Interview with Dave Foreman

Dave Foreman is a leading figure in the conservation movement and the founder of both The Wildlands Network, a project at the forefront of continental-scale conservation, and Earth First!, a radical environmentalist group known in the 80s for its no-compromise approach to the defense of wild Nature.[1]

The following is a transcript of questions posed to Dave Foreman by David Skrbina, contributor to[2] the book Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, and Naturaleza Indómita, a Wildist group in Spain. Skrbina conducted the interview over telephone.

Skrbina: In regard to values, unlike in the USA, Australia, or Scandinavia in which there is a widely accepted, say, “wilderness culture,” in countries like Spain they face the problem that the concept of valuable “wild Nature” practically doesn’t exist. They have been living many centuries in a highly complex civilization, and large wilderness areas haven’t existed for such a long time, that most people seem to be unable of understanding—and thus of defending—the importance of wilderness, and of the reality and natural laws that maintain it. In fact, practically all Spanish environmentalist groups are more interested in achieving social justice than in protecting wilderness. What do you think are the reasons for this huge difference between, for example, Spain and the USA? And, more important, do you conceive any way of overcoming this problem?

Foreman: Ok, well, that is a very good question, a very deep question. It has a lot of layers to it. The key is that they need to start talking about wilderness and development. You know, one of the things that we’ve really failed on is natural history. People getting outside and bird watching, and identifying plants, and that sort of thing. That is an absolute key to building a wilderness movement. That is where I think they can start. That would be a good thing to do; make an inventory like in my book, The Big Outside (1998). Where are the wilderness areas in Spain; where are the mostly wild places? Make a list of that–map it. Who owns them? What can we do with them? How wild are they? What wildlife do they have? Is there any mature or uncut woods—old growth forest? Find that stuff.

My friends in the eastern United States started looking for old growth forest remnants, and the more they looked, the more they found. My closest collaborator, John Davis, and his mother, Mary Davis really started this and wrote a book about old growth in the east [Eastern Old-Growth Forests, 1996]. And she was in touch with all kinds of people, and they identified a couple of million acres, by bits and pieces, including one 50,000 acre chunk in the Adirondacks. Some of these trees are 700 years old; they were somehow just missed being cut down. To me that is fascinating. So you know, what is there in Spain? [A] national wildlife park in Southern Spain, I guess, it has a lot of waterfowl, and I think it also has got a main refuge for the Iberian lynx, but what else is there? What is in the Pyrenees? The Pyrenees were the last refuge for the Neanderthal!

Skrbina: You have shown public tolerance and even sympathy for some theories and struggles related with “social justice,” like feminism, for example. But don’t you think that many environmentalist organizations have eventually become ruined and perverted because of, among other reasons, the influence of “social justice” currents? We would like to know what you think today about this. Do you still think that leftist or humanistic—i.e., “social justice”—struggles are compatible with the defense of wild Nature?

Foreman: I think you exaggerate my sympathetic ideas. And in the book I’m finishing now, Take Back Conservation (2012), one of the things I criticize is how conservation in the US has been taken over by ‘progressives’ of the left of the Democratic party, something called the ‘environmentalist stereotype’–which is your liberal democrats, your vegetarians, your anti-guns and hunting, and so on. They link all these other things to conservation, but they don’t need to be linked. I also look at political correctness as one of the worst things tied to the environmentalist stereotype, and I’ve argued that what we need to do is try to not be beholden to the Democrats. Of course the Republicans are virtually crazy today. But there are people, if we could reach them, that talk about some traditional conservative values, such as piety, posterity, prudence, responsibility—all those kinds of things that won’t make us sound like leftists.

Skrbina: Also, related to population: As long as local populations can go on surpassing the carrying capacity of their environment using modern technology and the global trade system—which also depends on modern technology—could human population be reduced without large organizations controlling people, and without complex medical technology—and all the impact on wild ecosystems that they both imply?

Foreman: Well, I think that in the 1970s, in the US, we sort of did that [i.e. had that discussion on population], but then we got thrown off by the increase in immigration. You know, a lot of people of my generation decided not to have kids. I sat down and I came up with 100 people I knew, very easily, just off the top of my head, people of my generation who did not have children. In many cases it was a very conscious decision. And one of the things we need to do, and there are some folks in New England that are working on this and have a website, is to make the case for the quality of life you can have as a childless couple. I’ve got nephews and nieces, I don’t have any kids. But, I take my nephews and nieces out on the wild rivers and stuff like that. So there are a lot of ways you can do it.

Right now, I think society and technology push women in both the developed and the third worlds into generally having more children than they want. And we look at a place like Japan where the population is decreasing because the young women have been freed from a lesser place in society and they have decided there is something they want that is more important than having a bunch of babies.

Skrbina: So, the point is, in principal, you can do it without a large bureaucracy in place to control people.

