Episode 155: How the American Settler-Colonial Project Shaped Popular Notions of ‘Conservation’

US President Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir at Yosemite National Park, 1903. (Library of Congress)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Among these central ranges of continental mountains and these great companion parks…lies the pleasure-ground and health-home of the nation,” so wrote journalist Samuel Bowles in 1869. “Mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life,” mused naturalist John Muir in 1901. “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst,” writer Wallace Stegner opined in 1983.

Adam: North American and European traditions of conservationism, especially those in the United States, are endlessly celebrated in Western media, with figures like Teddy Roosevelt and John James Audubon placed at the forefront. They’re not without their merits, especially at a time when some of the world’s most powerful countries refuse to take action on climate change. What often goes unexamined or ignored, however, is the deeply racist, settler-colonial history — and very much still the present — that has informed the quote-unquote “conservation” movement in the United States and much of the North Atlantic.

Nima: What have been and still are the ecological and human costs, particularly for Indigenous and Black people in the US, of this settler-colonial “conservation” movement? Why, in the American collective memory, is the “conservation movement” often credited to powerful white figures of the 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the extreme environmental and social destruction that the settler-colonial project has caused? And why should there be a need for a settler-driven conservation movement when the original inhabitants of, what we now know as the US and Canada, already had and have systems of conservationism in place?

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll study the racist origins of Western conservation and to some extent environmental movements, primarily in the United States; how the conservation movement and romanticization of nature have served the settler-colonial project; how these histories continue to inform certain currents of the mainstream climate activism of the present; and what an inclusive, decolonial understanding of environmental conservation would look like.

Nima: On today’s episode, we’ll be speaking with Dr. Prakash Kashwan, Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, which is part of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of the book Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico and a Co-Editor of the journal Environmental Politics.

[Begin Clip]

Prakash Kashwan: European colonialism was a civilizing mission, right, it’s sort of enlightened, white, male-dominated colonial administrations were out there to improve the world and to civilize the world. And of course, it was also an extractive project to extract resources, including human labor, from all over the world, but the outward narrative was of civilizing the savages.

[End Clip]

Adam: So as we often say on the show, we will continue to say because it’s the thing that comes up a lot, this is a spiritual sequel to another episode, which is Episode 139: Of Meat and Men How Beef Became Synonymous with Settler Colonial Domination. We discuss similar themes of controlling and dominating nature as a proxy for manhood. This episode will discuss the way that conservation is much like capitalist science and other things that are ostensibly value neutral or theoretically can be value neutral, are weaponized by systems of power to promote a certain political agenda. The idea of conserving land or having land that is not exploited by real estate developers and baseball stadiums and yuppie apartment complexes, again Nima, is theoretically a good thing, but as we will lay out in this episode, it’s not that simple and much like capitalist science or other things that are kind of seem good on their face, they can be used towards sinister ends, especially in North America, and this is something that is not just a political current of the past but very much loose with us today.

Nima: Now, let’s, as we say, set the table. Currently, planet Earth has more than 100,000 so-called protected areas. This is a designation that covers national parks, it covers nature preserves, it covers world heritage Sites. These protected areas occupy more than 15 percent of the Earth’s entire land surface. That’s an area twice the size of Canada. Now, the idea that these are protected areas, I think, sounds really good, right? Protecting the Earth sounds great, especially at a time when the Earth is on fire, and that climate chaos is continuing to wreak havoc. Now, what is so often missed, and what we’re going to really talk about today, is how those protected areas, so many of those protected areas, the most significant, the largest, are located in Asia, Africa, Latin America, usually rainforests in those places. Now, so many of those protected areas, however, are home already to people who have been on that land for not only generations, but often millennia, the Indigenous native people of the lands that are now deemed to be wilderness in need of protecting, and so what we’re going to do, we’re going to dig into this idea of how this conservation movement was born, where this conservation movement came from, and we’ll see kind of where it is today and the colonial structures that it continues to reinforce.

Adam: Yeah, it’s not a coincidence that the largest nature preserve in the European Union is in French Guinea in South America. It was seen as having excess land that needs to be preserved, never mind the peoples that actually live there.

Nima: The planet’s forests have long been contested areas. In 8th Century Europe, the age of Charlemagne, the Latin word foresta was used to refer to any land specifically reserved for royal hunts, and these were monopolies that then came to motivate, to inspire very bloody revolts from those that the royals ruled over and also led to legends such as Robin Hood, right? You can see how the idea of hunting land and forestry as reserved for royalty or nobility, for the landed gentry would be claimed for exclusive use. But let’s also get into the origins of the American conservation movement.

The development of the conservation movement here in the US is vast and sprawling and can’t possibly be covered exhaustively here Adam, but we will offer a relatively brief sketch. Let’s start with the first half of the 19th century. At the time, white settlers were beginning to respond to their own patterns of capital-driven wastefulness, amid the growth of the real-estate, mining, and energy industries, particularly in the Western portions of what was this young country.

Conservation of settlers’ newfound environment was therefore not only a means to preserve land and its resources, at least as white settlers knew and exploited them, but to preserve white settler ownership and control over them. The conservation movement thereby served the broader project of settler-colonialism: it integrated whiteness into the North American outdoors, making the two seem like natural companions while implying white, specifically American state, entitlement to the land, all the while violently defying Indigenous ecological knowledge systems and driving Native peoples from their ancestral homes.

Adam: In the late 1820s, John James Audubon published his first set of ornithological engravings, entitled The Birds of America. The volume was incredibly ambitious, containing 435 engraved images of some 490 species, and much of the labor that made it possible came from enslaved Black and Indigenous people. Audubon, as you may know, owned slaves, and exploited the labor of enslaved observers and documenters of birds in order to produce his signature work.

In 1831, Audubon released his five-volume Ornithological Biography, a companion to The Birds of America including descriptions of natural scenery of the US and Audubon’s anecdotal adventure tales, many of which were fabricated, but you know everybody fabricated back then. One such tale, “The Runaway,” was about an encounter with a Black man in Louisiana, relied on racist imagery to heighten its dramatic flair. And according to the Audubon Society, quote:

Audubon, who had been hunting Wood Storks with his dog, Plato, had a gun, but so did the Black man; after a brief face-off both men put down their weapons. Even as he described the tension easing, Audubon had already hooked into the fears of his readers. Published three years after Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831, ‘The Runaway’ presented the most menacing image imaginable for many white people — the sudden specter of an armed Black man.

Nima: Another early example of the US settler conservationist push comes from Vermont congressmember George Perkins Marsh, who delivered an 1847 speech calling attention to the destructive impact of deforestation, and lobbying for a conservationist approach to the management of forested land — not without a heavy dose of Manifest Destiny exceptionalism of course. Here’s an excerpt from this speech, quote:

America offers the first example of the struggle between civilized man and barbarous uncultivated nature. In all other primitive history, the hero of the scene is a savage, the theatre a wilderness, and the earth has been subdued in the same proportion, and by the same slow process, that man has been civilized. In North America, on the contrary, the full energies of advanced European civilization, stimulated by its artificial wants and guided by its accumulated intelligence, were brought to bear at once on a desert continent, and it has been but the work of a day to win empires from the wilderness, and to establish relations of government and commerce between points as distant as the rising and setting sun.

End quote.

Just two years after this speech, in 1849, the US Department of the Interior was founded to oversee the protection of US natural resources.

Adam: And cue the National Park System. So amid this budding, and now legally recognized, conservationist movement came the political foundations of the US National Park System. During a Gold Rush, between 1849 and 1851, thousands of miners came to the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, where the indigenous Ahwahneechee lived. In 1851, a California State militia known as the Mariposa Battalion raided the area, burning villages and food supplies and expelled the Ahwahneechee people.

Nima: In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln turned the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees over to the state of California. This gave way to the establishment of the first official national park, Yellowstone, in 1872, then Yosemite itself in 1890, and then the 1916 Organic Act, which established a National Park Service and National Park System. The legislation was meant to protect the land from commercial use and settlement in an era of continuing expansion; an excerpt from the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act reads like this, quote:

The headwaters of the Yellowstone River … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale … and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

End quote.

