DEIJ, for anyone show has been living under a rock, is “diversity, equity, inclusion and justice,” and it is a powerful and developing theme in many national and international current events. In the context of conservation, DEIJ raises issues of environmental justice, acknowledgement of historic treatment and mistreatment of races and people of color, recognition of colonialism, post-colonialism and neocolonialism, and more. Here are just two examples of how DEIJ impacts conservation:
- Far too many chemical plants, refineries and hazmat facilities are located in and among minority and low income communities. If you map gross income against known environmental hazards, you have a map to America’s industrial areas; there’s a near one-to-one match.
- There are few, if any, parts of Anglo treatment of American Indian peoples that are’t horrific. There are few, if any, solemn Indian treaties that haven’t been repeatedly broken by America. Among the broken promises: that Idaho’s Native peoples would always have access to salmon. The dams have obliterated the salmon.
At the same time, our planet is losing its biological diversity. We are extirpating and exterminating species at a terrifying rate. WC has used the game Jenga to describe what we are doing. We keep irreversibly pulling species out of the only ecosystem we have, not knowing when it will cause the whole system to collapse. We keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, even as we cook our planet and ourselves.
Finding a way to save diversity, reduce greenhouse gases and maybe keep part of natural habitats intact is critically important. But there is also a risk that in our efforts to save what’s left, we’ll commit what Vijay Kolinjivadi and Gert Van Hecken call the impacts and manifestations of the “White Saviour” effect, a kind of capitalist ecology. On the one hand, Kolinjivadi and Van Hecken argue, the First World engages in reckless, unrelenting destruction of the planet for our insatiable appetite for the highest possible standard of living, while harshly criticizing Third World citizens trying to scrape by. Kolinjivadi and Van Hecken condemn some of the major conservation nongovernmental organizations (“NGOs”) whose mission is claimed to be saving the planet, but accept contributions from some of the worst offenders. It’s hard to respect a conservation NGO that accepts contributions from ExxonMobile and claims to be saving the environment.
But at the same time, the diversity and climate crises are real, existential threats to our survival. And WC is unpersuaded that Third World countries and citizens, desperate just to survive day to day, are going to muster the resources and time to act or act in time. WC has boated down the Rio de Madre in central Peru and seen the devastation inside national parks caused by illegal gold mining. WC has seen precious remaining cloud forest habitat in Ecuador stripped of trees for cattle grazing.
Yes, it is offensive and unfair for American capitalism to be extracting resources from Third World countries and at the same time criticizing and interfering in those countries’ conservation work. But the solution isn’t to abandon First World efforts to preserve Third World biological diversity. That work has to be continued, it has to be redoubled. The solution is for Americans and those who aspire to American culture to reduce their demand for ever more resources: crude oil, natural gas, minerals, fish and water. It’s going to take all those efforts.
We can help preserve diversity by supporting efforts in Third World countries by local NGOs dedicated to that aim. In Ecuador, the Jocotoco Foundation works to preserve land for endangered species. The Galapagos Conservancy makes similar efforts. Increased support for the local folks on the ground may be the best path to preserving precious biological diversity.
Adjustments to lifestyles are even more important. And likely to be even harder. Americans’ self-destructive selfishness has been on full display throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. If Americans aren’t willing to tolerate a vaccination to save themselves and their families, how can we expect them to buy smaller cars to save an obscure bird species in the Andes? But there are a few hopeful signs. Norway has successfully made the transition to electric vehicles. Last year, Norway reached a milestone. Only about 8 percent of new cars sold in the country ran purely on conventional gasoline or diesel fuel. Two-thirds of new cars sold were electric, and most of the rest were electric-and-gasoline hybrids. That’s hopeful. And the unrelenting stream of global warming-driven extreme weather events seems to have finally gotten the attention of Americans.
What must not happen is for concerns about DEIJ to paralyze the effort to preserve biological diversity and address anthropogenic climate change. Yes, DEIJ is important; for far too long Americans have taken White privilege as a birthright. That needs to be addressed. But unless we can get a handle of climate change, on preservation of biological diversity, we are going to wreck the planet beyond repair.
When WC was trained in first aid, he was taught to first make certain there was a pulse, and if not, deal with that; then whether the patient was breathing, and if not, to deal with that. Then if there was severe bleeding, deal with that; to triage injuries. We need to triage the injuries to our planet and its citizens as well. DEIJ is very important. But the survival of the planet is critical. We can’t use that as an excuse for failing to address DEIJ. But we can’t let our efforts to address DEIJ slow down, let alone paralyze, our efforts to save the planet.