The Lessons of ‘Avatar’ for Sustainable Hydropower

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Published on February 23rd, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

I spent New Year’s 2008 with my cousin from L.A. and we talked a lot about our respective jobs. He works for 20th Century Fox, so his was pretty straightforward: cool Hollywood movie guy. My job was a bit harder to explain – working to improve the sustainability of hydropower through ecoregional planning, dam siting and strategic mitigation…what? Pass the egg nog, please.

Last week I received a thick envelope in the mail, from my cousin.  Inside was a movie script and a cryptic note…”Here’s my proposed alternate ending to Avatar Cameron wasn’t wild about it…went with action sequence instead…do you have any job openings at The Nature Conservancy?”

Shocked, but also intrigued, I flipped through the script…

SCENE 14-3: THE BATTLE FOR HOMETREE

Interior: Pandora operations center of RDA Corporation:  The center’s video monitors are all filled with images of the Na’vis’ “Hometree.”

ADMINISTRATOR PARKER SELFRIDGE: We’ve given them enough time…we need to get on with this. Colonel, you may proceed with the operation. (Aside to Assistant): It’s not my fault they put their holy friggin’ tree right above the biggest deposit of unobtanium within 200 clicks of here.

Interior: Inside gunship hovering above Hometree.

COLONEL QUARITCH: Copy that. Sec-ops, let’s get rolling. Prepare the missiles.  We’re gonna clear out that termite nest.

Gunners flip series of switches, lower bombing sites over their eyes.

GUNNER #1: Lock and load, baby!

Exterior: Rainforest in front of Hometree. Jake Sulley (in Na’vi avatar body) stands before the assembled Na’vi.  The gunship looms menacingly above Hometree.

JAKE SULLEY: You must leave Hometree! RUN TO THE FOREST! You can’t imagine what’s about to happen!

EYUTAKAN (in full warrior garb): Never! The Na’vi will never leave Hometree. This is our land, our mother, our home!  We will never leave, Jakesully.

Eyutakan raises his fist toward the gunship and shouts defiantly.  The Na’vi raise their fists and shout in response.

JAKE: You don’t know…these people, they don’t understand Hometree.  They can’t comprehend what it is. But they will not stop! I tried, I tried to stop this…

NEYTERI (registering shock): What are you saying, Jake? You knew this would happen? You KNEW! Jake, I TRUSTED you! You will NEVER be one of the PEOPLE!

Interior: RDA operations center

SELFRIDGE (head tilted forward, rubbing his temples): We tried. We tried everything we could.  I can’t wait any longer, each day that they won’t leave costs our shareholders millions.

ASSISTANT RITA (entering rapidly and waving a document): Sir, I’ve got that report the Environmental Compliance committee requested last year.  I know it’s about six months late, but you should take a look at…

SELFRIDGE (furious): Are you kidding me? Do you see what’s going on here? Do you know what I’m going through? A report?

RITA: You could read just the Executive Summary!

Interior: Gunship

QUARITCH: Alright, let’s get this done. Give me the incendiary rounds, right in the front door. You may fire when ready.

Interior: RDA operations center

RITA: Just give me a chance to explain, you don’t have to do this!

SELFRIDGE: Rita…what the what?!

RITA: Don’t you understand? We completed a Strategic Environmental Assessment – it analyzes a whole range of options beyond just this one site and compares their benefits and impacts.  You’ve got alternatives!  Can’t you see what that means…you’ve got a better choice!!

SELFRIDGE: I do? But this is clearly the best site to mine!

RITA: Well, it may have the most unobtanium at the right depth…but there are three sites that collectively equal or exceed it! And they have a much smaller impact — you won’t need to force the Na’vi to move. Do you really want this? It’s gonna look awful to the press, maybe even to the shareholders too! Once you consider the impacts, it’s clearly not the best site!

SELFRIDGE: I don’t know…we’re all set to go. Do you know how hard it is to turn this thing around?

RITA: And do you know how bad it’s gonna look if you go forward without at least considering other options? Just give it some time to think, that’s all I’m asking.

SELFRIDGE: Quaritch! Call it off! Pull back!

QUARITCH: Don’t go limp on me now! We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em!

SELFRIDGE: Colonel! You work for me, or have you forgotten? Pull back NOW!

Exterior: Rainforest. Gunship backs up, hovers, then flies away from Hometree. The Na’vi raise their arms in the air and shout triumphantly.