With the growing support of US legislators, the conservationist movement accelerated during the middle part of the 19th century. By the 1860s, a genre of travel and adventure literature had emerged, romanticizing the quote-unquote “wilderness” of the US for an eager and growing audience of American aspiring tourists, as though all land and natural phenomena west of the Mississippi were untouched, unused, deserted. Among them, in this literature, are titles like this one from 1866: From the Atlantic to the Pacific, overland. A series of letters,… describing a trip from New York, via Chicago, Atchison, the Great Plains, Denver, the Rocky Mountains, Central City, Colorado, Dakota, Pikes Peak, Laramie Park, Bridger’s Pass, Salt Lake City, Utah, Nevada, Austin, Washoe, Virginia City, the Sierras and California, to San Francisco, thence home, by Acapulco, and the Isthmus of Panama.

That literally is one title. There’s another one from 1869: The Switzerland of America: A Summer Vacation in the Parks and Mountains of Colorado. That was written by Samuel Bowles.

Adam: In 1873: The undeveloped West; or, five years in the territories: being a complete history of that vast region between the Mississippi and the Pacific, its resources, climate, inhabitants, natural curiosities, etc. etc. In 1894: Picturesque America: Or, the land we live in. A delineation by pen and pencil of the mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, water-falls, shores, cañons, valleys, cities, and other picturesque features of our country.

So we see this idea that there’s a westward expansion, which is part of manifest destiny, the basic idea was that the land from the Atlantic, the Pacific of North America, above the Rio Grande, and below whatever Canada would permit us to have, that was destiny, that was divine providence, it was going to be part of this white settler colonial project, and the land was God’s gift, and obviously, there’s huge religious implications to this as well, which we’ll get into later, that this was basically something that was given to us by God to build a Christian white civilization, and as part of pushing the westward expansion, you basically had to sell the image of pure virgin land, and the sales pitch was propped up by this idea of conservationist movements and the National Parks.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: And so around the time that Audubon was releasing his book on birds and the creation of the US National Park Service in 1849, and establishment of parks in 1860, it was very fashionable among elites in North America, specifically New England in the United States, was Transcendentalism, which was a philosophy that focused on the self and individual, solipsism was kind of its key feature, but one of the major animating properties of it was the idea that man connects with nature. So you had Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature.” He wrote in 1841 “Self-Reliance.” Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, or Life in the Woods in 1854. These books were primarily focused on man sort of going away from the city and getting in touch with nature. So it was very fashionable to make sure that the elites in this country didn’t sort of lose the majesty and grandeur of quote-unquote “nature” in the American West, especially as they continue to settle it and that these things need to be preserved and protected, which again, in certain contexts can be, you know, a good thing. Obviously, the Sierra Nevada Mountains are very beautiful. We want to make sure they don’t all turn into Jamba Juices. But of course, it was also about the kind of introspective, moral character of the individual, and the idea that the West represented individualism and individual self-reliance and man returning to nature. So there was this kind of romantic element that was foundational to the conservation movement at the time, that very much had to do with the kind of mental stamina and health away from the cities, which were viewed as increasingly flooded with immigrants and kind of unwanted and very busy, very messy, and so this city-ology helped feed that settler colonial movement that was expanding in the 1850s, ’60s and ‘70s.

Nima: In 1901, venerated naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir released Our National Parks, a compilation of his essays for The Atlantic magazine. Muir described his goal as such, quote:

to show forth the beauty, grandeur, and all-embracing usefulness of our wild mountain forest reservations and parks, with a view to inciting the people to come and enjoy them, and get them into their hearts, that so at length their preservation and right use might be made sure.

End quote. Here’s another excerpt, quote:

The tendency nowadays to wander in wildernesses is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.

End quote.

In the same publication, building on the notion of settlers as “over-civilized” and the mountains of North America as their “home,” Muir lamented the, quote, “dirty and irregular life,” end quote, of Indigenous people in the Merced River valley of California. And, to apparently render US landscapes more appealing to settler adventurers, he stated this, quote, “As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence,” end quote. The Sierra Club has since acknowledged and begun to reckon with Muir’s racism, as has the Audubon Society — more on that later.

Adam: Teddy Roosevelt — couldn’t talk about this without talking about TR — of course, is one of the most iconic early proponents of US conservationism and often collectively remembered as the US’s first environmentalist president. Roosevelt, inspired by the work of Audubon and other naturalists, cosplayed as a frontiersman and wrote of his adventurist pursuits like trophy hunting to counter his otherwise effete aristocratic East Coast pedigree, as we discussed in Episode 139, he was born and raised in Manhattan to a wealthy family.

Nima: Everyone knows that people born in Manhattan can’t be real men, right?

Adam: They can’t, sorry, Nima.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: Look, I’m from Texas, and I’m not a real man either. So it’s not, you know, geography isn’t destiny, but in the case of Manhattan I’m afraid so.

Nima: Aw, goddammit.

Adam: I know.

Nima: Got to get back to the Sierras.

Adam: During his presidential term, Roosevelt quote-unquote “explored” Yosemite with John Muir and established scores of national parks, forests, bird, and game reserves, presumably as playgrounds so other effete wealthy people could also prove their manhood, which is also one of the reasons we’ve talked about why we really love football. It’s part of football, because the nation’s elites at Ivy League schools in New England needed to have a mechanism to prove their manhood. You’re noticing a reoccurring theme here.

Nima: Couldn’t do that, just through book learning.

Adam: Yeah and so they had to play really violent sports, which was, you see, like early, early football games, it’s all Ivy League schools and Rutgers and, you know, northeast prep schools because there was basically a way that rich kids could approximate war when there wasn’t one.

Nima: Exactly. The Yale-Harvard game is the most gladiatorial combat that those nerds were going to embark on.

Adam: Yeah. Teddy Roosevelt was a friend and political ally of Madison Grant, a conservationist and race scientist. Grant authored the 1916 screed The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, which claimed that the quote-unquote “Nordic” race was at risk of extinction and advocated for legislation in the US to decrease the population of people he considered inferior. Roosevelt praised the book, a seminal text for eugenics, as, quote, “a capital book; in purpose, in vision, in grasp of the facts our people most need to realize.” According to Grant biographer Jonathan Spiro, Grant’s interest in conservation led to his interest in eugenics, as Grant saw both movements as a way of preserving the country as he perceived it — one whose quote-unquote “native” inhabitants were white and they must be protected from extinction.

Madison Grant

Nima: Now, all of these currents, particularly the population-control theories propounded by Grant, continued to run throughout the century. While their adherents often didn’t make references to race specifically, their protection of whiteness, and the associated settler-colonial project, was implicit in their tendency to blame individuals rather than analyze structures of power.

A 2015 piece in the New Yorker magazine by Jedediah Purdy outlines many postwar literary examples. Ecologist William Vogt’s 1948 book Road to Survival, Purdy wrote, quote:

embraced eugenics as a response to overpopulation, urging governments to offer cash to the poor for sterilization, which would have ‘a favorable selective influence’ on the species. In ‘Our Plundered Planet,’ Fairfield Osborn, the son of Madison Grant’s friend and ally Henry Fairfield Osborn, forecast that postwar humanitarianism, which allowed more people to survive into adulthood, would prove incompatible with natural limits.

End quote.

Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb echoed these themes. Again, this is Purdy writing, quote:

Ehrlich illustrated overpopulation with a scene of a Delhi slum seen through a taxi window: a ‘mob’ with a ‘hellish aspect,’ full of ‘people eating, people washing, people sleeping. . . . People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating . . . People, people, people, people.’ He confessed to being afraid that he and his wife would never reach their hotel, and reported that on that night he came to understand overpopulation ‘emotionally.’ By the evidence, what he had encountered was poverty. Ehrlich was announcing that his environmentalist imperatives were powered by fear and repugnance at slum dwellers leading their lives in public view. At the very least, he assumed that his readers would find those feelings resonant.

