Caring For Nature in An Age of Utility

About five years ago, English writer Paul Kingsnorth published an essay in Orion Magazine presenting the position that people do not become ‘environmentalists’ in the 21st century “because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world” as once had been the case. Rather, it has become an exercise in utility with the purpose of “sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.” Nowhere is this mindset more visible, he argues, than in the quest for a zero-carbon economy, the premise of which is not one of avoiding the profligate growth that has made humans the cause of the sixth mass extinction on the planet, but rather to facilitate that growth, just with fewer carbon emissions to further disrupt the climate. Environmentalism is no longer an activity for those who seek to care for places and species and protect them from human excesses, but it has become the handmaiden of the very system fueling those threats.
Kingsnorth’s essay resonates deeply with me. By pulling apart the history of the environmental movement, he lays bare the contradiction of mainstream environmentalism in this century — it is an accessory to corporate interests in which everyone cares about “the planet” but without it being necessary to care about any particular place. And so we have environmentalists cheering the paving of our deserts, replacing plants that had been alive for 10,000 years with sterile plains of mirrors focusing the sun’s rays into beams so hot that they incinerate birds in mid-air. To the land itself, these actions are no less an abomination than the Appalachian mountaintop removal that they replace and yet the result is heralded as “green” and “sustainable” energy.

It was once a badge of honor as an environmentalist to stick up for a special place, for a species, for an ancient forest. We honored those who relentlessly and selflessly advocated to stop the development of a wetland or to protect the last stronghold of a species. Once it would have been anathema for environmentalists to acquiesce to the destruction of desert tortoises; now it is seen as a necessary evil for the greater business of cutting carbon emissions. Those who seek to protect their favorite patch or corner of wildness in the city are derided as NIMBYs and romantics out of touch with the collaborative, win-win world of the shiny new environmentalism.

Human-caused climate change is a unique stressor for other species on the planet and poses particular challenges for human societies. This has been obvious for decades, since before I studied these issues as an undergraduate student in the early 1990s. But unless environmentalists equally care about species and habitats in the world as it is today, these places and companions on the planet will not make it into the future anyway. As for those who care only about climate change, they are not going to prioritize protecting undisturbed desert washes or rare bird habitat, or care particularly much about long-lived and slowly reproducing bird species being killed at wind turbines. Those things just are not easily quantified into tons of carbon emissions avoided.

Los Angeles Audubon has a history of caring about places and species and inspiring love of and appreciation for the natural world. We invested heavily in the successful fight to save Mono Lake. The longtime steward of this column, the late Sandy Wohlgemuth, worked for decades to create and protect the Wildlife Area at Sepulveda Basin, shoulder to shoulder with colleagues from other local conservation groups. We have introduced thousands of people to birds and birding for the first time and for decades sold new birders their first pair of binoculars so that they could see and appreciate the beauty and diversity of birds. We are replanting the sagebrush and goldenbush and cactus in the Baldwin Hills and immersing youth from grade school through college in our local nature — in schoolyard gardens, scrub-covered hills, pickleweed wetlands, and at the beach. That is, Los Angeles Audubon engages with and advocates to conserve and restore places in a world where the mainstream of environmentalism sees places as dispensable except for their utility to humans.

This is a guiding principle, which goes back decades. The purpose of Los Angeles Audubon is “to promote the study and protection of birds and other wildlife, plants, soil and water,” by, among other things, “enlightening the public on the great physical, mental, aesthetic and ethical value of Nature.” This purpose is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1951. With climate-focused environmentalism having become a means to perpetuate economic growth with the minimum of pesky disruption from nature, where using the ‘right’ light bulb or buying the right car qualifies one to be an environmentalist, I would argue that our purpose is more relevant than ever. Because if we don’t care about individual species and individual places, and we don’t share that love with people from every community and background, nature will slip away, even in a low-carbon world.

Read Paul Kingsnorth’s full essay at

-Travis Longcore