In the margins was a scribbled note, “James — if the story ends here you’ll save about $80 million in production costs. How much 3-D do people really need?”

I put my cousin’s script down.  “He gets it,” I thought, a single tear streaming down my check. “He gets…me.”

OK, although my cousin does work in Hollywood he didn’t try to tinker with the Avatar script or lose his job. But I saw Avatar two weeks ago, and amidst its copious cultural references — imperialism vs. nature, 9/11, Dances with Wolves, the Battle of Endor (can I give a shout-out to those Eewoks?!) — I naturally saw the movie as an allegory for sustainable hydropower. And yes, I did find myself pondering “Strategic Environmental Assessment” during the movie (I know what you’re thinking right about now, “Man, I want to party with that guy!”).

But Avatar does make the case — albeit in fantastical form — for the need for broader thinking when it comes to implementing new major projects, such as hydropower dams.

The displacement of people from their homes has always been one of the most wrenching impacts of dam development — from the flooding of four towns in the Swift River Valley in the 1940s for Boston’s water-supply reservoir to the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people displaced by some of today’s mega-dams.

In Avatar, the RDA Corporation insists they have no choice but to remove the Na’vi from their homes and holy site (Hometree) because it sits above a major deposit of an extremely valuable mineral. I found myself wondering, “Didn’t RDA consider any other options? Couldn’t they have found some alternative sites that didn’t have this terrible impact?

This is the essence of Strategic Environmental Assessment and other new frameworks that promote a more comprehensive approach to dam development, such as was described in the landmark report from the World Commission on Dams.

These frameworks emphasize that dam planning — and the assessment of impacts and alternatives — should encompass large geographic scales, such as a river basin or whole region, rather than assessing the impacts of single dams, one-by-one.

Evaluating each dam on its own misses the cumulative impacts arising from multiple projects and, in practice, even if such environmental review reveals that a dam will have major impacts, these impacts are generally only tweaked and not avoided. Strategic, large-scale approaches can potentially guide new dams away from the sites with the worst impacts and toward those sites with lower impacts.

I don’t want to make this sound simple. No matter the frame of reference, difficult choices will abound. But this comprehensive approach is the only way to move toward more sustainable outcomes.

The hydropower industry is beginning to see the value in this approach, understanding that it can offer greater certainty, less controversy and ultimately better dam projects. The Nature Conservancy is working to improve the sustainability of hydropower  in projects across the globe, from the Penobscot River in Maine to the Yangtze River in China and in policy arenas around the world.

When it comes to massive projects with far-reaching consequences — such as the proposal to build 11 hydropower dams across the Mekong River — shouldn’t we listen to Rita, the heroic bureaucrat of Avatar’s alternative ending, and at least take the time to weigh all the possible options?

(Image credit: nhanusek/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

Opinions expressed here and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. For more information about our editorial policy and legal terms of use, see our About This Blog page.

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Comments: The Lessons of ‘Avatar’ for Sustainable Hydropower

  •  Comment from Arthur Sevestre

    Quote: “When it comes to massive projects with far-reaching consequences — such as the proposal to build 11 hydropower dams across the Mekong River — shouldn’t we listen to Rita, the heroic bureaucrat of Avatar’s alternative ending, and at least take the time to weigh all the possible options?”

    Nonsense. The proposal to build 11 hydropower dams should be thrown aside and never seriously considered. If it goes ahead, it should be opposed in every way conceivable. There is no such thing as a truly sustainable dams. There are over 2.000.000 dams in the US alone and I have no idea how many in the world. Each of them is a barrier for life and will eventually destroy the river system they are in, if they haven’t done so already. We shouldn’t be thinking of how to erect better dams, we should be thinking of how to take dams down and to really give freedom back to the rivers.

    Electricity is not necessary. Something like 40% of humans living today have no electricity. Up till just decades ago, practically nobody had electricity. It is not something we need to survive; it is something that makes living impossible. So far even so-called green forms of electricity are ultimately destructive, when the full larger picture of production and effects is considered. Even if a green source would be found, it would still power a civilization that is based on devices (which all have to be produced out of unsustainable materials) rather than on relationships.

    Yes, I propose bringing down civilization because of its ultimate and undeniable unsustainability. Look at the larger picture. Consider all pieces, not just the ones you are comfortable with and not even only the ones that you can see at this moment. There’s bound to be more!