End quote.

Adam: Yes, he looked at thousands of extremely poor people and the reaction is not ‘we should feed and house them,’ it’s, ‘they should all go away.’

Nima: And that they are ruining the land that I’m trying to —

Adam: The precious land that I presumably have more of a right to as not being one of the dirty poor people.

Nima: Right. ‘I’m trying to enjoy what should be a wonderful scene. I’m trying to enjoy myself. I’m trying to enjoy my holiday and they’re ruining it with their poorness.’

Adam: He was a human version of the meme where Paris Hilton’s wearing a shirt saying ‘stop being poor.’ That was basically his MO.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. So in 1969, Ehrlich wrote in a magazine article this, quote: “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born.” He told CBS News the following year, in 1970, this, quote: “Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come. And by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

Though not without his detractors, Ehrlich eventually became popular enough to make 18 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, starting in 1970, the first of which reportedly catapulted Ehrlich to fame.

Adam: Yeah, so this is a clip we’re gonna watch from 1980. This is 10 years after his first appearance, he was a popular feature on Johnny Carson, and really, so the popular theme that the world has had too many goddamn people, e.g. people in the Global South who are going to impose upon nature, not to be confused with rich white people and their standards of living. So let’s listen to that now.

[Begin Clip]

Johnny Carson: How much is the world population increasing, if you can say 10 years?

Paul Ehrlich: Well, in 10 years, we’re pushing putting on a billion people during that time.

Johnny Carson: A thousand million people.

Paul Ehrlich: Yeah, so we’re putting on about 75 million a year still, even though there’s been a very slight decrease in the actual percentage rate, but the percentage applied to a bigger capital each time so the population is still growing like a skyrocket although there have been so few signs there. I mean, it’s mostly gloom and doom, but as you know, things have sloped off a bit in the United States, we are at replacement reproduction, and there are some signs that the rate is slowing in the rest of the world but nowhere near enough, because we’re still committed to something like 6 billion people by the end of the century, and that’s 2 billion more than we have now. We’re not doing a very good job now.

Johnny Carson: There going to be food and all the resources and schools?

Paul Ehrlich: Petroleum, all those funny things that we’re now hassling over, things are going to be very very tight.

Johnny Carson: Have biologists or sociologists ever gotten together, and I hear these figures and I think that’s what confuses people, they say the world supports many more millions of people. I mean, we have something plus 4 billion, give or minus a few, that it can support 20 billion and then hear other people say there’s no way you can do that because 60 percent of the world right now I think children are on an undernourished diet are they not?

Paul Ehrlich: There’s a tremendous amount of undernourishment, all resources are tending to be short. I mean, if everything is so abundant, and we can do so much, how come we’re so upset when the Russians move a few more inches towards a little bit of petroleum in the Middle East? In other words, I have a standard answer, as you know, for people who say we can support 20 billion people easily. We have over 4 billion today, large numbers of them are undernourished, we don’t have enough energy to go around, people think the environment is deteriorating, and so on. Why don’t we try doing a really good job with 4 billion people? So if we can do that. After we have 4 billion people well taken care of in a clean environment with good health, and everybody’s fed, and everybody has opportunities, and so on, then we can say, gee, alright, maybe we could do with five, what would be the advantage of five? Well, there would be another half a billion women, for instance, which I would find —

Johnny Carson: You like them fish?

Paul Ehrlich: Right, but I just assume have the 4 billion taken care of right first.

Johnny Carson: Yeah, I think you’re right.

[End Clip]

Nima: Well, that guy’s a scumbag. Well, now we’re up to 8 billion, so Paul Ehrlich, furious at that. But the point of playing that clip I mean, if it’s not self evident, is not only the idea that fewer people, fewer people, fewer people, but that he can’t conceive of a distribution of resources that is more equitable, right? It’s like, ‘why are there so many undernourished kids when then, you know, geopolitics freaks out because the Soviets are doing,’ blah, blah, blah, and it’s like, well, one has to do with capitalism and power and one has to do with poverty.

Adam: Well, it’s a, you know, like all kinds of Malthusian bullshit, whenever someone starts talking about too many people, big question I always have is, if you’re not specifying which people, then you’re obviously, people are gonna make certain assumptions about what you mean. His book, The Population Bomb, did a very typical thing of that era, the late ’60s and ’70s, where this kind of vaguely left environmentalist movement but said, ‘Oh, no, no, we’re value neutral. We will also reduce the population of the United States, we want to but the main centers of growth are China, India, Africa so we got to sort of start there,’ but if your issue is one of resources and resource consumption, as we discussed in the show, the Global North and wealthy white people in the Global North and the North Atlantic, consume vastly more shit per capita, they consume far more than people in the Global South do. So it’s kind of a reverse waterfall system, where it’s like, set an example for the rest of us, you know, stop having children, and that’s always where it gets kind of a little bit suspect and neocolonial, and obviously, at the time, his book, The Population Bomb, was considered neoeugenics, was criticized for being racist, and he tried to offset that by saying, ‘Oh, no, I’m not racist, I don’t believe in hereditary IQ’ or whatever. But you know, at the time, the way people interpreted it, and I think the way it was applied, and the reason it gained so much traction is that there was too many poor people, and that we need to effectively sterilize or promote birth control among the poor, instead of redistributing resources to the poor so they can live comfortably and the causation was somewhat backwards too.

Nima: Now, the year of Ehrlich’s first appearance on The Tonight Show was also, this is 1970, also the year that President Richard Nixon incorporated environmental rhetoric into his State of the Union address while announcing plans for environmental legislation, presenting it as perfectly compatible with tough-on-crime fear mongering and an assault on social programs, policies that disproportionately affected Black and Latino people in the US.

Adam: In 1983, Wallace Stegner, the renowned Stanford creative writing program founder whose written work often romanticized the American West and its quote-unquote “wilderness,” who we talked about at great length in Episode 144 — I think that’s the eighth episode we’ve referenced in this episode — he proclaimed in 1983 that, quote: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” The quote would become immortalized in the popular consciousness, featured in the likes of mawkish articles celebrating Teddy Roosevelt, and of course, Ken Burns documentaries celebrating the quote-unquote “mavericks” who settled the West, namely his documentary on the US parks.

[Begin Clip]

Woman: PBS presents the premiere of Ken Burns’s The National Parks. America’s magical landscapes protected and preserved for all Americans forever.

Man #1: A man could catch a fish in one spot and then swing his line over a few feet to instantly cook his catch in a hot spring.

Woman: From the pioneers, visionaries and mavericks who stumbled across a brand new world.

Man #2: This country is Eden and we Americans had this glorious opportunity to see the world in its infancy.

Woman: To those who had known about it all the time.

Man #3: From now on we’ll call this mountain so and so because we’re the first ones here. In the meantime, I can see my relatives hiding behind rocks looking down and saying wow, what are these guys doing up here?

Woman: Ken Burns’s The National Parks.

Man #4: Going back to wild nature is restorative. It’s a way of escaping the corruptions of urban civilized life, finding a more innocent self, returning to who you really are.

Woman: Every weeknight at 10:15 from the 12th of April, only on PBS.

[End Clip]

Adam: “Corruptions of urban” life, the more.

Nima: Oh, yeah.

Adam: Yeah, everyone knows that the least corrupt place is a county sheriff in the western United States. Those guys are just a beacon of ethics.

Nima: They’re straight arrows, man.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: In an interview with the LA Times in 1992, Wallace Stegner was asked, quote:

What do you say to those many people in cities like Los Angeles, living desperate lives in poverty — people who find environmentalism irrelevant — who say an environmentalist will drive past miles of human suffering to save a tortoise?