Foreman: And besides, I think it is going to happen anyway whether we do it or not. You know, you get 7 billion large mammals who are, just about everyone of us, is in touch with every other one, within 48 hours, with modern air travel. We are setting ourselves up for a very deadly pandemic. And I think it is inevitable that that will happen. I don’t know when, I don’t know what. But, that is just the way ecology works. We are a big, fat, sitting duck for a predator; and that predator is going to be very, very tiny.

Skrbina: Right—we have these debates about which catastrophe is going to strike first: pandemic, global climate change, collapse of food supplies, water problems…

Foreman: I think in many ways they will come as one. But who knows. One thing that I would tell the folks from Spain about wilderness is that they need to come up with a word like ‘wilderness,’ and to do that they need to know the etymology of the word ‘wilderness’ in old English–in that it means ‘self-willed land’; the home of self-willed animals. How do you say that in Spanish? Don’t say ‘wilderness,’ say ‘self-willed land’ in Spanish.

Skrbina: As far as we know, you advocate ‘Pleistocene Rewilding.’ It’s obvious that ‘Pleistocene Rewilding’ is proposed on the basis of the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis, but isn’t it reckless to propose such an ecologically impactful thing only on the basis of a hypothesis which isn’t proven?…

Foreman: The last issue of Science just had a really solid piece, with the Pleistocene extinction in Australia that was entirely human-caused.[3] And that we are finding here in the US and Canada, with some studies of pond pollen and that kind of thing, is that the vegetation change came after people had gotten here and after the mega-herbivores were killed off. And so it is actually beginning to look like vegetation changes were caused by the loss of the mega-herbivores, and not that the vegetation changes caused the loss of the mega-herbivores. The opposite way.

But, from another standpoint, we can look at when Spanish horses escaped [in the US], just a few of them, and within something like 50 years, there were 2 million horses on the Great Plains running wild. And there were still 60 million bison, 40 million pronghorn sheep, 10 million elk out there. Now that says that the ecological niche was still there for those horses.

Of living kinds of horses, Prezwalski’s Horse, or the P. Horse, is the closest to the horse found in North America 13,000 years ago. Surviving P. Horses lived on the steppes of Asia, including the vast, wild plains of Mongolia. They nearly became extinct in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but captive breeding has increased numbers to a couple of thousand. Photo by Dave Foreman.

Of living kinds of horses, Prezwalski’s Horse, or the P. Horse, is the closest to the horse found in North America 13,000 years ago. Surviving P. Horses lived on the steppes of Asia, including the vast, wild plains of Mongolia. They nearly became extinct in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but captive breeding has increased numbers to a couple of thousand. Photo by Dave Foreman.

And there’s other research that has been done on some plants like Osage apple, and others from Central America, and avocados, and on how large herbivores are the ones who spread their seeds around and planted them in a nice big pile of shit as potting soil. And with the demise of the mega-herbivores, suddenly the range of these kinds of plants have shrunk. Actually the only wild animal that spreads avocados around in Central America now is the Jaguar. Horses and cattle have been doing it too now; but nonetheless, just from the impacts on vegetation we can see what the loss of the mega-herbivores has done.

And so there are those who say, well, let’s have an experiment with a few elephants—help deal with the invasion of mesquite into desert grasslands. Or a few camels. You know, let’s just do a nice, on-the-ground experiment. See what the impact of bringing some substitute mega-herbivores in would be.

There’s a place in northeastern New Mexico that has the largest herd of Przelwalski horses in the world–over 300 of them. And I’ve been up to see them. And on the high step, with Rocky Mountains driving up behind, they look just like the horses in cave paintings in Europe, and it is just phenomenal. Another friend of mine has been running bison on a restored cattle ranch, and is discovering the ecological impact of bison and how different they are from cattle. Today the cattle have just about cleaned out all of the native cactus, and they have opened up a juniper woodland. They actually even go into a larger streams and horn-up the beginning of the erosion of the head wall and smooth it out. All this incredible stuff that the bison do to make things better, whereas cattle do everything to make it worse.

With all of this research, it would be really nice to take it another step further. Let’s get all the animals here and watch what happens. Because when I was in South Africa, which looks so much like the American southwest, I saw 24 ungulate species, out of 42. How many do we have here? Seven! Because they’re all eating at different places in the ecosystem. And there is actually more room that way for more species. If we did that kind of experiment, we’d have more biomass on the ground, with more species, than with just a few. Until we do the experiments, we just don’t know.

Skrbina: So to complete the question: Even letting alone this aspect, and taking for granted that Pleistocene overkill hypothesis refers to a well-proven fact, isn’t it still too hazardous? Civilized solutions to problems—especially in the case of modern solutions—usually are worse than the problems themselves, that is, instead of really solving the problems, they usually create new and bigger problems, or worsen some other old ones.