  •  Comment from Dana

    Is this site about the Nature Conservancy or the People Conservancy? That’s a false dichotomy, of course, but that’s how you’ve set it up. Your job is a sham. If you want to do the best you can for the natural world, you shouldn’t be advocating the building of dams *at all.*

    There is NO such thing as “sustainable hydropower.” We’re looking at the extinction of Pacific NW salmon in another few decades (and maybe sea lions along with them, since they’re taking all the blame and people are getting angry) because folks like you said those dams wouldn’t hurt anything. They even put in fish ladders. It didn’t work out so hot.

    Maybe *you* should go work for James Cameron. It can’t be any worse than what you’re doing now.

    And, the alternative ending would never happen if the events of Avatar were real life. Even if the troops got called off temporarily, eventually they would mine out all those other sites and decide it was a good idea to slaughter the Na’vi after all. That tired scene has played out over and over again with the indigenous of *this* planet–and, after all, these were “civilized” people of Earth threatening the Hometree.

    And there are other people here besides human beings. And millions of them drown every time you people mess up another river for the sake of “sustainability.” Here’s a novel idea–Why don’t you ask folks what they think they’re going to do with all that new electricity, and why they haven’t figured out how to live with less of it by now.

  •  Comment from John Feeney

    I don’t doubt you’re well intended, Jeff. And the Nature Conservancy’s efforts have no doubt slowed the death march a bit here and there. But in line with the comments above I think what increasing numbers of people would love to see is a major environmental group pushing its efforts in the direction of taking on true root causes.

    When it comes down to it, as Arthur mentioned above, civilization itself, and its basis in agriculture, is the real root of the whole mess. Had not agriculture emerged (leading quickly to civilization) and expanded to allow for the growth of the human population into the billions, you wouldn’t be worrying about how to reduce the impact of dams. Nor would any of the other problems the Nature Conservancy grapples with exist.

    In the short term the Nature Conservancy might consider, say, following the recent lead of the Center for Biological Diversity and raising awareness of the problem of our growing human numbers. Slightly longer term, what if y’all went deeper and became the first group of your kind to recognize and grapple with the inherent unsustainability of agriculture? That would be nothing less than epic.

  •  Comment from Jeff Opperman

    I would like to take the chance to dispel the notion that I, or The Nature Conservancy, are promoting dams. The Conservancy is fully aware of the environmental impacts of dams. However, we also realize that new dams will continue to be built and most existing large dams will remain in place in the near future (although where it is achievable, the Conservancy will certainly work to help implement dam removals and has done so in several sites). Therefore, we have chosen to engage in various processes to improve the operations of individual dams or to expand environmental protections within the policies and planning processes that guide dam development. We feel that such engagement is ultimately the most effective way to improve and safeguard the health of rivers worldwide. Saying that such an approach makes us pro-dam is comparable to saying advocates of better gas mileage for cars are “pro-greenhouse gases” because they aren’t calling for the abolition of all motor vehicles.

    I realize that my word choice has contributed to this perception. I described my job as “promoting sustainable hydropower.” That clearly can be misleading as it may sound that my work promotes hydropower. I should have been more careful and described our work as “promoting greater sustainability for hydropower projects” and I’ve revised the blog post. Thanks for the reminder to be more careful with my words.

    For the record, the Conservancy is also not pro-unobtanium mining on Panadora.

    About our work on dams: http://www.nature.org/initiatives/freshwater/strategies/dams.html

    The Conservancy’s position on dams:
    http://www.nature.org/initiatives/freshwater/strategies/art23690.html

    Example of dam removal (Penobscot River):
    http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/maine/preserves/art19515.html

