Can We & the Planet Reconcile Competing Values?

By Keith Kloor | December 26, 2011 11:11 am

The Economist has an excellent article about the “fate of India’s amphibians” and what is a universal conservation paradox:

As economic growth has accelerated so, it appears, has the destruction of  [India’s] forests. The Centre for Science and the Environment, a lobby group, reckons that the pace at which clearance permissions have been granted has doubled in the past five years. In 2009 alone, 87,884 hectares (out of a total of 68m hectares of primary and other forest) were approved for clearance.

Yet while growth damages the environment, it also nurtures a countervailing force: rising green consciousness. That tends to happen wherever economic dynamism threatens a country’s natural wealth, but maybe especially so in India. Environmental awareness lies deep in India’s political culture. Mahatma Gandhi was an early green, and the original tree-huggers were Indians: the chipko movement used Gandhian methods to prevent deforestation in the Himalayas in the 1980s. At the same time, India’s growth in the past 20 years has””while leaving many millions in poverty””produced a large, eco-sensitive middle class.

In his book, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945, historian Samuel Hayes wrote that

the environmental drive in modern society stems from new human values about what people want in their lives.

This became evident decades ago in industrialized Western countries, like the United States. The raft of foundational environmental laws (safeguarding air, water, and endangered species) in the early 1970s was the codification of these new human values in the U.S. Since then, however, enforcement (and expansion) of environmental legislation has been met with considerable opposition by parties driven by different values.

What interests me is how these competing values have turned landscapes into battlegrounds. For example, I’ve written a lot about a remote place in Utah called Nine Mile Canyon, where ranching, conservation, oil & gas development and historic preservation have long clashed. I’ve also explored how reconciliation of disparate values has been painstakingly arrived at in more populated locales, where business and real estate interests bumped up against ecological concerns.

India, as the Economist article puts it, is entering similar terrain:

The big question is how concern for the environment and a desire for growth will be reconciled.

That means India’s competing values will have to be reconciled, which, if the last thirty years of U.S. environmental politics is any guide, won’t be pretty. That also means, as the Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger said in a recent interview with science writer John Horgan, that there will be uncomfortable tradeoffs people are going to have to accept:

We are now the dominant ecological force on the planet and that means that we must ever more actively manage our environment. It is both a responsibility and an opportunity and it demands that we actually make hard choices. If we want more forests and more wild places, then we’ll need more people living in cities and more intensive agriculture. If we want less global warming, then we’ll need to replace fossil energy with clean energy, including a lot of nuclear energy. If we want to save places like the Amazon rainforest then we have to recognize that, over the next 50 years, a lot of the Amazon is going to be developed. The choices will come down to where we want development, and what we might save in the process.

A larger debate over those choices and the values underlying them would be nice.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: environmentalism
  • Dean

    The analogies only carry so far. I lived and worked in India for a bit some years ago and read up on a lot of this. While India does have a nascent middle-class-based environmental movement that is similar to a lot of environmentalism in the US, it also has a rather large rural movement with no real analogy in the US or the developed west that I am aware of. It really doesn’t see economic and environmental issues as separate. These folks’ culture is tied to the land in a way that mobile Americans (including myself) don’t truly understand. But preserving the environment, the resources it provides, and their land on it, is all tied to their subsistence living. Chipko was very much tied to this.

    I don’t know the status of this movement now because I’ve been away so long and there is no coverage of it here. When I was in India, there was essentially no economic mobility. If you were born poor, you would always be poor. And I don’t think much of India’s burgeoning middle class really came from the true poor.

    Which is not to say that all of the poor supported this movement. Support for the traditional development paradigm was quite strong in many areas. But it was a significant movement, and often focused it’s ire at large dams.

  • grypo

    “Yet while growth damages the environment, it also nurtures a countervailing force: rising green consciousness.”
    This is the U-curve theory of environmental damage v environmental consciousness as societies become more open and democratic.  IE, the more open, the better the economy and industrialized, and then the more democratic, the more environmental policies are established due to the fact common-folk are more impacted by environmental damage. 

  • Keith Kloor


    Actually, in the U.S., the hook & bullet crowd, in addition to ranchers and farmers, would argue something similar: (“doesn’t see economic and environmental issues as separate). 

  • Lazar

    “more impacted”
    … and better educated.

  • BBD

    WRT final Shellenberger quote, I didn’t realise how aligned he was with Stuart Brand’s position. Mind you, there isn’t exactly a surfeit of plausible alternatives. People of all persuasions are going to find themselves crowding onto this peninsular of logical outcomes sooner or later.

