In his famous written reflections of the event in A Sand County Almanac, he wrote:

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks

When Leopold climbs down, he realizes the error of the approach:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

This leads me to the story today in the L.A. Times where they tell about a proposed wolf killing effort in Alberta, Canada.

Woodland caribou herds in Canada are declining, and tar sands development is a big part of the reason why. But Canada’s national and provincial governments know what do about that: Kill the wolves.

Grist adds with a detailed critique of the poisoning efforts that will be used against the wolves:

The poison bait is a particularly gruesome and archaic weapon. The poison in question is strychnine, which has been used since the 1600s to deal with vermin. It kills quickly but dramatically — dramatically enough that, as science writer Deborah Blum points out, Agatha Christie used it as the murder weapon of choice in her first book. In the novel, Blum writes, “the woman is found to be suffering from horrible convulsions, one of which “lifted her from the bed, until she appeared to rest upon her head and her heels, with her body arched in a most extraordinary manner.” Sounds brutal. Too bad there is NO OTHER POSSIBLE WAY to save the caribou.  Oh wait. The National Wildlife Federation is arguing that a better approach to managing the country’s natural resources might be to restore caribou habitat. Preserving wildlife by killing fewer animals, instead of more? It’s so crazy it just might work.

The threat to caribou population on Alberta is fairly clearly the development of tar sands without any ecosystem protection.  Related to the controversial Keystone Pipeline, tar sands impact a range of ecosystems.  Caribou range land has been lost to industrial development and has severely harmed the species health.

When environment and economy clash, the narrow range thinking (less wolves=more caribou) is the one often selected.  To avoid restricting the easiest use of resources  and requiring some basic compromise, solutions are found which focus narrowly on a desired outcome and an approach to that outcome that does not impact industrial resource extraction.

This could be because of political power being unevenly available to environmental and industrial causes.  But, it seems to go much deeper than simply greed of large multinational corporations.  These absurd solutions pass by constantly with people who are otherwise well-meaning.

Killing Elephants

George Orwell, while stationed with the British military in Burma, was confronted with an elephant that had ran loose, caused damage, and killed a person.  He shot the elephant but not to establish order, prevent more damage, or avenge the death.  Orwell is explicit that he did so to avoid looking a fool.  Orwell Writes:

For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.

Although he was legally in the right, although he was in some respect justified for killing the elephant; he did so for alternative reasons.  He concluded:

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Of course there are direct economic interests by the polluting industries themselves regarding maintaining low costs of production; but why that leads to absurd social and environmental engineering rather than dealing with the problem has to be something else. What leads people down absurd solutions to problems is the attempt to avoid looking like the toxic policies followed are foolish.  Restraining industry for many may question too much of our actions in everyday life, in political life, and in the development of our societies.

But in the end, the only thing that will make us look foolish is the persistent refusal to do the smart things and start to restrain industrial activity.

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