  •  Comment from zac

    Testify, my brothers and sisters! Three cheers for the voluntary disintegration of modern society. After I write this blog post I’m going to destroy the computer I wrote it on, then rip the plug out of the wall, follow the wires back to the substation, destroy it, and then destroy this nice North Face polar fleece jacket I’m wearing. I don’t know about the rest of you guys but I look positively AWESOME in a loin cloth.
    Here’s the thing: you can talk about how great it would be if we all went back to a state of nature–which, I’d hazard to guess, none of you posters have any interest in doing for yourselves–or else we can look at the world as it is and try to make it better under the constraints of reality. That’s what TNC is doing. For god’s sake, Cambodia is only now getting around to putting the Khmer Rouge on trial and now you’re asking them to be the first country to adopt radical, self-destroying environmental absolutism? How progressive can we really expect anyone to be?
    TNC has been successful not because it smashes the state but because it works within the guidelines of established law. The dams are gonna get built so we can let them get built to the worst possible standards and cluck our tongues and say “I told you so” or else we can get ahead of the process and make sure that the dams are built in the most sustainable way possible.
    It’s absolute lunacy to say that you want to bring down society for other people, but not for yourselves. I mean, I clicked on the first commenter’s link and he’s a wedding photographer. I think that’s great–he’s probably brought a lot of joy to a lot of people–but for him to say that electricity is not necessary is more than a little ridiculous. People in Laos want the power to download their digital photograph too, so who are we to say that they shouldn;t have it. I don’t want to see a river destroyed any more than you do, but there’s a middle way between full-force unobtainium mining and a return to the days when we eat nits out of each other’s hair for sustenance. The responsible thing is not to advocate for a fairy tale like the elimination of agriculture, but to try to convince people that responsible ag is in their own long term best interest. Believe me, if TNC waltzes into Laos and says “hey you guys might want to think about getting rid of the internet and going back a sweet hunter-gatherer model,” then that will be the last bit of influence TNC ever has in Laos.

  •  Comment from zac-laugh

    There are many ways to conserve nature, while pretending to make sustainable what is not sustainable is not one of them. Here is one example the Nature Conservancy would boost their credibility by supporting:
    Pacts Signed to Help River and Salmon…By WILLIAM YARDLEY Published: February 18, 2010
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/us/19klamath.html

  •  Comment from Arthur Sevestre

    Jeff, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I appreciate that you don’t consider yourself pro-dams. It is also undoubtedly true that if dams will certainly be erected that they should be as friendly to their surroundings as possible.

    But here is the big question: should one accept that new dams will be erected and that nothing can (or should?) be done about it?

    In no way do I suggest that it is easy to keep new dams from being built. I certainly have not succeeded yet in keeping any one dam, large or small, from being built, nor have I ever contributed to taking one down. However, regardless of how difficult it is, it is clear that these dams will only be built if we (we the people) allow them to be built and that they will only continue to stand if we allow them to stand. If we know that dams are destructive things, destroying that what our surroundings and we ourselves depend upon, and we fail to do anything to keep them from being erected or from taking down existing dams, we are accomplices and the damage done is at least in part our responsibility.

    We the people have been pacified and made to believe that we have no, or hardly any, agency over what happens to us, our loved ones and the world around us. If a large corporation erects a dam, we sometimes engage in protests, but accomplish nothing but maybe some delay and very maybe some token improvements to alleviate the destructive effects of the dam marginally. Instead, we should recognise -after first recognising that dams destroy rivers, ourselves, our loved ones and the world around us- our power and notice that it IS in our power to stop dams from being built and to take existing dams down. Being satisfied with anything less will ultimately mean that rivers will keep dying, and so will the land and the community of life around them. It may go a bit slower, but it will continue and the end result will be the same. Half measures are not going to save the day. They may win us extra time, which is potentially very very important indeed. However, it is ultimately utterly meaningless if we don’t use that time to reach the ultimate goal of freeing rivers and allowing life to continue shaping the land, instead of lifeless corporations.

  •  Comment from Arthur Sevestre

    Zac, I will honour you with a reply too. Your post is written as if you think it is very original and witty to boot. However, you use all the standard arguments against ours (mine, Dana’s and John’s). Yours are the arguments that you have been programmed with by a life long of schooling and probably working within ‘civilisation’ and accepting what you are fed by mainstream information providers.

    The odd thing is that we probably agree upon quite a few things, but that I am more radical in what I want to change and how far I want those changes to go because I -my apologies for sounding arrogant- have a greater understanding of the seriousness of the situation. I have studied biology (MSc., specialised in ecology and environmental biology) and have studied subjects relevant to subjects like this one at hand for eight years on my own. I don’t have all the answers and I am not all-knowing, but I do have an idea of what I’m talking about.