    Let’s hope it’s sooner.

  • Keith Kloor


    Some quick background here: the Breakthrough duo are not considered pure enough in some corners of the American green and climate movement.

    It started when they went off the reservation with their Death of Environmentalism Essay in 2004. Since then, despite much scorn and slander thrown their way by the usual antagonists, it’s been interesting to see more mainstream greens exhibit alignment with Shellenberger and Nordhaus.   

  • BBD


    I do know that N & S are… not well regarded in certain circles. But I freely admit to being rather vague about the details. Economics is not my strong suit. I have read the DoE essay though. I can see why it might have compressed a few tootsies 😉


  • EdG

    “Mahatma Gandhi was an early green, and the original tree-huggers were Indians: the chipko movement used Gandhian methods to prevent deforestation in the Himalayas in the 1980s.”

    Somebody is a bit clueless about history.  Many examples of earlier ‘tree huggers’ as described, including in the US about a century earlier. But since that was essentially a top-down action, versus this ‘people power’ story, I suppose it didn’t fit the chosen narrative.

    Most if not all of the modern environmental movement started as a top-down project too. It took a while, and a huge amount of publicity, to gather steam among the populace so that it now appears more like it is driven from below… but that is still only half true, at best.

    The most obvious and extreme example of the conflict between conservation and the ‘little people’ in India are the cases where conservationists eagerly save tigers and leopards which then go on to eat the little people. Rather difficult to come up with a clearer conflict of interest than that.  

    I must say Keith, you certainly have picked a collosal topic with this one. It essentially is THE question. But your choice of title doesn’t help. “Can We & the Planet Reconcile Competing Values?”

    Different people have different values and, as far as i can tell, “the Planet” has no values at all. One could argue that the living things on the planet share one central driving value – survival – but one can also argue that beneath all the superficialties, all humans share that same value.

    In your #3 you note that “in the U.S., the hook & bullet crowd, in addition to ranchers and farmers, would argue something similar…”

    This does identify one of the more basic splits. The most powerful force for the modern American environmental movement are urban voters – those with the least experience with real nature who are least impacted by many of the issues they promote. TV did it.

    But lumping in the ‘hook and bullet’ crowd here clouds this issue. For example, the economic logic of ranching, if taken to its extreme, would eliminate every elk that ate grass which could feed a cow – to maximize their sustained production of beef. The logic of modern hunting is to maximize their sustained production of huntable wildlife – which involves the maintenance of habitat and thus ‘nature.’ Big difference on many levels.

    Moreover, most of the first conservationists were hunters. That should clarify this distinction. Unfortunately, too many people, like that Economist writer, don’t appear to know much about conservation history or, worse, imagine that it just began (in the 1960s) with the modern environmental movement.

    Yes indeed, this is a very large topic.

    sustain , and and least impacted by , and the most experience with TV the least conOr how about this illustration.

  • EdG

    Oops. left a hanging ‘sentence’ of bits and pieces that now reads as complete gibberish… or perhaps it is profound? 😉

  • Dean


    Keith – ranchers and farmers could have some analogy to what I was describing, though there are a lot of differences. In India, this movement has often seen modern development as contrary to their interests, while I have not seen that among ranchers and farmers in the US. There are many reasons for these differences, too numerous to go into here.

    But the main thing is that in the US, Federal efforts to provide transportation and water infrastructure were fairly important to them, while these folks in India were around for a very long time already and had what to them was a workable system. National government efforts were often seen as corrupt and only benefiting the upper castes. Irrigation water from dams, for example, was rarely available to the poor.

  • Keith Kloor

    Dean (10)
    Thanks for the clarification/elaboration.

    EdG (8)

    While I agree with the thrust of what you’re saying, I’d be wary of being so dismissive of an author’s article–unless you’re read the whole piece. The article on India I cite is India-specific and does talk about any wider conservation history in the U.S. (Personally, I’m well aware of the late 19th, early 20th century conservation history in the U.S.)

    Also, I happen to think my title is apt. I’m speaking very generally when I refer to the planet. There are large ecosystem concerns vis a vis environmental change that will be as hard to tackle as greenhouse gases, because of the globalized aggregate nature of the problem.

    Lastly, the kinds of values clash I’m referring to is very planet-wide. So for example, China is now faced with balancing out its competing values. They too have their version of a middle class, which doesn’t want to breath foul air everyday (not to mention a restive rural population that isn’t benefitting from the economic tradeoffs (despoilation of natural resources and land seizures).   

  • EdG


    re #11 OK. Makes sense to me. As I said, this is a huge and fundamental topic with tangents galore to explore.

