Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Self-Preservation: of nature and the institutions we turn to

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, as the saying goes. And so we must always be prepared to yank the sheets out from underneath to clean up the hankypanky. Basically, all these colorful metaphors reflect the need to maintain a healthy skepticism of political institutions, corporations, and, yes, even the non-profit organizations we often turn to who carry the cause of conservation.

Why? Self-preservation. It's fundamental, it's common to all living things. But I'm not talking about the self-preservation of nature, the cause that we are championing. Self-preservation is also a driving force behind less tangible or tactile entities - like, government, business, non-profits, and even public attitudes. Take these recent examples:
  • President Obama opens up the possibility of offshore oil drilling off the east coast, in areas he had specifically vowed during his campaign that he would prevent. The California and Alaska coast were spared for the moment, but his actions set a dangerous precedent for future drilling in those areas. Why the turnaround? Self-preservation of possible energy/climate change legislation, of his presidency's effectiveness, his party's position of power and/or influence, and so on.
  • Former Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin has tentatively inked a deal for a limited series on the Alaskan wilderness. With Ms. Palin's track record regarding oil drilling, polar bears, beluga whales, and more; for many conservationists, this would be like Michael Vick hosting a canine puppy series. So, why? Self-preservation of a cable network sure to get ratings, of a politician/celebrity positioning herself for both monetary and political gain.
  • The UN-based CITES conference walks away from taking a pro-conservation stance regarding a variety of marine species. Why? Self-preservation again. This time with the economic interests of certain nations exerting their influence to such a degree that to resist would have threatened the stability of the organization - something that has plagued many UN-based efforts.
It is this fundamental and understandable sense of self-preservation which propels us to be skeptical of the institutions that are supposed to provide, support, or protect us. Skeptical but not cynical, for that can lead to disillusionment and rejection - which can lead you to either stockpile ammunition and live in a cave or become an eco-terrorist, both of which are ultimately counter-productive.

So rather than throw in the towel when progress seems mired in institutional self-interest, I hope that conservationists - young or old, veteran or neophyte - can retain these attitudes and continue to press forward:

Determination: Remember that, while there are bound to be setbacks, the cause of conservation is also one of self-preservation - that of the entire planet - and that is a fundamental worth pursuing.

Reasonability: This is to say that if you want to convert or change someone's position, you had better have your arguments well-founded and indisputable. There will always be debate, so it behooves us to make accurate and rational arguments, devoid of acrimony or exaggeration.

Proactive: To get self-preserving institutions to act on behalf of a larger cause or greater good, such as conservation, requires relentless pushing and nudging. They may do so kicking and screaming or only doing so when they perceive it as also serving their own self-interests, but it can be done - at the ballot box, in the courts, at the check-out counter, and even at the grass roots level in the court of public opinion.

Do what you can when you can. And retain a healthy dose of skepticism.

"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion." - Thomas Jefferson

Political cartoon 2010 by Toles/Washington Post

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