This was Stegner’s response, quote:

There is no excuse for driving by miles of human misery to do anything. But with the increase and condensation of population, there seems to be no solution to human misery — except the control of population, and nobody wants to talk about that. Overpopulation may be one of the biggest problems we face. In the Everglades, when things get dry and the alligators get cooped up in one pool, they begin to eat each other. You have to deal with the human misery, but at the same time you have to prevent the increase of that misery. You cannot forget the environment so you can solve social problems — they must be addressed as a whole.

End quote.

Adam: And of course, as many scholars and activists have since shown, the overpopulation theory was a canard. Among other things it doesn’t account for power relations, and the policy choices regarding food distribution, housing, employment — the list goes on — that allow people to live in poverty. It overwhelmingly blames people in the Global South, typically Africa, for the quote-unquote “overpopulation,” a racist focus, despite the fact that the Global North is responsible for 92 percent of excess global carbon emissions throughout history. Nor does it account for the fact that Earth’s population is actually expected to level off at about 10.9 billion by 2100, due largely to falling fertility rates.

Nima: Now, two decades into the 21st century, there have been some reckonings with the racist and colonialist histories of the Western environmentalist movement. For example, the Sierra Club, again the organization founded by John Muir, published a post on its website in 2020 acknowledging Muir’s racism and the organization’s inclusions of eugenicists like Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan and other white supremacists. The organization promised to incorporate more, quote, “Black, Indigenous, and other leaders of color” and “shift $5 million from our budget over the next year — and more in the years to come — to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our environmental and racial justice work.” End quote.

The Audubon Society has made similar moves, and much of this discourse has made the pages of major news media like The Atlantic, again an early publisher of Muir and his ilk, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Reckoning with history is ongoing. On November 29, 1864, US federal troops attacked a village of 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people on Sand Creek in Colorado, killing 150 people, in order to seize the local gold supply and expand settlement. In 2007, the National Park Service recognized the location of the Sand Creek Massacre as a historic site.

Now, Ken Burns, who we discussed more heavily in previous episodes like Episode 154 on so-called ‘inclusive patriotism,’ filmed a video for the Washington Post in November 2021 commemorating the National Park Service’s acknowledgment of the Sand Creek Massacre, couched in lofty rhetoric about patriotism and how the National Park Service’s acknowledgment of the massacre of Indigenous people actually makes this country even more noble, even stronger.

[Begin Clip]

Ken Burns: And on April 28, 2007, the site opened to the public. In the years since its visitors have included local residents, schoolchildren, and people from throughout the country and abroad, as well as Cheyennes and Arapahos, even a combat brigade headed to Afghanistan. With the word “massacre” included in the name of the site, we are forced to openly confront a shameful moment in American history and I believe in doing so we become a stronger nation. How we remember history is also a part of our history. To be patriotic is to understand that a truly great nation can openly acknowledge its wrongs and be better for it.

[End Clip]

Adam: Yeah, so again, even in this kind of revisionist history of what the parks were about, or what the foundation of various parks were, you sort of acknowledge history, but there’s still this obsession as we talked about in 154 to put it as part of some divine providence of American history and to truly be a patriot we must acknowledge our sins. It kind of sounds good, right? It sort of makes you feel good, doesn’t really mean much. The idea that the massacre and the massacree are part of some continuous American project is quite silly. But again, this fits into this kind of romanticization of the parks, of the US National Parks, and conservation movements, which we can’t really ever let go. We can sort of gesture towards outright genocide, but the fact that the very foundations were genocidal gets us into murkier waters. And of course, a lot of rich conservationists today are mimicking similar rhetoric. So in 2017, at a gala for the Tusk Trust — try to say that ten times fast — a British conservation nonprofit, Prince William got into some hot water, as they say, when he stated the following:

[Begin Clip]

Prince William: In my lifetime, we have seen global wildlife populations decline by over half, Africa’s rapidly growing human population is predicted to more than double by 2050, a staggering increase of three and a half million people per month. There is no question that this increase puts wildlife and habitats under enormous pressure. We’re going to have to work much harder and think much deeper if we are to ensure that human beings and the other species of animal with which we share this planet can continue to coexist. When we look back, we have a mixed track record in this regard, but I’m always optimistic when I observe our young people in particular, all over the world, are motivated to reverse the trends of the past.

[End Clip]

Nima: It’s always good when a prince thinks that poor people shouldn’t breed anymore. That’s always good. Now of course, though the comments by Prince William have elicited some well-publicized criticism, he wasn’t exactly discredited or deterred. In 2021 he was lavished with praise both in the United States and in the UK media for criticizing the billionaire space race, and hosted a five-part BBC documentary to promote his “Earthshot Prize” for environmentalists — would you believe some of the funding comes from space-race billionaire Jeff Bezos? Now, the prize was launched in partnership with David Attenborough, another overpopulation fearmonger known for his work on much BBC environmental programming, like the documentary Planet Earth series, which is quite enjoyable to watch but traffics in a lot of this overpopulation rhetoric. Prince William also went on to make the exact same argument at the same nonprofit’s gala just last year, November 2021.

Additionally, national parks — again, entirely a result of plundered land reclaimed by the plunderers to then keep safe for the plunderers — are still almost an exclusively white attraction. Researchers from the nonprofit George Wright Society have found that, according to National Park Service records from 1982 to 2016, Latino and Asian visitors each comprised less than 5 percent of visitors to national park sites surveyed, while less than 2 percent of visitors were Black.

Adam: That’s very low.

Nima: It’s incredibly low.

Adam: Recent high-profile events continue to exemplify the legacy of racism and colonialism in the conservationist circles. There’s the instance of Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black birder and science writer, in Central Park.

Nima: No relation.

Adam: Further evidence that naturalist pursuits are often implicitly and explicitly hostile to people of color. As Marya T. Mtshali wrote for The Nation in May 2021, quote:

Even now, the cost of access to activities like camping is prohibitive for a large portion of Americans: Camping equipment can easily run $550 and up. Considering that Black, brown, and Indigenous people are disproportionately low-income, it’s easy to understand why they are underrepresented in recreational activities like this. For the people of color who do have the means and access to activities such as camping, it is not uncommon to hear of reports of racist comments, stares, threats, or violence.

Mtshali would go on to write, quote:

Areas that were redlined — typically neighborhoods of people of color — are less likely to have green space. The dearth of green space in these areas has also been influenced by earlier ideas around policing, which suggested that parks made it easier for people to commit crimes. Current research now suggests the opposite, as long as the space is well-designed and maintained. This issue is particularly important considering the empirical research asserting that access to green space has mental, physical, and psychological health benefits.

Nima: Now, of course, American conservationism has global implications as well. This is not just an American phenomenon. Indigenous people all over the globe have been challenging this kind of monopolization of land and resources, taking away from original and ancient stewards and holding in preservation this land that is meant to inspire and instill in us this kind of connection with the earth and yet so often is built on extraction, is built on exploitation, is built on ethnic cleansing and genocide of land theft, and so we have seen some reckoning with this, some movement toward acknowledging this. As writer and actually former guest on this show, Alexander Zaitchik, wrote in a 2018 piece in Foreign Policy entitled, “How Conservation Became Colonialism,” delegates at the 1992 World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas adopted a statement acknowledging that protected areas were not empty but — surprise — usually home to Indigenous people and that denying their rights is actually undermining conservationist efforts in general.

A little over a decade later in 2003, at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, delegates from over 150 countries formalized a commitment to what they called “rights-based” conservation, a new paradigm that recognized the centrality of ancestral lands to indigenous groups and included them, quote, “in the management of protected areas on a fair and equitable basis in full respect of their human and social rights.”