    Let me try to sum up my view of this large question as oversimplistically as possible.

    The most dedicated and fervent environmentalist would eat the last of an endangered species if they and/or their family were starving.

    Or, the most dedicated and fervent environmentalist would kill the last tiger, if they could, if it was just about to kill them or their families.

    I know this sounds ridiculously simple but I contend that the rest of this discussion comes from this basic point. It is really about competition between species and survival and evolution – needs – as much as what we now have the luxury of wanting.

    And that reflects the simple reality that we are indeed part of nature and not something separate from it. Indeed, I think that false dichotomy is the first problem with understanding these issues. Many enviromentalists do pay lip service to this concept in theory but then fall back on their ‘nature good’ and ‘humans bad’ mantras.

    Anyhow, huge and deep topic. Look forward to how other commenters interpret it and its meanings.

  • Keith Kloor

    EdG (12)

    Well, I agree with everything you say, especially about the oversimplification part. :)

    But the duality issue is one that we are finally showing signs of dealing with maturely. Check out the book of essays discussed in the Horgan interview I linked to. That is well worth reading and something I wil be discussing here in this space in the near future.

  • harrywr2

    “Yet while growth damages the environment, it also nurtures a countervailing force: rising green consciousness.”
    There is much simpler explanation.
    A man with an empty belly only has one problem. A man with a full belly has many.
    I.E. Only when you have passed the stage where finding something to eat today is your main concern do you start to think about what you are going to eat tomorrow.
    If I have to cut down every tree in my backyard to stay warm this winter I will. Of course that would leave me with the problem of how I am going to stay warm next winter as all my trees would be gone.

  • hunter

    Without the sort of economic advances that lead to high tech industry, a lot of relatively idle time to ponder things besides getting enough food and water for the family and hoping the latest invading horde does not kill or carry your family away, environmentalism is a non-starter as an issue. Environmentalism as defined in the modern age is a luxury that only prosperous societies will choose to consider.


  • Fred

    Maybe it is a sign of human progress is that in India they are organizing to protect the environment before it is despoiled. Here in Michigan, the 19th century lumberjacks left only one 49 acre remnant of the old-growth forests in the entire lower peninsula.

  • Jarmo

    The definite benefits of growing wealth to environment are decline of birthrates and urbanization. Modern agriculture uses less land to produce the same amount of food and many rural areas are actually becoming de-populated because most jobs are in the cities.

    Both in Europe and the US, forested areas have been increasing in the past 20 years.

  • Alexander Harvey


    Interestingly I seem not to exist by definition, and I know others too.

    I fear I must disappoint some above who put forth a narrow view of being human which is inadequate. A view that excludes those unlike themselves. Those who fail to cling to life, for whom living is not in itself meaningful nor worthwhile for its own sake.


  • allen mcmahon

    “If we want to save places like the Amazon rainforest then we have to recognize that, over the next 50 years, a lot of the Amazon is going to be developed.”
    Perhaps Michael Shellenberger needs to do some research before making such comments.
    In a PNAS paper in 2009 Mahli estimated that the effects of economic development and climate change would result in no more than a 13% reduction of the Amazonian Forests. Hector Maletta in a current working paper is equally dismissive of major degradation. There are a variety of reasons; much of the forest clearance in recent decades has been for beef farming and there is now a lack of suitable land for that activity. The land under cattle or crops is quickly degraded with the result that one third of cleared land has been abandoned and is now covered by secondary growth. By 2009 land clearance had reduced by 74% following a peak in the earlier part of the decade. The Brazilian government has also been effective in reducing illegal logging and creating reserves in environmentally sensitive areas.


  • Michael Larkin


    I often think that this whole debate lacks a framework within which to be contemplated; I can’t say I have come across a perfect one, but a perhaps useful approach is Spiral Dynamics, for which there is a pretty good (and aesthetic) introduction (1.7 MB) here:

    I think that Spiral Dynamics as elucidated in that document (it doesn’t take very long to read) gives a reasonably objective way for an intelligent person to determine something of his or her current position on, for example, environmental issues, and why s/he holds particular values.

    The exposition is, IMO, plausible up as far as the “Green Meme” (including the “Mean” version of that). Beyond that, into the Yellow and Turquoise Memes, I’m not quite as persuaded – if only because I suspect interpretation might be coloured by previous states or Memes – perhaps particularly Orange elements of narcissism. The Green Meme (maybe coincidentally) has the same colour as ascribed to the Green Movement, but actually the latter is only a part of the whole phenomenology.

