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Gore's Disguised "Wise Use" Environmentalism

by Steven Zak

Focused on human needs, not the intrinsic worth of nature
(PNS) -- The Sierra Club's endorsement of Al Gore's campaign is a boost for Gore but a sad moment for environmentalism -- and for the Club, which has fallen a long way from the lofty ideals of its founder, John Muir.

Muir was a true environmentalist, not a mere pragmatist. He believed that the environment was valuable for its own sake, not just useful for human purposes. For him, environmental degradation wasn't just self-defeating. It was desecration.

Muir's belief in the intrinsic worth of the environment extended as well to the individual creatures that inhabit it. "Nature's object in making animals," Muir wrote, "might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them."

At the turn of the 20th century, those beliefs were particularly courageous. More typical were the views of Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester under Theodore Roosevelt. Pinchot and Roosevelt were both avid hunters concerned with the depletion of "game" species. For them, the environment and its wildlife were resources to be "used wisely," not entities with value -- and rights -- of their own.

Though Pinchot's view that mankind is the repository of all value held sway for the first half of the century, Muir's more generous view has continued to assert itself. Earth First!'s radical defense of trees, for instance, seems motivated more by the conviction that forests are intrinsically valuable than by the fear that we might run out of firewood.

Gore presents himself as a modern day John Muir and the image, backed by his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, sells. But on closer inspection, a different image emerges.

Like Pinchot, Gore is focused on human needs, not the intrinsic worth of nature. He wants to conserve species not because the universe would be diminished by their loss but for "their possible uses in medicine, agriculture, and the like." To Gore, pollution is equated with "economic waste."

Though he writes in pious tones about nature and "the sacredness of creation," Gore shows little concern for individual creatures. Dead dolphins on the beach do not stir empathy but concern "that the shores of our familiar world are fast eroding." He writes of the need to conserve the environment as a whole -- "not just its parts."

So attuned is Gore to Pinchot's nature-as-resource worldview that he instinctively resorts to a hunting analogy to explain how to root out environmental "inefficiency" -- "If you are hunting a bear," he writes, "you look for the bear's tracks or you use a dog trained to follow the bear's scent."

Eco-philosophers have terms for those who value the environment and its components for their own worth and those who are merely concerned with wise use -- "deep" versus "shallow" ecologists. Gore has no use for the former. He dismisses the deep ecologists as "dangerously wrong," accusing Dave Foreman of Earth First!, for example, of "actually advocating a kind of war on the human race."

Meanwhile, Gore has advocated war on other species, whales in particular. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harming whales in American waters, is one of environmentalists' proudest achievements. And the influence of greens on the International Whaling Commission resulted in a ban on commercial whaling around the globe. But during their tenure in office, Gore and Clinton fought to make whaling legal off the coast of Washington state, encouraging whalers worldwide.

The problem with Gore is not that he wouldn't personally sit in a tree until loggers back off or place himself between whalers and their prey on a Jet Ski. It is that he would condemn and work against those who do have such principled dedication -- and then have the nerve to promote himself as their champion.

Still, environmentalists don't warm up to George W. Bush. So why shouldn't they endorse Gore when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader has no chance of actually winning the election? Because greens need to send politicians this message: We'll give you our support when you've truly earned it, not when you're just -- at best -- the lesser of two evils.

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Albion Monitor August 19, 2000 (

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