Religious Zealots and Environmentalism

As we write this, two weeks have passed since terrorists destroyed the World Trade Towers, crashed a commercial jet into the Pentagon, and murdered thousands of people. We’ve watched and listened as shock and mourning gave way to anger targeting Muslims. This morning, as we prepared for the wolf walk, we listened to an Arab journalist on National Public Radio ask why the people who committed these heinous acts were referred to as “Islamic terrorists.” They are terrorists, he said, pure and simple; they do not represent the Islamic faith.

Those who murder doctors and bomb abortion clinics are not labeled Christian terrorists, nor was Jim Jones called a Christian dictator. Aum Shinrikyo’s cult, that released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, no more represented Buddhism than Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda represent Islam. When we allow a fringe group of fanatics to represent a group, we do them and ourselves a disservice. When we close our minds, stop learning, and shout slogans such as “You’re either for us or against us!” then we become the zealots. As zealots we are no longer able to step back and view our own actions as anything but righteous; no longer able to see ourselves through the eyes of others with different values. As zealots we cease working towards constructive change and stand as an obstacle to it by generating mistrust, polarization, and violence.

Shortly after the tragedy visited upon America, the Dalai Lama, an individual who lived through the annihilation of the country of his birth by the Republic of China, penned the following words: “This is the challenge that is placed before every thinking person today. What can I do to preserve the beauty and the wonder of our world and to eliminate the anger and hatred-and the disparity that inevitably cause it-in that part of the world which I touch.”

The words of the Dalai Lama have echoed in our minds since we first read them after the horrific events of September 11. Thoughts that we’ve discussed over and over concerning the “pro and anti” environmental movements began to gel and resulted in this essay. Hopefully, it is a coherent presentation of ideas that readers can take to heart during this season of reflection, compassion, and wishes of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

ENVIRONMENTALISM AND ITS OPPOSITE are forms of religion. Here are two definitions of religion from the Encarta Dictionary:

  • Personal Beliefs Or Values a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by;
  • Obsession an object, practice, cause, or activity that somebody is completely devoted to or obsessed by;
  • From Latin stem religion – “obligation, reverence,” of uncertain origin: probably formed from religare “to bind together”

Seeing the earth as a self-sustaining creation of which we are a part, not separate from or exploiter of, but subject to the same biological laws and benefits as any other earthly organism, that belief permeates our spirituality. There are others whose religion deems it a right, in fact a duty, to dominate, conquer, and subdue the earth; to utilize its resources without regard for the rest of creation. In the world of environmental issues, the zealots in the pro- and anti- factions beat their chests and point accusing fingers at each other. Since we’re environmentalists, in keeping with the Dalai Lama’s adage, we’re obligated to acknowledge the zealots under “our” own tent.

Over the years of working on environmental issues, we’ve heard an adage repeated time and again that goes something along the lines of: “Environmentalists never win, the best we achieve is a holding action.” Or “Environmentalists never win the war, only battles.” We have to admit to spending a fair amount of time agreeing with this sentiment. But to constantly look at life in this manner casts every disagreement in the guise of warlike conflict and turns us into victims-it doesn’t allow us to take satisfaction in “wins” nor does it take into account change.

The environmental zealots we’ve encountered define themselves in terms of what they’re in opposition to. Without an enemy they are nothing-lacking something to push against, they fall flat on their faces. It is difficult to negotiate with such people because, from their point-of-view, negotiation entails compromise and compromise denotes ‘giving up’ something. Therefore, they never see themselves as winning. They are always the losers. Through the eyes of a victim, the world is viewed with bitterness and thus, violence becomes justifiable. When zealots approach problem solving in a combative manner, it inspires a similar approach in their opposition. Violence, be it dispatched with words, fists, bullets or bombs, incites more violence.

In the years ahead, those interested in the future of wolves in the west have an opportunity to practice non-zealotry in their own lives. Wolf populations have increased significantly since their reintroduction to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1994. From a beginning of 30 individuals in each area, their numbers have increased to more 300.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with recovering wolves, has begun to talk about delisting those wolves and, in a few years, turning management over to the states, if and when the states develop management plans assuring that the current number of wolves continue to exist.