    If I were to characterise your blog, I would put it firmly in Green Meme territory, but I don’t detect as much “Meanness” here as I do in many other pro-blogs. I also think it gives a certain amount of respect to the positive aspects of Orange, unlike the Mean Green Meme that often concentrates on Orange’s most negative side (blood-sucking corporatism coupled with the Frankensteinian threats of misapplied technology).

    Judith Curry’s blog is the only one I can think of that may have moved a little into what might possibly be Yellow Meme territory. She is able to honour and integrate all sorts of views, even those that don’t gibe with her own. I find it interesting to compare her position in the climate debate with that of Don Beck in the situation in South Africa in the 80s and 90s (see P. 20).

    The way her blog is interpreted depends on where the observer is coming from. Green Meanies may see it as a betrayal of the cause; as irresponsible and regressive. But amongst her fans are a few who share her desire to look at the phenomenology of the climate debate, and engage with it in mould-breaking ways, which includes the strategy of allowing people to take part whatever their current viewpoint, whether that leans towards or away from scepticism. IMO, your blog has something of that, but not quite as marked. This will doubtless be reflective of your and Judith’s respective professions and life experience, but I’m not characterising either as better: simply, as different.

    I could characterise other blogs, too. Each could be seen as having positive as well as “mean” aspects of various Memes. The blogs that turn me off are those with the most prominent mean leanings, whichever side of the debate they are on. Some blogs can be relatively objective in/on some areas/occasions, and mean in/on others. This particular post of yours has drawn this response of mine because the quotations you mention happen to touch on the idea of evolutionary human development that Spiral Dynamics deals with, perhaps particularly here:

    “the environmental drive in modern society stems from new human values about what people want in their lives”.

    [Note the narcissistic tinge ““ it’s about what people want rather than what they need.]

    You go on to comment:

    “This became evident decades ago in industrialized Western countries, like the United States. The raft of foundational environmental laws (safeguarding air, water, and endangered species) in the early 1970s was the codification of these new human values in the U.S. Since then, however, enforcement (and expansion) of environmental legislation has been met with considerable opposition by parties driven by different values.”

    IMO, within those laws (I’m a Brit and we have them too), the values represented aren’t always expressed in a positive manner. Sometimes, they are filtered through Green Meanness, so to speak. This consists in purportedly honouring the Green Meme’s preference for diversity and egalitarianism, but at the same time drawing on the Mean Blue Meme, which can have pathological intolerance for opinions that differ. The underlying dynamic of that shares something in common with fundamentalism of any stripe.

    Incidentally, I think that because orthodox religion (Blue Meme Origins) is usually rejected by Greens, when they want to express spirituality, they may adopt Orange-tinted narcissistic New Ageism, or sometimes, Purple-tinted tree-hugging mysticism. This is not to say that there isn’t an authentic way of expressing Green spirituality, as there is of expressing spirituality in all the Memes above basic Beige. There can be genuinely honourable people who are dominated by each of the Memes; archetypes I’d choose might be Augustus Caesar (Red), St. Francis of Assisi (Blue), Albert Einstein (Orange), James Lovelock (Green) and Teilhard de Chardin (Yellow/Turquoise).

    Some may prefer to think not of Green sometimes being Mean, but of it being contaminated (as mentioned above) by negative aspects of Blue, or sometimes Orange. And although in one sense it despises certain aspects of the Orange preoccupation with scientific progress, in another, it attempts to draw on Orange support for global warming, etc. Indeed, one of its mantras is that anyone disagreeing with it is a denier of science: a “flat-earther”. What this means (to cynics) is that technology is fine as long as it supports partisan aims, even when it might be speculative, possibly not yet even invented, or if so, to some extent suspect of being ineffective.

    All bloggers, as well as their responders, can be interpreted as coming from different positions on the Spiral, each with its own particular colourations (both good and bad), from ancillary positions thereon. Some combinations are more common than others, and not infrequently clash, with one group seeing the other as wholly mistaken at best and wholly evil at worst. This is a failure to be able to adopt a more detached or objective overview, and entails being trapped in a blinkered paradigm. There’s nothing new in that; one could say overcoming it is the never-ending story of human evolution. At any given time, no one can see how current problems will be overcome; but equally, there’s never any shortage of pundits who think they can. It is despite, and not because of them, that progress can be made.

    Values are inevitably seen as competing from the viewpoint of a person dominated by a particular Meme. However, so the thesis goes, once the so-called “second tier” Memes are reached, beginning with Yellow, sufficient objectivity is attained to be able to integrate ideas and behaviours from all Memes. Each Meme has its particular strengths, and those strengths can’t be dispensed with. Green arose out of Orange and needs to be sustained by it, and Orange out of Blue, etc. Read the PDF; it covers this point quite well and there is much further analysis on the Web, though that does need to be treated with caution because commentators may be seen as coming from different positions on the Spiral, whilst kidding themselves that they’re right at the leading edge of evolutionary development.