And in 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which enshrined the right of native peoples to own and control, quote, “the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”

Adam: Yeah, there’s long been tension between these lofty goals of conserving nature, and what it means to do that in the context of a colonialist project. Sort of similar to what it is to have a socialist commune in settler colonial land in Israel, right, you grow wine and everyone shares the resources, but you’re also on Palestinian land so what does that mean? What does that look like? And how much of these things are about building a kind of romantic vision for what is a project very short on romance and very short on a cultural connection to the land beyond just kind of pillaging and plundering, right? And there needs to be a kind of moral narrative that these people tell themselves. So that’s fundamentally what a lot of this stuff is, in case we’re not just repeating ourselves here, is that there are narratives we have to tell ourselves to justify doing things that on paper seem very bad, like removing a population from one place and settling it for our own liking and that needs a story, we can’t sort of do that without a grand story, and conservation has been not the main part, but been one of the main pillars of that story in the United States, and that romantic vision of what it is to have an environmental space that’s protecting, may not play out the same way in North America as it did 100 years ago but many of these currents still exist and how the current environmentalist movement, which we’re going to talk about with our guest, which I’m excited to do, discusses things like land use and protecting endangered species and protecting at risk land, that these things can still serve a colonial pretext, or in this context of neocolonial pretext, and there has to be an interrogation of who are the forces behind it, who’s funding it, who benefits, and to what extent are those with an indigenous connection to land being part of that decision making process?

Nima: We will now speak with Dr. Prakash Kashwan, Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, which is part of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of the book Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico and he is the Co-Editor of the journal Environmental Politics. Dr. Kashwan will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Prakash Kashwan, Associate Professor of Political Science at UConn. Prakash, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Prakash Kashwan: Thank you for having me. I look forward to the conversation and to engage with your audiences.

Nima: Earlier in the show we were discussing the recent moves by big conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society to acknowledge the deep racism of their founders John Muir and John James Audubon respectively, and the colonial nature of environmentalism. “As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must…reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.” Shortly after the Sierra Club made this announcement, you wrote an excellent piece for The Conversation entitled American environmentalism’s racist roots have shaped global thinking about conservation, in which you discuss the origins of American conservation policies and how they have spread globally. Now to start, we’d love to get your take on the Sierra Club’s kind of apology, but also how this kind of thing might sidestep some of the larger issues at play here.

Prakash Kashwan

Prakash Kashwan: Right. So when the apology was issued publicly, it is good to see that because any acknowledgement is better than not acknowledging a problem, but I immediately thought of two things after the apology. One is that the US environmental justice movement that I’ve been studying for the past five years or so, since the late 1990s, the environmental justice groups have been communicating to these big conservation NGOs, including the Sierra Club and WWF and all of these other big five NGOs, and they’ve been asking these groups to pay attention to how they were framing environmental conservation as this protection of sort of pristine nature out there in the wilderness, and environmental justice groups have been arguing that look, environment is not just out there but it’s where we live, work and play. So one, it’s already been like 20 years, nearly 25 years actually, since the environmental justice groups have been making these pleas, and it seems that the apology statement kind of comes across as if we are now enlightened and we are self enlightened, right? So it didn’t reflect that long history of environmental justice groups and the failure of big environmental NGOs to respond to those concerns. But more directly related to my long standing expertise and research in global conservation, I immediately thought that, look, the apology is going to create this debate, and as expected, there was a lot of debate about whether the apology was needed or not, and there were debates within Sierra Club leadership, and apparently, the executive director who issued the apology he had to leave in part because some people were dissatisfied with his public apology. But then I thought all of this is fine, but you know, it’s not just a historical affair, right? It’s not about, okay, we did something bad in the past, we are sorry, and we are moving on. The main reason why global conservation remains racist and sort of neocolonial even today is because of the type of knowledge institutions and resources in the way these things work, they are intertwined with this long history of racism within environmentalism, and so I wrote that piece to sort of just make a simple argument that a policy is a good starting point but we need to be looking much more broadly at the type of knowledge, the type of institutions, and the way in which global conservation resources are allocated to different models of conservation.

Adam: Yeah, you talked about history, and obviously, history is prologue here. Now, obviously, there are meaningful differences. So you coauthored a piece called, “From Racialized Neocolonial Global Conservation to an Inclusive and Regenerative Conservation,” which I absolutely loved by the way, absolutely read it in the show notes, if you can, it’s rich, it was like biting into a flourless triple chocolate cake, it had a lot of stuff in it — those out there who love cake will understand — and I want to sort of get into some of that history you sort of talk about. You say, quote, “The Society for the Preservation of Fauna of the Empire was founded in 1903, and is often referred to as the first international conservation organization,” we discussed this at the top of the show, and was, quote, “the primary vehicle for which the British aristocracy to establish wildlife reserves in colonial Africa,” unquote, and was very much used, along with other organizations that were somewhat similar, around a similar time, as kind of tools of preserving nature as a mechanism to establish white supremacist dominance over colonial lands. If you could real quick, I know, it’s a huge thing to summarize, but just to give a sense of the continuity, how some of these historic legacies are still with us, of course, again, they’re updated, modified, called different things, but how was the very nature of how we think of conservation, from its origins, what were some of the sort of axiomatic problems with it and how are those still kind of with us today?

Prakash Kashwan: Right, that’s a great question, and by the way, thank you for your kind words about the article. Me and my co-authors, we worked quite hard on this, and so I’ll communicate to them that this has resonated. And so yeah, the first important point about this history is that the history of conservation is closely intertwined, it’s almost like inseparable from the history of colonialism itself, and so European colonialism was a civilizing mission, right, it sort of enlightened, white male dominated colonial administrations were out there to improve the world and to civilize the world, and of course, it was also an extractive project to extract resources, including human labor, from all over the world, but the outward narrative was of civilizing the savages. And so, the European colonizers, with all of the science and knowledge of botany and other kinds of conservation sciences, they went out there and looked at people who lived with bare minimum resources and lived along with nature, they were labeled, these people who lived in the nature, they were labeled as primitive, wild and considered equivalent to wild animals, and so you see, these colonial scientists who are writing about these primitive people and writing about primitive people, as if these are similar to wild animals, and so these primitive people, as well as wildlife, needed to be conserved in the state it was in. So that was the sort of the founding approach to conservation, and then the colonial administrations created these laws and so much before the founding of the society that you mentioned, in 1855, the British colonial administration brought what was referred to as the Charter of Indian Forestry, and the Charter of Indian Forestry was basically to say that these people are too ignorant, too poor, to do anything about forest and wildlife, and so the colonial administration would both manage and protect forest and wildlife from these primitive people. So these were the founding ideas, which were very much in sync with the dominant ideology of the time, but the laws that were set up in the boundaries of forest reserves and wildlife reservations that were set up in the late 19th century and early 20th century, those boundaries and those laws continue to be in practice even today. So for example, in India, the Indian Forestry Administration is run based on the colonial era 1927 Indian Forest Act. Now, one more remarkable thing that is worth adding, and this will sort of illustrate the kind of problem that we are dealing with, is that in 2006, Indian Parliament said, we need to be recognizing the land rights and the resource rights of the Indigenous people, the Adivasis in India, and so the Parliament of India enacted a law called Forest Rights Act of 2006 and the forestry agencies simply refuse to recognize a law that has been passed by the parliament, they continue to operate by the 1927, colonial Indian Forest Act.

So when we say that these are legacies, that’s even an understatement. It’s not just legacies, but these are actual laws, actual allocation of resources in ways that are designed from, you know, early 20th century onward, that was designed to keep local people out, designed to keep Indigenous people out, and it was designed to enclose the forestry land and the wildlife areas for the sake of exploitation by the rulers, and so during the colonial times, these were the European colonial administrations who would extract all kinds of resources, and penalize local people for just being there, being where they have always been, and those same laws and same approaches are continued, now used by the postcolonial current a government forestry agencies who continue to see local people as enemies of the forest and wildlife and so forth, and they still continue to rely on foreign funding to create offices for themselves, and nowadays, they are in the business of getting drones and weapons and those kinds of things. There are places, we can talk a bit more about this, I think we should come back to this notion of militarized conservation, and so all of this is to say that, you know, it’s not just historical legacy. The global conservation today is practically a neocolonial project, objectively speaking, not rhetorically speaking.