    You base your assumption that I have no interest in “going back to a state of nature” on the fact that I am a wedding photographer? Interesting. Yeah, I have shot three or four weddings in my life, I’ve done a good number of assignments for architects, and quite a few assignments of another nature too. You didn’t notice, or chose not to mention, that the main goal of my photography is to raise awareness of the world around us and our place in it. What’s your point anyway? That I do this and would therefore not want to leave my expensive camera equipment behind if I could? Believe me, I would gladly do so. I would also gladly leave behind the car I drive, the house I live in (built using plywood which leaches poisonous gasses continuously while I and my loved ones breathe and breathe there). However, because I live in a culture where you are forced to pay for the very fact that you are alive, need shelter and food, water and healthcare (all things that are free in pre-civilized cultures and all other species), I have to find a way to earn money. This is my way. I could make a lot more money a lot easier by taking up a job in a salmon farm, in forestry or in any kind of industry. I have decided though that at this point I can make the biggest difference by focusing on my photography and writing.

    I am working at rewilding myself. I have moved away from overpopulated and overdeveloped Holland early last year and moved to a small Scottish island where I am learning to find my own food in the sea, rivers, hills and forests (or what remains of them, because most have been cut down or have been replaced by monocrop tree plantations (which never last beyond the third rotation because the soil is by then exhausted)) and by growing my own veggies. Still I have to pay for what I cannot find myself, and so I still have to work a job that doesn’t benefit me, my loved ones and the world around me directly at all, but which ultimately benefits the companies (not their workers) I work for. If I will find a way to break those bars that hold me back, I will do so without a second thought and move ever forward to living with the land and all its other inhabitants rather than living off it and imposing my will upon it, or having others doing that for me.

    You can’t blame me, nor can I blame you, nor can we blame anyone else for being born into a culture that has made almost every step we take, almost everything we buy and almost every activity we engage in destructive. We are to be held responsible, however, for upkeeping such a culture and for not doing anything to take down something that is so intrinsically bad for all life on the planet.

    That will probably sound like idealistic gobbledygook to you. You know what the reality is and what is really possible within that reality. Tell me, are you one of those people who, after spending a weekend out in “nature” with the family or with good friends, say when they go to work again that they are returning to reality? Are you one of those who believe that the economy (bits of paper, metal and virtual numbers on hard drives) are more important than salmon being able to spawn as they have always done? Are you one of those who believe that the interests of corporations trump those of individual real people, other animals, plants, ecosystems, etc.? Or are you one of those who thinks that indeed dam-free rivers would be better for every living being but those who make loads of money from them, but that opposing these people is impossible or dangerous and therefore give in? All those ideas are understandable and have been implanted into our brains from the moment we were born, but if you want to change anything for real, it’s time to let go of such ideas (I’m talking as much to you as to myself here).

    At any rate, it should be clear that I would want to bring down civilization completely, for others as much as for myself and any other living creature in the world. Dana and John will most certainly agree with me.

    Derrick Jensen has written about all this extensively, all based on twenty premises. They explain pretty well what the harm of allowing civilization to continue business as usual would be, and what reasons there are for doing everything you possibly can to not let that happen. It’s a long quote and I apologize for that:

    “Premise One: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.

    “Premise Two: Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based until their communities have been destroyed. They also do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources—gold, oil, and so on—can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to destroy traditional communities.

    “Premise Three: Our way of living—industrial civilization—is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.

    “Premise Four: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.

    “Premise Five: The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control—in everyday language, to make money—by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.

    “Premise Six: Civilization is not redeemable. This culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The effects of this degradation will continue to harm humans and nonhumans for a very long time.

    “Premise Seven: The longer we wait for civilization to crash—or the longer we wait before we ourselves bring it down—the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.

    “Premise Eight: The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.

    “Another way to put premise Eight: Any economic or social system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and stupid. Sustainability, morality, and intelligence (as well as justice) requires the dismantling of any such economic or social system, or at the very least disallowing it from damaging your landbase.

    “Premise Nine: Although there will clearly some day be far fewer humans than there are at present, there are many ways this reduction in population could occur (or be achieved, depending on the passivity or activity with which we choose to approach this transformation). Some of these ways would be characterized by extreme violence and privation: nuclear armageddon, for example, would reduce both population and consumption, yet do so horrifically; the same would be true for a continuation of overshoot, followed by crash. Other ways could be characterized by less violence. Given the current levels of violence by this culture against both humans and the natural world, however, it’s not possible to speak of reductions in population and consumption that do not involve violence and privation, not because the reductions themselves would necessarily involve violence, but because violence and privation have become the default. Yet some ways of reducing population and consumption, while still violent, would consist of decreasing the current levels of violence required, and caused by, the (often forced) movement of resources from the poor to the rich, and would of course be marked by a reduction in current violence against the natural world. Personally and collectively we may be able to both reduce the amount and soften the character of violence that occurs during this ongoing and perhaps longterm shift. Or we may not. But this much is certain: if we do not approach it actively—if we do not talk about our predicament and what we are going to do about it—the violence will almost undoubtedly be far more severe, the privation more extreme.

