Environmentalism and [Reluctant] Philanthropy

Giving a damn about the planet is a luxury. At a minimum, it means that you have 1) access to necessary information, and 2) the time and emotional energy to invest in a cause whose consequences are mostly abstract, unseen and unfelt in your daily life.  

If you’re starving and your children are dying of disease and malnutrition, however much logical sense it would make to act to preserve the world for future generations, you just don’t have the emotional or physical resources to. As long as your situation is so desperate that your and your family’s livelihood depends on trafficking in endangered species or slashing and burning rainforest, you will do it.

And it’s unreasonable to expect you not to.

We’re all swayed by our immediate circumstances. Starvation, I’m sure, is a compelling one. I read an article recently in which the author mentioned how Indonesian natives were astonished and [rightfully] incensed that the West cared so much about orangutans when village children were starving to death. It’s all too easy for us to be indignant about smuggling endangered species or clearcutting rainforests, but wouldn’t we do the same thing in those circumstances?

Bottom line: unless we can bring the quality of life up for these people to the point where they can afford to protect and husband their resources, we’re not going to be able to safeguard all the rainforests, snow leopards, orangutans, or marshlands by external policing.

In a way, environmentalism is bringing me closer to being a philanthropist than I thought possible. I don’t particularly like people. As a race, I think we’re woefully shortsighted, destructive, self-centered, and only about half as clever as we think we are.  Nor do I have high stakes in the future of humans on this planet; I just want to make sure we don’t drag every speck of biodiversity down with us.  I’m not a philanthropist, but I am a pragmatist. And I see that we’re not going to get anywhere with the third world until we can improve the standard of living to an acceptable minimum, limit population growth, and sell conservation as a desirable and rewarding alternative. Tricky, but worth a shot if we want to keep those rainforests.

Oh, and one more thing. Giving a damn about rainforests doesn’t excuse us from giving a damn about how our daily habits as first world citizens are destroying the planet as surely and probably more thoroughly than all the slash and burn agriculture and orangutan trophy-hunting put together. Guys? Don’t forget that we’re still the problem.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by OrangAware on 10/25/2010 at 03:28

    Enjoyed your blog today!
    I read that same article “in which the author mentioned how Indonesian natives were astonished and incensed that the West cared so much about orangutans when village children were starving to death.” What first came to mind when I read it was that the problem of the tremendous scale of deforestation and animal endangerment is not happening as a result of a few Dayak families clearing a little land or killing food for dinner. The devastation is being created by giant corporations with bulldozers fueled by the insatiable wants of the outside world.
    I can understand the perception of the natives, but just like you, I think most people don’t particularly like other people, either, but they are somehow moved by the plight of cute, furry animals. Depending on how you look at it, for the most part, people are not in danger of becoming extinct in the next 10 to 20 years (although indigenous cultures are), There are plenty of people, not enough orangutans.
    I like to think of the charismatic orangutan as the poster child for the Indonesian rainforests, much as the polar bear is to the climate change crisis. If we cannot save this closest of evolutionary cousin of ours, what hope is there for all the other species of animals, including man?
    In essence, when we help to save orangutans, they are the umbrella by which the rainforest itself, the indigenous people and hundreds of other species of animals and plants are protected.


    • You’re absolutely right that first world demands are causing the devastation. I think we often fail to see the disconnect between the money we donate to Nature Conservancy and our buying and resource usage habits. (At the same time, I’m not sure that the slogan ‘Save the rainforest! Eat less chocolate!’ would fly…)

      The poster child approach makes sense, but we also need to ensure that the local people have the resources to treasure and protect their own habitats.

      Thanks for your comment!


  2. Posted by seitei on 10/25/2010 at 09:51

    As yr post got started, I was reminded of A. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

    Whereas I completely agree w/ what you are saying about the needs of third world peoples, I thought you were going to somehow forgive first world folks for their actions as well. Maybe a large number of us don’t have ‘the time and emotional energy to invest in a cause whose consequences are mostly abstract….”

    Wonderful post, as usual!


  3. Posted by Emily on 10/25/2010 at 20:33

    I understand that in many places were there are very limited resources, people are continuing to deplete the resources in order to guarantee their own survival. This happens in both developed and developing countries. But in general, I believe that people in developing countries have a far less impact on the earth than people in developed countries. What’s more detrimental? Burning firewood (depleting the forests), living in a biodegradable structure, planting crops (contributing to drought and fewer forests), and over-grazing cattle (more drought and even fewer forests)… OR… driving gas-guzzling SUVs, supporting coal and plutonium powered electricity plants, buying tons of plastic junk that ends up in landfills, and over-eating processed food that is shipped from far away?


  4. A very thought-provoking post. It’s easy to point fingers and blame others for hurting the environment … but as you said, when the choice is saving the earth or saving your kids from starving to death … the choice isn’t hard. And I think we all have a responsibility … It’s not enough that we stop buying products which hurt the earth. For example, we all know that supporting products which are obtained by destroying the rainforest is bad. But what about the people who made a living doing that and are now without a way to support themselves and their family. The second half of the equation is that we must support the products which put them back to work in a sustainable fashion. Then we all win.


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