Are you an American Environmentalist?

Have you ever been to a National Park? How did you get there? Did you happen to drive a vehicle that consumes fossil fuels and produces carbon dioxide? Was this your way of getting out into the wilderness for a weekend? At National Parks, one can experience the untouched beauty that exists outside of our industrialized society. It is where we can go to escape our fast-paced lives and appreciate nature and its untouchedness.

When reading Ramachandra Guha’s essay entitled, “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” I felt necessarily called out for my “American” values. Environmentalists tend to differ on which environmental issues deserve priority. How do we decide which issues to address? Guha discusses this question and how radical American environmentalists, whom he calls “deep ecologists,” seem to have limited views that reflect their first-world privilege.

One of the main attributes that differentiate these “deep ecologists,” says Guha, is their focus on shifting the environmental movement from anthropocentric to biocentric. Before I read Guha’s essay, my views more or less reflected this mindset. I felt, thousands of years of humans focusing on their own advancement has only led to the degradation of the earth, and so the only way for us to fix this is to not focus on ourselves. Come to find out, it’s not that simple! Guha claims that the degradation of the environment for “anthropocentric” goals is inherently bad for humans because, well, we are destroying OUR environment. So technically, anything that destroys the environment cannot be called “anthropocentric.” In my life, I’ve always had a passion for saving the planet because I want to be able to appreciate its beauty forever. It is my own experience and relationship with nature that fuels my environmentalist passions. By improving the environment, we are doing ourselves, and humanity in general, a favor.

Guha claims that “deep ecologists” focus too much on the preservation and restoration of pristine wilderness, and tend to ignore environmental issues that impact the well-being of impoverished people. In the past century, many environmental efforts have consisted of setting aside land as “reserves,” “national parks,” “national forests,” etc. While these are valuable efforts, Guha claims that they are actually disenfranchising the poor. Guha discusses a case where the Indian government set aside land for tigers and other such wildlife, which permanently displaced impoverished families. Guha’s point is that, under the guise of “wilderness protection,” countries are prioritizing touristry over the lives of those who were forced to move from their homes.

Guha claims that because of these conservatory efforts, environmentalists tend to completely ignore and abandon the lives of the poor who tend to suffer as a result. I believe that Guha is correct. We should not let environmental successes such as the National Park System overshadow other necessary measures that need to be taken. While Guha seems to view these efforts negatively, I do not think we should completely cast out these measures. Why shouldn’t we conserve the few expanses of nature on this earth that haven’t been damaged? The point is, we should also be focusing on more problematic environmental issues that are affecting people right now. We simply cannot be blind to those who are suffering.

With this point in mind, we can look at how we contribute to the tourist industry. Even our own National Parks are ironic, as Guha points out. We drive hundreds of miles in an (often) fossil fuel-driven car to these pristine wildernesses and are satisfied with our decisions to escape our societal realities. But really, if National Parks are filling up more and more every year, and in order to get to them we are cumulatively consuming a large amount of fuel, and therefore producing more carbon dioxide as a result of our “wilderness excursion,” then how environmentally conscious are we?

Enjoying nature has become an important part of consumer society. Guha even goes on to say that “economic growth in the west has historically rested on the economic and ecological exploitation of the Third World.” Guha is trying to make readers aware of how limited their views on environmentalism may be. I do not necessarily think we should stop going to national parks. These are beautiful places and I encourage people to camp and enjoy nature as much as possible. But after reading Guha’s essay, I believe that we should be more aware of our western ways of looking at environmental issues and try to have a broader way of looking at such issues.

In short, Guha’s essay exposed me to my privileged way of thinking about the environment. As a society, we need to start focusing on environmental issues that affect people. This does not, by any means, mean that we need to stop putting aside land as reserves and national parks. Instead, we need to focus on the consequences that environmental decisions would have on people. We cannot simply make national parks and call it a day. Environmental efforts moving forward should focus on improving the lives of the poorest people in the world, rather than the rich tourists of the world.

I wrote this article in 2018 for my Intro to Environmental Studies course.



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Isabella Blair

Isabella Blair


Road tripper, outdoor enthusiast, environmental studies student. Investigating inequality, climate change, and international affairs.