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On Berry and Single-Issue Movements

The word “environmentalism” today invokes an almost instantaneous connection to a range of single-issue environmental movements and for good reason. The past three decades or so have seen the proliferation of organizations with a narrowed-down cause (or a single issue, for purposes of clarity) ranging from a specific animal or plant to a specific moral issue, such as abortion. While movements such as these heighten the awareness of people to advocacies beneficial to the environment and perhaps to an extent draw in enough attention to have the cause supported and acted upon by authorities, their very nature works against them.

This paper aims to support Wendell Berry’s argument against single-issue movements, and forwards as its thesis the following statement: Single-issue movements are fated to fail because they are too localized in their solutions, thereby neglecting to give due attention to other factors that are related – directly and indirectly – to their chosen cause. Berry’s stand on the efficiency of single-issue movements in realizing their respective advocacies is best explained by a “line of thought” (ironically comprising several paragraphs) he has included in his essay “In Distrust of Movements”:

[We] can show the hopelessness of single-issue causes and single-issue movements by following a line of thought such as this: We need a continuous supply of uncontaminated water. Therefore, we need (among other things) soil-and-water-conserving ways of agriculture and forestry that are not dependent on monoculture, toxic chemicals, or the indifference and violence that always accompany big-scale industrial enterprises on the land. Therefore, we need diversified, small-scale land economies that are dependent on people.

Therefore, we need people with the knowledge, skills, motives and attitudes required by diversified, small-scale land economies. And all this is clear and comfortable enough, until we recognize the question we have come to: Where are the people? There is no significant urban constituency, no formidable consumer lobby, no noticeable political leadership, for good land-use practices, for good farming and good forestry, for restoration of abused land, or for halting the destruction of land by so-called “development” (Berry).

Succinctly put, what Berry is trying to show is that single-issue causes fail because in their efforts to zero in on a specific issue, they come up with solutions that eventually prove to be short-term or temporary. He calls these solutions “piecemeal, one-shot solutions” that overlook the basic fact that “the world is still intricate and vast… where we cannot do one thing without doing many things, or put two things together without putting many things together” (Berry).

This line of thinking is reminiscent of the path taken by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their controversial essay Death of Environmentalism, wherein they argued that: “Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed ‘thing”’- ‘the environment’ — than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who nearly a century ago observed, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

’” Additionally, they share with Berry his view on single-issue movements, arguing that these “special interest” organizations “[define] the problem so narrowly and [offer] technical policy solutions instead of an inspiring vision” (Little). There is ample evidence to prove the self-defeating irony that persists in single-issue movements, and that eventually lead to the failure of their goals.

A case that called the attention of one of the proponents of the abolitionist approach in animal rights, Gary Francione, is a prime example of the flaw single-issue organizations have in relation to Shellenberger’s and Nordhaus’ view that these types of movements “offer technical policy solutions” (Little). Francione in his blog recounts an incident involving animal abuse, wherein despite satisfactory documentation of the acts of cruelty towards animals in a farm in Pennsylvania, the state court judge exonerated the farmers in question in the face of existing anti-cruelty statutes in the state (Francione).

Although prima facie the decision to acquit the farmers is wrong, Francione contends that the fault lies in the ineffectivity of anticruelty statutes, to quote: “[Anticruelty] statutes do not work and fail to provide significant protection to animal interests. These statutes are criminal statutes, and they require the state prove that violators have a criminal intent. Given that we live in a society in which almost everyone regards animal exploitation as normal, it is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone acted with a criminal intent when they inflicted pain and death on a nonhuman.

(Francione)” In relation to the argument that failure of single-issue movements is due to their being “special interest” organizations (Little), one need only bring to mind the documented failure of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to support it. To begin, in July of 2004 the United States House Resources Committee reported that the success rate of the Act is only 0. 01% in a span of three decades – meaning only a handful of species have been recovered and removed from the list of endangered animals (Bean, 2005).

Such an embarrassing turnout may be largely attributed to the fact that recovery plans are vague in their timelines and so numerous that the resources allotted for the Act, however gargantuan, will prove to be insufficient in satisfactorily meeting the individual needs of the projects. The plausibility of this assumption is reinforced by an essay written by the people behind the smartMeme Project under the Earth First!

Organization – a radical environmentalist group. In the article it was pointed out that the failure of environmental groups to coalesce their issues into a “holistic analysis about the type of cultural transformation that is needed to address the ecological crisis” has resulted into a competition amongst the single-issue movements for the resources – time and money – and compassion of people (Bell). The findings of the U. S.

Government Accountability Office (GAO) likewise provide pertinent information to further bolster the validity of the observation of the smartMeme Project. In its report entitled Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown, the GAO specified that under the Endangered Species Act, all recovery plans are required to “incorporate, to the maximum extent practicable: (1) site specific management actions, (2) time and cost estimates for completing site specific management actions, and (3) recovery criteria”.

