This is Part II of a three-part post where I examine the relationship between human economic inequality and environmental issues.
I ended Part I of this post by declaring the supposed conflict of interests between the working classes and animals and the environment as deceptive and misleading. The first example of the fallacious choice between “saving jobs” and protecting animals involves a key piece of federal legislation. Since the enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, there have been numerous national debates about saving certain endangered species that live in areas where human activity encroaches. The endangered Spotted Owl comes to mind- logging operations were significantly reduced in Oregon in the 1990s so as to not destroy the habitat of the remaining owls. Loggers and conservatives claimed the policy was misguided, costing thousands of jobs. Conservationists viewed the owls as an important piece of an entire ecosystem, worthy of protecting, in large part because of the fundamental role the owl plays in the Pacific Northwest.
Missing from this debate of course was a discussion about the tenuous status of loggers and the entire timber industry for working class folks. Logging jobs had been decreasing for decades before the Spotted Owl controversy arose; the owls had no significant impact on the industry as a whole. What the owls provided however, along with the Endangered Species Act, was a scapegoat for economic policies enacted by wealthy members of Congress that debilitated the working classes.
A second example is whaling. The Makah Tribe in Sekiu, Washington, has a treaty with the U.S. government from 1855 that specifically allows them to hunt two whales a year, consistent with their historical practices. The tribe views the whale hunt as not only providing sustenance, but a return to their traditions as well. However, environmental and conservation groups have challenged this treaty and it is currently under review in federal court. I have followed this since the Makah killed their first and last whale for 70 years, in 1999. When reading about this controversy, the most common components are whether the 1855 treaty still applies, how a recent die-off of whales affects the treaty, and what role the whale plays in the local waters.
What is almost entirely absent from public discussions is the effect of commercial whaling that drove whales in the Pacific Northwest (and most other places) to near extinction. In the U.S. specifically, companies owned by powerful corporate interests hunted whales with abandon, to the point that some species became extinct and others, such as the Northern Right Whale, are still struggling to recover, almost 100 years later. The hunting of whales by indigenous peoples has had no impact on the whale population as a whole, yet they are the focus of federal lawsuits. Again, the question: why is our choice between poor people and animals?
The takeaway here for me is that if we are interested in protecting the environment and the animals within it, we must address human inequality, and specifically poverty, first, or at least concurrently. This needs to happen at the political level, since the ability to effectuate global change is most likely to be found there. Environmental and conservation groups, while legitimately concerned with ecological issues, are typically not suited to make fundamental changes in society.
In “The Golden Rule”, renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “the conservation movement was born, in large part, as an elitist attempt by wealthy social leaders to preserve wilderness as a domain for patrician leisure and contemplation. We have never entirely shaken this legacy of environmentalism as something opposed to immediate human needs, particularly of the impoverished and unfortunate.”
How do we bring about this change then? It won’t be easy. To see what we are up against, I direct the reader to The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot. Talbot, one of the leading Kennedy scholars in America, outlines how far the CIA, FBI and Congress will go to protect the financial interests of the elite by focusing on brothers Alan and John Foster Dulles. Another post on another day will be dedicated to our improprieties in meddling with world political affairs, but suffice to say that animals have no chance when entire governments have been overthrown to protect US corporate interests.
For example, Alan Dulles, the longest serving director of the CIA, and his brother, John Foster Dulles, former Secretary of State under President Eisenhower, before and after their public service, were partners in one of the most prestigious law firms in the world, Sullivan & Cromwell. One of the firm’s many clients was the United Fruit Company, and the brothers played a leading role in deposing Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala who was deemed hostile to U.S. business interests for redistributing land to peasants. As the late American Indian activist John Trudell stated, “the corporations use their law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and CIA as private standing armies for the corporate state.” Indeed, the inter-connectedness between the corporate and military/intelligence sectors is clear to see, and any proposal that is deemed threatening to the economic status quo will encounter tremendous resistance.
In order to see positive changes in the status of impoverished groups as well as environmental issues, this US hegemonic control of world economic and political affairs will necessarily need to be challenged. This brings me to the titular “Bernie” of Bernie and the Elephants. Bernie Sanders, and to a degree Elizabeth Warren (who has recently dropped out of the race), are the only Democratic candidates vying for the 2020 nomination that consistently address the aggrandized role of corporate power in our political systems. This uniqueness makes sense on some level- approximately 40% of members of Congress are millionaires, and the fox has a vested interest in guarding the chicken coop.
Part III of this post will conclude with a “where do we go from here” discussion as I attempt to make sense of the links between the presidential election, poverty, and the environment. See you in two weeks…
[Photo credit: Bernabe, N. (2015, October 14). Untitled photo of Bernie and elephant. Retrieved from https://theantimedia.com/bernie-sanders-elephant-in-the-room/]