Adam: Right, you touch a little bit on Indigenous agency, sovereignty rights. This is, I think, probably the biggest point of tension and a lot of what you view as being, and you talk about what’s sort of trendy lately is to check the box of Indigenous rights, but in a kind of essentialist and patronizing way.

Prakash Kashwan: Right.

Adam: You know, rhetoric about how they’re sort of inherently good stewards of the land, and you argue that, well, maybe, maybe not, but that’s kind of irrelevant. And again, that sort of magical Indian trope, I sort of want to talk about indigeneity and how it’s the biggest point of tension in a lot of these criticisms, and how when someone throws out lofty ideas like 50 percent of the Earth needs to be a nature preserve, and oh by the way, all that 50 percent, you know, 90 percent of it is on Indigenous or Indigenous adjacent land, obviously, you know, it’s not going to be a Walmart parking lot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which of course, itself is an Indigenous land in many ways, but I want you to sort of talk about how that can get a little bit dicey in the big NGO-ish, Bono, Gates world, and what are some of your criticisms of that rhetoric?

Prakash Kashwan: Absolutely. So there are sort of three layers or at least two layers to it. Everything I say has multiple layers, so be aware of that.

Adam: Yeah, no, it’s alright.

Nima: It’s okay. It’s like you’ve listened to our show before. That’s fine. We like that.

Prakash Kashwan: I’ve actually bookmarked your show on beef and masculinity and settler colonialism. I think it’s directly related to this notion of environmentalism and assertion of settler masculinity. The first thing is there’s sort of abuse of the trope of, you know, noble Indians and noble savages, which is to say that, you know, and I, again, you know, one sort of unfortunate that I’ve been around long enough in this business, even though I’m really young, you know, comparatively speaking, but I’ve been around long enough to sort of, you know, hold people to their words and sort of go back and see, you know, how long you talked about this, and how little you actually moved, and sometimes moved backward actually. So these big global conservation NGOs, they came under heavy criticism in the late 1990s, and by early 2000, their strategy of setting aside large areas of quote-unquote “pristine wilderness,” under these protected areas was simply becoming unviable, because it was becoming blatantly obvious that these bigger conservation NGOs, they’re implicated in grave human rights violations, and so in early 2000, they set up all kinds of institutions, and they brought out dozens of reports calling on citing, they’re sort of pledging that they will now work through this so-called rights-based approaches to conservation, and so I simply took all of their reports, the lofty documents that they were citing as their commitment to respecting the rights of Indigenous people, and I said, I want to go through these documents, and I want to understand that if you meet an Indigenous family on the ground, which owns like two acres of land, or one hectare of land, and that’s the only land, you know, that they use to grow their own food, subsistence agriculture, and so forth, and if that land happens to be part of the area that you are out there to conserve, what kind of decision making models you will follow to deal with that situation? So I sort of took this very simple kind of a model, analytical problem, and I read through all of the documents, and none of them clarified any kind of objective criteria that they were going to abide by in implementing these kinds of rights based approaches, and so I started writing this, in 2010, I published that article in 2013, 10 years down the line, whatever I said in that article about the lack of accountability and the lack of sort of an approach that would hold these big conservation NGOs to their words, and that has been proven right. And so, so much, so that few months back, I think it was in October, that there was a congressional hearing, and global human rights leaders and conservation activists who have been working in Africa, Asia, they came out with graphic testimonies about how Indigenous people have been tortured, raped, and you know, they’ve been subjected to all kinds of humiliations on an everyday basis, including working with government agencies, and government rangers, who had shoot at sight and shoot to kill orders. And just to sort of, let’s, you know, hold that thought for a moment, what it means is that you first went from the colonial era onwards, you went to a land that was traditionally owned by these Indigenous people, they live there, and now you come up with a shoot-at-sight order, which means that if you see a person standing in the land that they traditionally owned, the ranger is free to shoot without asking questions, and the forestry agencies are their own sort of police court, everything. So there’s no public hearing of that and they are the ones who will write these reports and they’ll say, ‘This person was a suspected poacher.’ So somebody can be killed, right?

Nima: Right.

Prakash Kashwan: So these are the situations we are dealing with, and I wanted to go through this because people sitting here in US and Europe and Canada, they don’t quite recognize the gravity of what is it that we are dealing with. So this is the landscape we are dealing with, and now you have these well-oiled and well-resourced global conservation NGOs, which are putting in billions of dollars to protect 30 percent of the global land by 2030 and 50 percent of the land by 2050, and so forth. The reason we are now seeing this sort of this bandwagon of, you know, protecting the land is because those lands then become the stock of carbon offsets, right? So that I can continue to drive my SUV, I’ll pay my penance, you know, this kind of fee to offset my emissions, and those emissions will then go to these conservation lands, which will then work as the stock of wildlife and biodiversity and my carbon emissions, and maybe we can talk a bit more about how even those objectives of carbon sequestration and wildlife conservation will not be achieved, because you’re trying to do two contradictory things. But that aside, when you are setting up these 50 percent of the global land, we know which 50 percent we are talking about. It’s obviously, you know, as you cited the parking lot, I always want to start with Harvard, and some of these big institutions where academics are writing reports about preparing proposals about mapping land, to put aside as that 50 percent of stock of biodiversity and wildlife and so forth.

An acacia tree is planted in Madagascar as part of a World Wildlife Fund reforestation project. (WWF)

Nima: Right, but they’re not going to put aside Boston.

Prakash Kashwan: Exactly, exactly.

Nima: And so everything you’ve just said just makes me think of this idea of conservation and conservationists seeing Indigenous people as a mere inconvenience to nature, right? That only settlers are the good stewards of the land, and that, you know, I mean, you see this, and you’ve written about this, the idea that overpopulation is so often blamed for the destruction of more and more land that should be conserved. There’s this question of, conserved from and for who?

Prakash Kashwan: Exactly.

Nima: And so then it gets to, as you were just saying, that the land actually has to be defended by some against others, and this gets us back to this idea of fortress conservation. Can you tell us a bit about the green militarization of these policies, you know, define that for us and tell us, I mean, not that it sounds great, but tell us why it’s really a problem?

Prakash Kashwan: Right. So first, the phrase fortress conservation to the best I know was coined by Dan Brockington, who’s a senior social scientist at Sheffield University in the UK, and he’s spent a better part of his life in Tanzania, and around those parts, they’re researching how conservation works in practice on ground, and so the key sort of features of fortress conservations are four Fs, which is fines, fences, firearms, and nowadays, we have added big finance to that. We talked about the colonial legacy of enclosure of the land in the late 19th, and early 20th century. So all of those land areas are now classified as wildlife reserves or national parks and so forth, and anybody who enters those lands is fined. So there are actual monetary fines that the ranger will impose on anyone who’s found venturing into those lands and then if the fines are not thought to be sufficient, then you have firearms, and of course, all of those lands are fenced, which again, sometimes actually creates problems for wildlife itself, because it prevents, it blocks corridors and patterns of migration and so forth. And then now we also have the big finance that has come into this picture in two different ways. One, Mongabay, has been doing some really insightful, informative reports, and I’d ask your audience to sort of check out some of those reports, because when I talk, I’m actually sort of, you know, I’ve trained myself to think more deeply and more sort of, in an empathetic way about the historical trauma through which Indigenous people and other rural communities have gone through. So I say what needs to be said to accurately represent the historical trauma that global conservation has caused but Mongabay is not like that. They are a much softer reporting agency, and you’ll have to read the reports to get an idea of how rich, how mind bogglingly rich some of these big conservation NGOs are, and how those resources are spent. So any of your listeners who’ve been contributing to these big global conservation NGOs, they should first go and check the annual reports and financial reports about how much of that money is actually being spent for conservation action, on the ground conservation interventions, as opposed to folks, consultants and the executive directors flying from here all over the world, and all of those kinds of expenses or holding these annual sorts of parties and fundraisers and those kinds of things. So that was the first way in which finance has come into this picture. The second is the offset business that we talked about. So one part of the offset business is directly related to consumers paying the airline or Amazon or whoever, to offset your emissions. But another part of the offset happens through corporate social responsibility kinds of interventions. And again, there’s very serious documentation on how some of this corporate funding to WWF and other big conservation NGOs are blatant examples of greenwashing, where you use the idea of conservation, to hide away your dirty business basically, and again, to sort of refurbish your image so that you can continue to do what you’ve been doing, which is that you’ve been extracting and exploiting and all of that business. So that’s fortress conservation, the finance part actually makes it much more complicated than what it was in the early 2000s when Dan Brockington was writing about it, where it was only about fines, fences and firearms, and now you have the big finance making it even more complicated.