  • huxley

    To  me this boils down to abundant energy, reasonably cheap and reasonably clean.

    As people move out of poverty and into the middle class and beyond, it will be natural for them to care for the environment — as we have seen in developed countries — and with abundant energy the trade-offs will be less difficult.

    For now that looks like nuclear, though it’s not as cheap as I’d like. But I can’t believe we’ve run out of breakthroughs in energy. I believe we will be doing much better by the end of the century.

  • Keith Kloor

    Michael (20)

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing that. You’ve piqued my interest enough to check out the doc.  

  • huxley

    Spiral Dynamics is yet another scheme for slicing and dicing people into levels and stages. I wouldn’t lean upon it too heavily — it comes straight out of the New Age / Consciousness circuit, as one might surmise from the involvement of Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen.

    Which doesn’t invalidate Spiral Dynamics, I imagine it could spark useful discussion, but it is not an objectively tested and proven tool, but a model among many which is the brainchild of two or three men with their biases and beliefs.

  • huxley

    I don’t know whether Keith is sniffing around for a developing story or whether as an environmentalist he is concerned about the current low ebb of environmentalism as an effective force in the world, but in either case he would be correct.

    Barring terrible environmental disasters, environmentalism must remake itself for the 21st century. It will have to reconcile itself with the human desire for growth or be relegated to sixties nostalgia.

    Fortunately there are environmentalists like Brand, Nordaus and Schellenberger who are pointing to routes out of the impasse.

  • Alexander Harvey

    “Mahatma Gandhi was an early green, …”

    In what way was he a green?

    I will quote from the Gandhi Foundation website:

    “Mahatma Gandhi never used the words environment protection however what he said and did makes him an environmentalist.”

    He has come to underpin a certain strand in green thinking and I think that this can found in “Home Rule” or “Hind Swaraj” (1908), and can be seen from the literal (and perhaps undisguised translation) Indian Self-Rule. He draws attention to this meaning and to it steming from self-control. I think this is interpreted as an internal personal rule leading into a societal model based on the family, and importantly the village. This is a particular strand of Libertarian thought in which there is little of no hierarchical structure.

    Elsewhere Gandhi related the self-ruling village to a spiral (flat not a helix) as opposed to an heirarchical pyramid. In current parlance this lends support to, or simply is, Libertarian Socialism, or in a word Anarchism. This does feed into aspects of current movements such as Occupy (at least in the UK), Climate Camps (villages)  Localism and Transitioning. I can view these movements as both utopian and pragmatic, in that it is doubtful if they will succeed in terms of their ultimate dreams but that they have a practical aspect that leads to personal and importantly real action, as opposed to thinking thoughts that some other agency will have to carry out. They are attempts to embrace problems and commence dealing with them.

    It is my view that it is common for such movements to assume that the dispersal of power into many hands somehow dissipates it, or at least prevents it from concentrating in new and unpredictable ways. Failure to address a tendency for power to concentrate can lead to failure and disillusionment. People adhere to the notion that the self-organising nature of their social structure will result in fairer and more democratic outcomes yet may fail to realise that a parallel or complementary organisation of the ways in which power flows can produce a conflicting result.


  • Alexander Harvey

    Hi Keith:

    My posting of December 27th, 2011 at 6:45 pm seems to have snared itself into moderation. Sorry for the hassle if I had known why that would happen I would have tried ot avoid it.


  • Lewis Deane

    With and against Ben Pile, I believe in human ingenuity, that any ‘problem’ we meet will be met and ‘solved’. But I have a nightmare that, perhaps stems from my childhood reading (there were two iconic books that visually I remember so well but not their title – perhaps someone can help me on this?), that of ‘parks’ of ‘nature’, a bit like Britain, my own country, has become a ‘heritage park’. You see, I’m deeply, very deeply, ‘green’, dark ‘green’, too. So what do I do? I hold my heart in my hand, force it back in my breast and think, reconcile myself to our modern world, the one we were born in. India, the largest democracy in the world, my beloved India, will go through, is going through, the same negotiations of enriching (in the full sense of that term) its people and ‘developing’ it’s environmemt. Our childish selves may not like the process or the result, but it is not for us to decide. We must reconcile ourselfs to ‘parks’ of ‘nature’ and ‘nature’ as a park.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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