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Conservation’s Earnest Message Could Use Levity

• January 30, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Lions, gorillas, and wolves, oh my! Two on-the-ground proponents of saving the tropics think a great way to both engage and enlighten the West is to deploy a dollop of satire.

In a move that stunned environmentalists across the globe: the Coalition of Financially Challenged Countries with Lots of Trees (CoFCCLoT) recently recommended reforesting G8 nations back to pre-industrial levels in the hopes of countering the ravages of climate change. The coalition also has called for reintroducing gorillas into Spain and lions into Greece with the goal of revitalizing the ailing Eurozone economies.

OK, the CoFCCLot doesn’t really exist, despite the press release cited above sent out last April 1. But the ersatz organization’s founders, Erik Meijaard and Douglas Sheil, are very real, and they take the underlying concerns about conservation and the environment very seriously. Still, Meijaard, forest director for People and Nature Consulting, based in Bali, and Sheil, who directs the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation in Uganda, saw a chance to use satire to give their concerns a wider platform.

“When it comes to biodiversity in the tropics, there are some very biased viewpoints and double standards that are really hampering our ability to effectively influence the way people go about bioconservation in places like Indonesia,” Meijaard says. But their approach — and the press release — apparently caught some people off guard.

“A lot of people took it very seriously,” says Meijaard. “Yes, excellent idea! Reforesting the West will take care of many of the carbon issues in the world,” was just one confused response. Meijaard and Sheil also expanded on their ideas last September in a “modest proposal” commentary in the journal Biotropica.

Miller-McCune.com spoke with Meijaard via Skype for his thoughts on using satire to help opposing groups find common ground.

Miller-McCune: You say that “satire can help reveal the flaws inherent in the way we frame, formulate and impose our views on different situations.” Explain.

Erik Meijaard: I think if we all thought seriously about how we conceive things, we would probably realize that our viewpoints are very biased. Let’s consider your average conservation supporter in Europe or the U.S. who wants tigers or elephants to survive. I’m pretty sure if they really understood the why and the how, they’d realize that they’re really asking for some really tough things. How fair is it to push a country like Indonesia to maintain its tiger population?

Consider the wolf issue in Wyoming, where they decided on this massive cull [of wolves]. It kind of went unnoticed though it’s been reported. I was just thinking that if the media instead had said what they reported about the wolves about the orangutans — that they’re trouble; they destroy people’s crops and gardens — so if you decided to cull 50 percent of the orangutan population outside a national park there would be a massive global outcry. If these kinds of things were done in Indonesia, it would have become a much bigger issue.

M-M: So what does this mean?

EM: This is a sign of the different ways we frame these environmental issues. We’re happy to have an opinion about it from a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned room with a good cup of coffee. But what does it really mean for the guy or girl out there in the rainforest? How does it affect their lives? These people don’t actually want to be in the rainforest. They’d much rather have a motorbike and some cash in the bank. I think this whole romantic idea of how we see these things and create our own vision of what conservation could do about that is just completely wrong and very far removed from reality. Conservation organizations need to develop strategies and policies that transition away from how people in wealthy countries think and how we implement the things here.

M-M: You say satire can be especially effective in the context of ethics. Why?

EM: Conservation is very much about values. I found it very helpful to create a table where you juxtapose these different viewpoints. That made it clear to me that they’re often about values that people accept to be true, but if you look at them next to each other, you realize they’re not compatible. You can’t have, for example, the Western notion about tropical countries that says, ‘We’ll give you a billion dollars if you forego $10 billion in economic development opportunities,’ alongside the notion that the West can’t diminish its own development because of the economic crisis. You can’t expect that to be translated into a workable policy.

M-M: You said, “While mockery is seldom an element in the scientific approach, it may be especially effective in the context of ethics where the underlying logic and data are harder to assess and emotional content plays a major role.”

EM: I was thinking that the little item for which we got a lot of attention was the idea of releasing lions in Greece. Lions did live in Greece. I don’t know when the last lion disappeared, but they were there maybe a thousand years ago. It’s actually not that strange a proposal, but people would see that as ridiculous. You’d never conceive that as a realistic option, whereas we’ll happily conceive them in other places. Releasing orangutans or tigers back into the wild in Africa, for example is fine. Playing with these kinds of emotive issues and placing them in a slightly bizarre context allows people to much more easily step back and see that it is a worthwhile thing to consider and ask. The alternative would be to try to quantify and analyze with figures and numbers, which is what you normally do in conservation, but how do you capture this? A lot of things in conservation are very subjective.