In light of the aforementioned requirements, it was reported that of the 107 randomly selected plans under observation, 73 had no definite recovery timeline of the endangered species they represent; of the remaining 34, 27 indicated a timetable of 10-50 years before the species are recovered. Apart from that, 87 of the 107 plans did not indicate cost estimates; and of the 20 remaining plans, an average of $15. 9 million is needed per plan to facilitate recovery of the represented species.

It can be observed that with regard to time and financial resource needed, there is quite a large number of recovery plans that have not submitted quantifiable values. It is acceptable to assume that this is because the groups forwarding the plan believe that recovery of the species they represent should be done no matter the cost and no matter how long it will take – the typical sentiment of single-issue movements. Given these facts, it is easy to deduce that it will take a long period of time and an unimaginable amount of resources for the ESA to be declared as successful.

It is worth noting, however briefly, that more than documented cases of failure of plans, perhaps the Achilles’ heel of single-issue movements is the emergence of what is termed as “single issue terrorism” by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) – defined as “extremist militancy on the part of groups or individuals protesting a perceived grievance or wrong usually attributed to governmental action or inaction” (Smith).

Following the train of thought in the preceding paragraphs, it can be said that since the information landscape of the world is already saturated with advocacies, it is not remote that single-issue movements – in an effort to capture the sentiments and eventually support of their chosen group of people – will resort to radical methods of information dissemination, however unlawful and unethical. The occurrence of such a phenomenon is clearly a sign of failure on the part of single-issue organizations, and a sign of the need for a transformation within the movement of environmentalism in general.

The need for change from traditional environmentalism to one that is broader in vision is an inevitable step, one that comes in the heels of the recognition of more and more organizations – even single-issue ones – of the fact that the methods to capture the awareness of people in decades past are no longer effective today. To quote the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund of the Aspen Institute: [The] researchers call attention to the failure of the traditional environmental movement to make visible the connections among environmental abuse, poverty and economic inequality, racism, the lack of democracy, and the consolidation of corporate power.

This limited scope has resulted, the researchers argue, in poorly enforced, limited laws that seek to control pollution rather than prevent it; in environmental organizations built on a corporate model that inhibits broad based citizen empowerment in favor of a dues-paying and petition-signing membership; and in a fragmented, single-issue environmentalism that cannot address fundamental social and institutional change (Philanthropy and Environmental Justice).

The statement above is but a reiteration of what has been mentioned in one of the preceding paragraphs: that in order for genuine positive environmental change to happen, proponents of environmentalism should deem single-issue movements obsolete in favor of a unified body that addresses environmental problems not through eliminating effects – by means of “piecemeal” solutions – but through knowing, and transforming the factors that are at the root of the global environmental crisis. Works Cited Bean, Michael J. “The Endangered Species Act: Success or Failure? ” May 2005. Environmental Defense Center for Conservation Incentives.

7 May 2009 <http://www. edf. org/documents/4465_ESA_Success%20or%20Failure. pdf> Bell, James John, J. Cookson, Ilyse Hogue and Patrick Reinsborough. “smartMeme II: The Next Environmental Movement. ” Earth First! Journal. Earth First! 7 May 2009 <http://www. earthfirstjournal. org/article. php? id=156> Berry, Wendell. “In Distrust of Movements. ” (Reprinted from Resurgence magazine, issue 198) Weblog entry. The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles. January/February 2000. The Greenhorns. 7 May 2009 <http://thegreenhorns. wordpress. com/essays/essay-in-distrust-of-movements-by-wendell-berry/> Francione, Gary. “The Failure of Anticruelty Laws.

” Weblog entry. Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach. 13 June 2007. 7 May 2009 <http://abolitionistapproach. com/the-failure-of-anticruelty-laws/> Little, Amanda Griscom. “Do environmental groups have death wish? Authors of controversial essay interviewed about their thesis. ” Msnbc. com. 17 January 2005. MSNBC. 7 May 2009 <http://www. msnbc. msn. com/id/6834926/mm,/> “Philanthropy and the Environmental Justice Movement: A Call to Build More Effective Partnerships. ” Snapshots: Research Highlights from the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund. April 2001. The Aspen Institute. 7 May 2009 <http://www. nonprofitresearch.

org/usr_doc/55774. pdf> Shellenberger, Michael and Ted Nordhaus. “The Death of Environmentalism. ” Grist. org. October 2004. Grist. 7 May 2009 < http://www. grist. org/article/doe-reprint/> Smith, G. Davidson. “Commentary No. 74: Single Issue Terrorism. ” Commentary. Winter 1998. Analysis and Production Branch of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. 7 May 2009 <http://www. csis-scrs. gc. ca/pblctns/cmmntr/cm74-eng. asp> U. S. Government Accountability Office. “Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown. ” 6 April 2006. U. S. Government Accountability Office. 7 May 2009 <http://gao. gov/>

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