    “Premise Ten: The culture as a whole and most of its members are insane. The culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.

    “Premise Eleven: From the beginning, this culture—civilization—has been a culture of occupation.

    “Premise Twelve: There are no rich people in the world, and there are no poor people. There are just people. The rich may have lots of pieces of green paper that many pretend are worth something—or their presumed riches may be even more abstract: numbers on hard drives at banks—and the poor may not. These “rich” claim they own land, and the “poor” are often denied the right to make that same claim. A primary purpose of the police is to enforce the delusions of those with lots of pieces of green paper. Those without the green papers generally buy into these delusions almost as quickly and completely as those with. These delusions carry with them extreme consequences in the real world.

    “Premise Thirteen: Those in power rule by force, and the sooner we break ourselves of illusions to the contrary, the sooner we can at least begin to make reasonable decisions about whether, when, and how we are going to resist.

    “Premise Fourteen: From birth on—and probably from conception, but I’m not sure how I’d make the case—we are individually and collectively enculturated to hate life, hate the natural world, hate the wild, hate wild animals, hate women, hate children, hate our bodies, hate and fear our emotions, hate ourselves. If we did not hate the world, we could not allow it to be destroyed before our eyes. If we did not hate ourselves, we could not allow our homes—and our bodies—to be poisoned.

    “Premise Fifteen: Love does not imply pacifism.

    “Premise Sixteen: The material world is primary. This does not mean that the spirit does not exist, nor that the material world is all there is. It means that spirit mixes with flesh. It means also that real world actions have real world consequences. It means we cannot rely on Jesus, Santa Claus, the Great Mother, or even the Easter Bunny to get us out of this mess. It means this mess really is a mess, and not just the movement of God’s eyebrows. It means we have to face this mess ourselves. It means that for the time we are here on Earth—whether or not we end up somewhere else after we die, and whether we are condemned or privileged to live here—the Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home. It is everything. It is silly to think or act or be as though this world is not real and primary. It is silly and pathetic to not live our lives as though our lives are real.

    “Premise Seventeen: It is a mistake (or more likely, denial) to base our decisions on whether actions arising from these will or won’t frighten fence-sitters, or the mass of Americans.

    “Premise Eighteen: Our current sense of self is no more sustainable than our current use of energy or technology.

    “Premise Nineteen: The culture’s problem lies above all in the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.

    “Premise Twenty: Within this culture, economics—not community well-being, not morals, not ethics, not justice, not life itself—drives social decisions.

    “Modification of Premise Twenty: Social decisions are determined primarily (and often exclusively) on the basis of whether these decisions will increase the monetary fortunes of the decision-makers and those they serve.

    “Re-modification of Premise Twenty: Social decisions are determined primarily (and often exclusively) on the basis of whether these decisions will increase the power of the decision-makers and those they serve.

    “Re-modification of Premise Twenty: Social decisions are founded primarily (and often exclusively) on the almost entirely unexamined belief that the decision-makers and those they serve are entitled to magnify their power and/or financial fortunes at the expense of those below.

    “Re-modification of Premise Twenty: If you dig to the heart of it—if there were any heart left—you would find that social decisions are determined primarily on the basis of how well these decisions serve the ends of controlling or destroying wild nature.”

  •  Comment from John Feeney

    I’m glad to see the story about the dam removal pacts in the Northwest made the NYT.

    Arthur, as you mentioned, Zac makes the standard mainstream arguments. The trouble is when we look at how the mainstream approach has been working, we see the destruction of Earth’s life support systems continuing apace. Obviously a different approach is needed.

    The failure to “look at the world as it is,” to use Zac’s words, is precisely the problem with mainstream environmentalism. As William Catton puts it, “It is essential to see the profound peril in continued flagrant misperception of the very nature of the human situation.” If this misperception were to end, mainstream organizations would shift much more of their resources to addressing root causes. Understandably, this presents a dilemma for most people as it means pointing the finger directly at civilization itself. But the fact that it’s uncomfortable (until one adjusts to it) doesn’t make it any less important.