Adam: Yeah, I want to talk about that, you talk about neoliberalism, not in a buzzword-y way, but in a way that very clearly defines it as the kind of ideological, extremely convenient, ideological dogma that markets become the most valuable mechanism with which to do whatever it is, whatever policy outcome you supposedly want, and you mentioned this dogma of, quote, “if it pays it stays” of conservationship. In reading your work on this and other related work, it can be extremely confusing. Basically, you develop these monetization schemes complete with foundation, Big Foundation, and even sometimes government subsidies to effectively turn large rainforests into some kind of financial instrument, it’s almost like an NFT, and there’s this artificial scarcity, of course, this is not, this natural scarcity because of whatever, but it’s artificial in the sense that we just arbitrarily decided on these tools, and you make an argument that there’s a lot of empirical evidence that these are bullshit, and maybe make some people rich, a lot of consultants, there’s a huge consultant class here that seems to be doing very well. Can you go into that a little bit more so the audience kind of understands maybe on a more granular level, how it works and what are some of the problems with it?

Prakash Kashwan: Sure. And again, you know, that thing about layers, you know, I’m looking at like, multiple layers here. So, I think it helps to sort of do a lay person’s thinking here, which is that if you’re flying and you’re paying for your emissions, and those emissions, the airline claims that they’re going to invest in forest conservation somewhere to offset your emissions, right? So the tricky part there is that the claim is that whatever investment is being done, is adding to the existing stock of forests. So they’re arguing that if that offset investment was not done, that forest would either be cut down, or they are growing new forest.

Adam: Right.

Prakash Kashwan: And so, first of all, it’s very tricky. I mean, there’s a very complex subject. So I’m not sure I can do a good job of sort of explaining this, but there’s something called leakages, that if you protect X forest area, that the user of that forest, you know, that the logging companies or the ranchers, they’ll say, ‘Okay, we will give up this land.’ First of all, there is this sense of, we are giving up this land as if it was my birthright to log this forest or create a ranch here, and second, they will then receive money for giving up that exploitation, and there’s no guarantee that they will take away that money and go and invest the same money in creating another ranch or another logging operation somewhere. Now, of course, there are consultants, they have to do their thing, right? So they’ve created some kind of protocols to sort of check against this, but it is virtually impossible, especially in a globalized world where if you’re doing an offset intervention in the Philippines, the logging may actually move to Indonesia, or it may move to, you know, other parts of East Asia, how long you’re going to chase the loggers? So it’s simply infeasible to actually do a good accounting of it. So this, you know, right here is a sort of methodological scientific problem. The other problem is that different types of forest areas sequester different amounts of carbon, and there’s no way of accurately sort of assessing how much carbon was stocked in particular. The third part is that it has to be permanent. So if we are staring at climate crisis, and if we are saying that we will put this much of investment into these offsets, so McKinsey came out with a report a couple of days back, I think it came around 28th of January, or around that, and they’ve estimated that net zero is a $9 trillion business over the next 10 years or so. Something like that. So there’s big money here, and that big money has to be invested pretty quickly. Now, forest conservation, especially doing natural forest conservation, is a lifetime job, you know, you don’t create natural forest, old growth forest in a matter of 10 years. What you do in a matter of five to 10 years is fast growing, exotic species that you can plant through mechanized processes, and those species don’t quite conserve as much carbon as old growth forests do. Those species are also highly susceptible to large scale catastrophic fires, because they are monocultures and there’s no fire breaks and those kinds of problems, and these kinds of monoculture plantations are also ecologically problematic because they replace locally valuable, local species that provide all kinds of ecological and social services. So you’re not just sort of creating this kind of fictitious market, because nobody can actually see the emissions, right? The carbon that has been stopped in the forest and nobody can guarantee that a forest will not come under some kind of fire or other kinds of catastrophes, right? And so there’s all kinds of shadiness in this business and it has been well documented by scientific research. But the pool of big finance is so strong, that people are making all kinds of plans around this $9 trillion and there’s a book by Indian journalist P. Sainath, not the title of the book is, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, and so the point is that when there is a crisis, there’s a lot of money to be made by a lot of people, and that’s what we are seeing with the climate crisis right now.

Graphic from a January 2022 report by McKinsey & Company.

Adam: Where’s the money coming from? Who are they fleecing here? Who’s at the bottom of this Ponzi scheme?

Prakash Kashwan: So I think at the end of the day, they are fleecing humanity because if the goal is to stop fossil fuel-related emissions, anytime we hear the net zero, it is basically an argument for continuing the business some more for another 10 years or so, and they are arguing that whatever emissions are happening because of our dirty business, we are paying to offset it somewhere else, and so that’s happening in poor countries, and so most directly, the corporations, but many countries, large industrialized countries, such as the US, Canada, countries in the European Union, who are responsible for nearly 70 percent of the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases, they have to reduce their emissions. So they are getting into this big business of net zero and so it is both big governments and big corporations.

Nima: I mean, everything you’re saying makes me think of also this idea of Israeli and Zionist settlers saying that they made the desert of Palestine bloom, and by bringing pine trees to historic Palestine, and then claiming that this is a big victory when those plants should not be in that place. So say, you know, we are the stewards of this, you know, I mean, you’ve also written about how Safari operators and trophy hunting is somehow deemed an acceptable way to gain more funding for conservation, that somehow those are, you know, that’s an acceptable trade off.

Prakash Kashwan: Right. I mean, in fact, they don’t even use the language of trade off, they argue that, so you know, it is like, there’s a big stock of wildlife, which is our sort of principle in a sense, using the lingo of banking, it’s like principal and interest. So they’re arguing that if there’s a big stock of wildlife, and we can hunt a small portion of that wildlife, which pays for conserving wildlife in that area, or in that country, and that’s why if it pays, it stays kind of, you know, the same kind of argument, and this again, you know, one, it has been proven that this actually does not raise the kind of funding that the hunting companies and the tourism companies actually argue. Second, it actually fundamentally undermines the goal of conservation because a hunter who pays tens of thousands of dollars, they’re not going to hunt a weak old animal out there, they want to hunt the most, sort of biggest, the healthiest animal and so that systematically selectively kills the most potent and the most healthy stocks within the population, and there are all sorts of disturbances that these kinds of projects create, and of course, you know, all of the trophy hunting is done by most often rich white male tourists, who goes out to poor people, poor areas in Africa, and comes away with having, I don’t know how to say this, but having reaffirm their own masculinity, and then, of course, also come out with this notion that by doing this, they’ve also contributed to saving planet Earth, because they’re paying for conservation.

Nima: Right, this Theodore Roosevelt, they’re the ones who really care by being the great white hunter.