Already lines in the sand are being drawn by various and sundry groups both pro and con. Already shrill voices are trumpeting that delisting under any circumstance will spell doom for wolves, that there can be no compromise. And quite predictably, as postulated 314 years ago in the Newtonian laws regarding motion, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction-shrill voices of opposition call on state legislatures to eradicate wolves. Emails race back and forth across the internet accusing those on “their” side who dare to question their authority or “facts” of being traitors and betrayers of the “truth”. The zealots on each side inflame each other and cause the majority of those interested in wolves (both pro and con) to react fearfully, and to ignorantly and unthinkingly fall in lockstep behind the flag-waving, slogan-shouting zealots who appear to represent “their” side.

There will always be certifiable zealots in this world, people filled with hatred and an inability to see the “enemy” as human or issues as anything but black and white. They have lost control of their lives-perhaps due to genetic flaws and/or the intersection of fate and life experiences-and it is impossible for them to be anything other than what they are. They are to be pitied and carefully watched. But most zealots are zealots out of laziness, out of sloppy thinking, or non-thinking or out of fear that questioning “their” side will result in being cast out of the flock.

It’s easy to behave like puppy dogs, to follow our masters, even if they are zealots, wherever they lead us. It’s especially easy when we are embittered and see ourselves as victims hurt by the other side. But by barking slogans and joining with zealots on “our” side, we do exactly what the opposing zealots expect of us. In doing so we only serve to further strengthen the very forces we seek to overcome.

It’s much more difficult (and complicated) to attempt to see the world through the eyes of those whose values differ from our own, to recognize they are as blind and unable to fully comprehend our ideology as we are of understanding theirs. They, like us, are human and believe they are doing the right thing. It’s much more difficult to educate ourselves, to question our leaders and peers, to add a calming voice in the face of hyperbole and jingoism, to think for ourselves, and to take responsibility for our behavior, the actions of our leaders, and the resultant reactions of others. It’s much more difficult to display independence and courage, to be a wolf and not a puppy. It’s much more difficult to live free.

“Natural Music” from Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems by Robinson Jeffers (1925)

The old voice of the ocean, the bird chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of hunger-smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child’s; or like some girl’s breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.

Quite often it seems as if environmentalists are terrified of perceiving themselves as succeeding. Environmentalists succeeded when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho. (And to succeed doesn’t necessarily mean someone else has to lose. The experimental designation of wolves constituted a success for ranchers.) There are those who would grudgingly concede that we achieved a goal-but they’d quickly point out that things could change. Well of course they could. Politics could change the Endangered Species Act. The volcanic pressures that give vent to Yellowstone’s geothermal wonders could send the entire Plateau skyward as happened some 600,000 years ago (and at least twice prior to that). An asteroid could hit the earth. Life is full of change, it’s the only thing we can count on.

We’d like to claim that mulling this subject over and taking the time to write about it has initiated a change in the way we deal with conflict and opposition. If that were the case, we’d be in the spiritual-teacher business instead of being wolf wranglers who moonlight as environmental educators. This is going to take some work and the holiday season is a good time to start. Let’s remind each other to enjoy and appreciate the victories, large and small, that come our way. This doesn’t mean being less vigilant or adopting a na├»ve ‘don’t worry, be happy’ attitude. Let’s strive to initiate change with a ‘can-do’ attitude that combines strength with cooperation and empathy with resolve. Instead of rallying behind symbols and slogans, we need to engage our brains, educate ourselves, and do what we can to preserve the beauty and wonder in that part of the world that we touch. May the spirit of this holiday season open our hearts to the realization that all people are part of the human family.

Okay, okay, there are some people for whom we’d book passage on the next rocket to a distant black hole. But we’d do it with a smile. We’d call it tough love. We are after all, only human.

From the December 2001 Wild Sentry Newsletter #34, by Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker

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