The fact is that people like me are working in conservation because we have a passion for it. It’s a value-driven thing. You look at the world and say, “No. It could be so much better.” At the same time, you have to be pragmatic about it. Just loving nature and thinking it’s wonderful and beautiful so let’s live in harmony with it doesn’t get us any further. You have to think realistically about what the issues are here. And the issues are extremely complex and extremely difficult to resolve.

M-M: One of the big ones you focus on is how the palm oil plantation controversy demonstrates some of the hypocrisy.

EM: It’s a tricky area to talk about because it’s such a hot issue. The Indonesian government suggested that palm oil plantations be considered forest. Now you can plant nonnative pines in Scotland and Ireland, and they’re officially counted in the forest statistics. But a nonnative oil palm planted in Indonesia is not accepted by the world authority, the Food and Agriculture Organization. They produce these forest statistics every five years, and they determine what is officially called a forest.

M-M: But I imagine the palms are not considered forest because they’re producing palm oil?

EM: Yeah, they’re considered agricultural. However, these trees actually make pretty good timber, but it’s a small part of total revenues so it gets pretty much discarded. But the point is if we were producing timber from oil palm rather than oil, we’d be allowed to call them forest. The key issue to me is that all these monoculture plantations have some biodiversity value, and unless you can actually globally decide what should be a forest and have the same rules apply everywhere, people will always say, ‘Well, that’s not fair.’ Apart from that, I can see why places like Indonesia and Malaysia are very interested in palm oil; these trees produce more oil than any other oil producing crop in the world, so if you have a certain demand for vegetable oil in the world that needs to be fulfilled, then palm oil is your choice. I don’t like it personally, but for us as an environmental community to say palm oil is bad, it just doesn’t rhyme to me.

M-M: One criticism is that developing palm oil plantations (or forests, if you will) displaces native species like macaques.

EM: Well, if you cut down the primary rainforest and replace it with oil palm instead, your losses are going to be enormous. However, if you do this with degraded land, like these large areas of degraded grasslands, then it’s a positive thing, so it depends where you develop it. But the message that’s given is that these trees displace forest. I’m on the side of oil palm industry in that respect, that that idea simply isn’t true. Again, I think the emotional background of all these things is if you start thinking oil palm is bad, you’re gonna make sure you find the data or the people in the field who agree, and you’re substantiating your own story. And the palm oil industry does exactly the same; they vilify everything that’s green; they say global warming is a load of nonsense, and you end up with this totally polarized debate with no one willing to meet in the middle.

M-M: You wrote that our nature-biased views are a strong motivator for conservation action, but they can also blind us to alternative perspectives.

EM: Ultimately, many of us work in conservation because we deeply value our natural world and wish to maintain it. Unfortunately, this often results in a kind of black-and-white approach to conservation where something is either good for nature or bad. Unless it’s pure, unless it’s untainted, nature doesn’t really count. I think a lot of these very dichotomized views on nature and conservation values are often also translated into how we ultimately solve problems.

People have been everywhere on the planet to some extent; and the untainted does not really exist. Even then, concepts of nature are highly personal. Someone’s wasteland is someone else’s garden and main source of income. Some view oil palm as an evil crop, while others may consider it the source of income that will get their kids into school. Still, these concepts are a very important guide for how people translate their view about nature into conservation action. That’s where the conservation rubber is supposed to hit the conservation road. But because the concepts are highly subjective, it’s often where we get stranded because when take such opposing views on certain issues we end up having a very polarized debate with our enemies: “You’re wrong; we’re right and there’s no progress.”

There’s no common ground. What we’re doing here is using satire is get people to see for themselves how each individual personally interprets nature.

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Arnie Cooper
Arnie Cooper, a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., covers food, travel and popular culture, as well as architecture and the sustainability movement. He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Arts page; his writing has also appeared in Outside, Esquire, Orion and Dwell. He's working on a memoir about his childhood experiences in New York City.

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