Prakash Kashwan: Right. All the ecological evidence that I have looked at actually shows that this is not a viable model, purely from a scientific perspective, and even if you weren’t able to put enough money, it will still undermine the ecological problems that trophy hunting creates. Now, to come back to the sort of the potentially tricky discussions that you mentioned, and I think we had a discussion beforehand, which is that there is an argument that, in some cases, there are community-based tourist operations which are benefiting from trophy hunting. And again, I don’t know of any conclusive research that shows that these kinds of operations have fundamentally uplifting, empowering effects on local communities, or that just because trophy hunting is done by a local community, that it is not going to be against environmental, ecological, it will not create ecological problems. So I wouldn’t claim that I’ve done an extensive literature review on this, but just by knowing what I know about the ecological impacts of hunting I would not say that just because the money is going to communities, trophy hunting suddenly becomes a good idea.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Yeah, just I mean, as a matter of sustainability, you know, having some natural gas billionaire from Oklahoma traveling to Africa to blow away Simba is probably not the best long-term solution, you know. Talking about solutions, because I think that everyone listening to this will think, will hear what a lot of people hear, which is, yeah, this all sucks, but clearly on some abstract level we kind of intuitively, again I think — we being the collective “we,” and this is one of the things your paper does very well, that there’s this flattening of power dynamics when we say “we” as humanity, but of course, like you mentioned, carbon emissions are coming mostly from people like me, who live in Chicago and go through 15 things of plastic a day so I want to be careful not to do that — but in some abstract sense, people understand that we probably need to conserve something. So you talk about solutions in your paper, what does this sort of non-colonial “conservation” quote-unquote look like?

Prakash Kashwan: Right, so I’ll give you three layers. So the first thing is that the moment any of us realizes that I need to be offsetting something, the moment you come across that opportunity, instead of thinking, ‘How do I offset? We should think, ‘How do I reduce?’ So if it is flying, can I fly less? If that is something, you know, there’s a meeting or a conference, I’m going over for the day and coming back, it can probably be avoided, or extend the stay so that you do multiple things in one fly trip and so forth. So first, focus on ourselves. Valorization of Indigenous culture will not reduce our consumption, and this is something that my colleagues and activists, who are also my friends, are often sort of so focused on, inspired by Indigenous culture, that we valorize that too much without actually directing attention to our own consumption practices. So I would say the first golden rule is, what is it that I can do to reduce consumption?

The second part is that we would agree that nobody is asking to dismantle national parks and wildlife reserves the next day. So what we should be asking is that these big conservation NGOs, who have budgets of literally hundreds of millions a year, where is that money going? And how could that money, those resources be redirected to Indigenous communities and community based groups who are doing the actual job of stewarding local biodiversity and local wildlife? So redirecting these sources, redirecting our own practices of consumption.

The third would be how do I reform the institutions of global conservation? So the government agencies who have a big sort of stranglehold over these kinds of resources coming from Global North, and use those resources to buy weapons and to buy drones and to buy air-conditioned cars and those kinds of things, how do we break those institutional systems so that these resources would actually be invested in conserving, and again, supporting local communities.

And the fourth one, which I think is the most important and which requires more research, and we are embarking on a large long term research project to do exactly that, which is to understand that, if we reject this model of ‘I live in a concrete jungle, and every weekend or every month or once a year I go to this area of pristine wilderness, and then I feel happy about it.’ How do we actually expand the circle of conservation, and bring that into our own communities, our own neighborhoods? So first, I would say all of us here in the US and Canada and Global North, we should ask these basic questions about why do we have such large areas of manicured lawns that require chemicals and machinery and all of these wasters and, and you know, those unbearable noises of lawn mowing and leaf blowing. So we should get rid of all of these practices and we should grow kitchen gardens, we should grow local species, and sometimes we should just let it grow, you know, if we cannot mow that’s fine. Creating all of that pollution and creating a manicured lawn is not helping us.

So the other side of this is that the Indigenous communities and the rural communities who have age-old agricultural practices that support that subsistence, but that also contribute to nitrogen fixation and soil carbon conservation, and water conservation, and because they grow these multi-crop, multi-seasonal, locally specific species of crops and vegetations in agroforestry, and so forth, they actually contribute to the global good of biodiversity and wildlife conservation by not falling into the trap of large scale industrial agriculture, and this is a massive global push right now, just when we are hitting the peak of climate crisis, there’s a global campaign to push mechanized, industrial, corporate controlled agricultural in parts of Africa and Asia, including in large countries, such as India. So we should oppose those kinds of models, and we should rechannel these subsidies that are going to corporations, we should redirect those subsidies to support local subsistence, organic, small scale, multi species agricultural practices.

Adam: I think we’re subtweeting Bill Gates there, which is good, we did a whole episode on his approach to Africa and its colonial implications, but we don’t have time to open up that can of worms.

Prakash Kashwan: But I do have to mention one thing, you know, you brought up Bill Gates, and you know, the other day I was thinking about this, and I said, you know, and I tweeted this, and this was, in my own small way to tweet said, “Bill Gates’ daytime job is to sell big tech as a solution to climate crisis.” The background or what happens in the background is that Bill Gates is acquiring land. So he’s selling big tech to the world, and he’s buying land, and then you know, in many cases those lands will come from local, poor communities, Indigenous communities, and so forth. So that’s really the paradox.

Nima: It’s just a real estate scheme.

Prakash Kashwan: Right. Exactly.

Nima: We’ve been speaking with Prakash Kashwan, Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, which is part of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut, UConn. Thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Prakash Kashwan: Thank you, Nima, Adam, and everyone. It’s such a pleasure to talk to you and thank you for doing this. You are holding some really important conversations and I look forward to keeping up with the podcast.


Adam: Yeah, I think it’s useful to talk about how these systems get repackaged and rebranded but in many ways, they’re still with us. This is why, because, you know, we spent the better part of 45 minutes talking about all the historical precedents and antecedents to this kind of logic, and people may hear that and they think, ‘Okay, people were racist 100 years ago, no shit, what are the stakes now?’ And the stakes now is that many of the same systems and marketing for capital accumulation and the ratio of Indigenous peoples still exist today, and obviously, there’s pushback and people are more aware of things, there’s a lot of kind of rhetorical box checking, that’s different and some of that’s good and some of that cynical, but the idea that the preservation of nature as such without any kind of context of historical, colonial, racial implications can get quite dangerous quite fast.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Because again, it sounds good. It sort of sounds romantic, clearly trees are good.

Nima: Well, right because it’s part of the mythmaking project, right? The thing about the conservationist movement is that it doesn’t center nature, it centers the conservationist so that you still have a story that has heroes, saviors, respecters of land, lovers of life, and all of that masks genocide, it masks horrors of the past.

Adam: Or it’s a plaything for the rich. I mean, you know, it’s a place you can go game hunt, or you can go find your manhood because you can’t find it at Harvard.

Nima: Well, right, exactly. Which is why so many of those early documents say, you know, they’re pleasure grounds for your soul, right?

Adam: I once got lost in Prospect Park at 1am, and did indeed find it to be a pleasure ground.

Nima: Yeah, obviously.

Adam: Sorry. I couldn’t pass it up.

Nima: But the concept that there’s a need for a conservationist movement, I think, itself kind of begs the question, what have you done to the land, that it needs to be conserved in the way that you are now deeming it necessary to conserve? It didn’t need to be conserved when Indigenous people lived on it, because there was a different kind of stewardship, a different kind of harmony between people and the land and the animals in the environment. But it is due to the idea of colonialism, of conquest, of exploitation and extraction, that then demands the kind of arch nobility of saying, ‘Oh, now we need to preserve,’ but who are you preserving for and from and what happens to the people whose land that is?

Adam: Right, because the political context of these sort of lofty words — something we do a lot on the show — of democracy, freedom, human rights, they’re all sort of good in theory, and then you look at how they’re applied, and of course, they’re not applied evenly. So not opposed to the trees, not going to cancel if you take the kiddos to Yosemite Park, but we need to understand how these forces emerge and how they’re still used on a global stage today to do a lot of this kind of head patting Global North, obviously many criticisms we’ve had, Jason Hickel, how we talked about the climate change, I was kind of like oh yeah, we you know, we develop through industrialization and emitting carbon, but you can’t, instantly that works in our favor because it keeps our power dynamics and keeps you dependent on our products and our economic systems, that these kind of lofty seemingly liberal concepts can become very colonial very quickly.

Nima: Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, February 23, 2022.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.




A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.

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Citations Needed

Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.

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