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.