    Derrick Jensen’s premises make the case very well, and are hard to argue with once you read their elaborations in his Endgame volumes. Another quote from him summarizes the whole point:

    “To pretend that civilization can exist without destroying its own landbase and the landbases and cultures of others is to be entirely ignorant of history, biology, thermodynamics, morality, and self-preservation. And it is to have paid absolutely no attention to the past six thousand years.”

    It’s wrong to assume those of us pointing to the inherent destructive nature of civilization and pointing to a better way beyond it are only suggesting such a change for others. The rewilding movement offers a hopeful path into the future.

    As for agriculture, the foundation of civilization, beyond some possibility of extremely small scale gardening it will always damage the web of life. It’s a large topic but these articles might serve as starting points.

    http://www.actionbioscience.org/newfrontiers/eldredge2.html

    http://www.energybulletin.net/node/19334

    http://panearth.org/publications.htm

  •  Comment from zac unger

    Arthur et al,
    Holy herbivores, Batman–who knew that the freshwater blog would devolve into such a contentious little screaming match? If I wasn’t such a soul-less corporate automaton I might actually get my feelings hurt by your keen-eyed observation of the way I’ve been programmed by The Man. For what it’s worth, I also have an MS in ecology and environmental biology; there’s really no need to impugn the depth of my thinking or the genuineness of my appreciation for nature. As much as I envy your idyllic Scottish retreat, I do happen to live in the city. But I drive less than 2000 miles a year and I have eight people packed into my 3-bedroom house, all eating organic veggies and doing our best not to flush the toilet overmuch. So…zap! Or whatever. Let’s just stipulate that we’re both doing our best to make the world a better place.
    Sorry I characterized you as a wedding photographer. That was a low blow. I understand that you’re working at “rewilding” yourself and that you’re working a “job that doesn’t benefit” you in order to survive. My first question is…why shouldn’t the Laotians in the Mekong area be allowed to make the same choices? It’s nice that you have the opportunity to drop out of society AFTER you’ve reaped the benefit of education, health care, and the freedom to make your own decisions. But your desire to keep these villagers similarly “wild” makes it sound like they’re living on a safari preserve. They WANT progress, want electricity; for you to tell them that they really shouldn’t want what they quite obviously want is downright condescending.
    I think you’re right that we agree on quite a few things. But, first and foremost, I am a pragmatist. Have you ever seen society move willfully away from progress and development? As deeply as we both may want that, I can’t ignore several thousand years of empirical evidence: it’s simply not in the nature of mankind to regress. The only issue is how we can make our progress most sustainable.
    The way to convince people is to…convince them. And I’m convinced that TNC’s inclusive, market-based approach will find a much wider audience than your radical call for voluntary Armageddon. For god’s sake–20 bullet points? (24 if you count the sad metastasis of points 8 and 20.) No offense to the talented (and no doubt lovely) Dr. Opperman, but there are probably more people who’ve been two-term presidents of the United States than there are people who read this blog regularly. I happen to be one of those diehards who care enough about freshwater to read this thing, and even I can’t force myself to read 24 bullet points about how badly you and Derrick Jensen think I suck. The goal here is to change minds, change policy, save wilderness. If you tell the poor people of Laos and Cambodia that “there are no rich people in the world and there are no poor people”, I think it’s pretty safe to say that you’re going to have to turn in your soapbox on the spot, and your ideas about sustainability will never be heard. (At the very least they’ll ask you to trade bank accounts with them.)
    I hear you saying that civilization is not redeemable, and yet here you are, trying to redeem civilization. And good for you! You’re passionate and dedicated, and turning yourself into a cranky dropout won’t do anybody any good. I don’t believe you’re as pessimistic as your portray yourself to be.
    I support TNC because of their absolute belief that not only is civilization redeemable, but that the institutions of modern civilization are the tools we’ll use to save the world (and ourselves). Like it or not, the world moves forward. Progress marches on, wilderness is despoiled. But TNC is that rare bird in the enviro-NGO world with an expansive sense of optimism and the knowledge that real-world processes are the only means to achieve the goals of our dreams.

  •  Comment from REACH Scan

    Interesting post. It would have been interesting to see that in the movie.

  •  Comment from Indira Kathman

    There is obviously a bunch to identify about this. I assume you made some nice points in features also.

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