Foreman: I generally agree with that. You must do it in certain spots, as a controlled experiment. The media reported that we just wanted to turn lions loose—no. You find a million acres in Texas where a guy wants to experiment, and you have some really top ecologists checking it out, and measuring, and seeing how things go. You need some predators to move everybody around. What we learned with wolves in Yellowstone is that it wasn’t wolves eating elk, but moving them around. Instead of the elk being fat and lazy and laying around in the river bottoms, and browsing away all the willows, they had to hide in the lodge pole pine. And it allowed the willows to come back on the streams. There is wonderful research done on this by some guys in Oregon State University.

Skrbina: Many people who advocate conservation and/or rewilding usually do it because they love wild Nature, wildlife, wilderness, wildlands, wild things, and wildness. And usually, conservation implies and needs managing of at least some parts and aspects of ecosystems which are being protected. Isn’t there an intrinsic contradiction between “wildness” and “wilderness protection management”? If one needs to manage an ecosystem to make or maintain it as “wild,” is it really wild then?

Foreman: That’s right. The next book I’m writing will go into that. It’s the divide between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, and following Pinchot, I call it ‘resourcism.’ Basically it is the ability to manage resources for the maximum value to man without degrading them. Whereas the idea of nature conservation is to protect wild things. And so there’s a fundamental difference between the two “conservations.”[4]

Grassroots groups are trying to protect wildness, whereas the US Forest Service and other agencies that manage wilderness areas are doing it to impose human will. To me the fundamental question is, “Who’s will”? Do we let the will of the land go, or do we impose human will?

But actually these questions are very good, and I could use them in my new books. Very thoughtful stuff. The questions are much different than what I was expecting–much deeper.

Skrbina: In this context, some other names come up—people like Derrick Jensen. What are your thoughts on him?

Foreman: I haven’t read any of Jensen’s stuff for a long time. He got really pissed at me over the breakup of Earth First! [See note 1.] Maybe he thought I treated Mike Roselle rudely, I don’t know. I know he has really carved out a position as a critic of technology and modernism.

Skrbina: You know, I saw him speak in person not long ago—he was in Michigan. It was a bit disappointing: kind of rambling, incoherent talk, lots of jokes, and not much serious talk. But he did bring up the important question of revolution versus reform. And his answer was that he supports both! Now to me, this seems like a contradiction—one is trying to fix the system, and the other is trying to tear it down. What are your thoughts?

Foreman: My fear is that revolutionaries nearly always become that which they revolt against. It doesn’t turn out that good. I have a low opinion of human beings. I don’t think they are capable of revolution. I think the most successful revolution that was really limited in scope was the American revolution, but even it has been fairly subverted by corporations and that type of thing.

Skrbina: Ok, but the technological system is different. You’re not trying to take power, you simply want to bring it crashing down. And then whoever survives will continue again as hunter-gatherers.

Foreman: The thing I see is that nobody “revolted” against the Soviet system, but it collapsed because of its own internal contradictions. In many ways, the Soviet and western systems are based on industrialism and exploitation, and so it is just that the Soviets were more inefficient and incompetent, so they crashed first.

Skrbina: Is it fair to say you would support industrial collapse? Would you see that as a possible outcome?

Foreman: I think industrial collapse is going to happen. In the long term it is a positive thing. And then since it is inevitable, it is probably better for it to happen sooner rather than later.

Skrbina: So shouldn’t you take some proactive action, to help it happen sooner rather than later?

Foreman: If you try to do that, might you not mess things up? I just don’t trust us to be able to adequately do it. My misanthropy—my atheistic Calvinism—prevents me from thinking that any group of people, no matter how well meaning, how intelligent, how ethical, are capable of solving these overwhelming institutional problems of mass civilization.

Skrbina: So you’re saying that the task is simply beyond our ability, and therefore we should not focus on it because we have no practical possibility of being an effective contributor to that—is that basically it? Instead we should focus on…what?

Foreman: My point is the system is going to come down, one way or another way, on its own. My task is keeping all the building blocks of future evolution that we can. I think evolution is the very heart and essence of wild things and of wildness.

Notes

  1. Foreman, along with most of the original members, left Earth First! in the late 1980s because the influx of leftists, anarchists, and counter-cultural types had taken the movement away from its original principles. You can read the prequel to his departure in the article “Whither Earth First!?” Howie Wolke, another founder, describes his version of events in the article “Earth First!: A Founder’s Story.” — Ed.
  2. Correction: This article originally stated that Skrbina edited the book, Technological Slavery, but he only wrote the introduction. We apologize for the error. — Ed.
  3. Foreman may be referring to the article “The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction,” Science, 2012. — Ed.
  4. Interested readers might want to read “Take Back the Conservation Movement” for a more in-depth explanation of Foreman’s distinction between conservationists and resourcists. — Ed.