We Ignore the U.N. Reports at Our Own Peril and Fiddle as the Earth Burns

A Commentary and Rant by Captain Paul Watson

Every day we are assaulted by politicians and some media attacking us for being alarmists and accusing us of exaggerating the threats facing the environment and especially our concerns for biodiversity diminishment and human population growth.

According to these voices of denial, the world is in great shape and there is no need to worry about global warming, climate change, species extinction, pollution, or anything else.

Apparently the only thing that matters in the view of these critics is that the stock market is active and the business of exploiting the world’s resources not be interfered with.

They call us doom and gloom Cassandra’s although they obviously know little about the famed prophetess of Troy because if they did, they would know that although she did indeed predict doom and gloom for Troy, she was right and the destruction of Troy could have been prevented if her father King Priam or her brothers Hector and Paris had only bothered to listen to her.

After more than three solid decades of being a front line activist for wildlife and habitat conservation, I have come to the conclusion that pretty much all of these critics have no idea about what they are talking about. They have no grounding in the reality of the natural world and spend most of their time distracted by mystical fantasies and the selfish pursuit of material pleasures.

The simple fact is that if anyone is unaware of the grave problems that threaten the survival of life on this planet then they are anthropocentrically arrogant or just plain willfully ignorant.

I attended the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972 and again in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Both those conferences vividly illustrated the problems. Both conferences made promises to address the problems and after more than 30 years, not a thing has been done to follow through on dealing with these very same problems. Instead we have more and graver problems.

Humanity simply lacks the political, cultural, social and economic motivation to do anything to tackle the issues of global warming or the destruction of bio-diversity on the planet.

Humanity has been busy for decades drafting and posting plenty of impressive documents, treaties, regulations, laws and conventions but aside from wasting great quantities of paper, little is actually done to enforce the rules. We love to have conversations about conservation, we just don’t get around to active conservationism.

This week the United Nations issued a 92 page Biodiversity Outlook Report. Like every other U.N. previously released report, this warning will be predictably filed and ignored.

The report states that humans are responsible for the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs and urges nations to make unprecedented extra efforts to reach a goal of slowing losses by 2010.

Of course we have heard this all before and predictably this warning will go ignored and will be attacked for being hysterically alarmist.

According to the report, habitats ranging from coral reefs to tropical rainforests face mounting threats.

The Secretariat of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity issued the report at the start of a March 20-31 U.N. meeting in Curitiba, Brazil.

According to the report, humans are currently responsible for the sixth major extinction event in the history of earth, and the greatest since the dinosaurs disappeared, 65 million years ago. Apart from the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the other “Big Five” extinctions were about 205, 250, 375 and 440 million years ago. Scientists suspect that asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions or sudden climate shifts may explain the five.

This time, we humans will be the cause for the massive extinction of our fellow Earthlings.

An escalating human population now exceeding 6.5 billion has undermined the carrying capacity for animals and plants as a result of increasing pollution, expanding cities, deforestation, the introduction of “alien species” and global warming.

The report estimates that the current rate of extinction is 1,000 times faster than historical rates, jeopardizing a global goal set at a 2002 U.N. summit in Johannesburg to achieve by 2010, a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity losses. This means that “unprecedented additional effort” will be needed to achieve the 2010 biodiversity target at national, regional and global levels. This report is gloomier than the first U.N. review of the diversity of life issued in 2001.

According to the “Red List” compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 844 animals and plants are known to have gone extinct in the last 500 years, ranging from the Dodo to the Golden Toad in Costa Rica. It says the figures are underestimated.

The report states that the direct causes of biodiversity loss — habitat change, over-exploitation, the introduction of invasive alien species, human population increases, nutrient loading and climate change — show no sign of abating.

The report urges increased efforts to safeguard habitats ranging from deserts to jungles and better management of resources from fresh water to timber. About 12 percent of the Earth’s land surface is in protected areas, against just 0.6 percent of the oceans.

The report states that the annual net loss of forests was 18 million acres — an area the size of Panama or Ireland — from 2000-2005.

Just another report of gloom and doom to be issued, reported by some media, and destined to be ignored.

We fight a losing battle, especially out on the oceans where there are fantastic profits to be made from illegal exploitation of marine species yet very little economic incentive to protect these species.

Added to this is the corporatization of environmental groups as they evolve into national and international feel good businesses. People literally join them to feel good and then the groups juggle a mixture of fear-mongering and pseudo-solutions to make it appear that progress is being made.

There is however plenty to be fearful about. The mass disappearance of animal and plant species, the global destruction of coral reefs, the melting of the ice shelves, the toxification of the oceans, deforestation, etc. If people are not afraid for the future, they are simply not paying attention to what is happening to the world around them.

Yet these large groups of which I am the co-founder of one (Greenpeace) and presently a national director of another (The Sierra Club USA) are simply strumming banjos and tapping their feet to the fiddles as the environment deteriorates around them. The waste of funds on triviality by all these organizations is astounding.

We have lost our great bellowing voices like David Brower and Edward Abbey. We are rapidly losing the passion that built this movement to people more concerned about investment portfolios and political posturing.

There still are individuals fighting the good fight and some of these individuals are in a position to be heard and to be effective. But their numbers are so small and growing smaller.

We have Elizabeth May with the Sierra Club of Canada still leading the charge against the enemies of the environment in Canada. In the United States the Club has devolved into a xenophobic paranoid group of eco-papists more concerned about appeasing the Democratic Party, the Christian Right, trophy hunters, and the politically correct than they are about actually saving the environment.

Thankfully we still do have individuals like Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas, Dave Foreman and Yvon Chouinard amongst others still fighting the odds to champion specific species, or habitats or working to provide environmentally non-harmful products.

But we have few politicians even remotely concerned about environmental issues and no one wants to touch the issue of population. Even a hint that one may think there is a population problem is an invitation to be stamped with the label of racist or misanthrope.

We have groups like Greenpeace raising money to bear witness to all the destruction. They hang banners and indulge in plenty of media posturing events but they are doing relatively very little and certainly not much relative to the big bucks they bring in. The bulk of their funds get channeled into fund-raising and administration activities and their legendary boats have become expensive media props.

We have the World Wildlife Fund collecting money at airports to save wildlife as they condone seal hunts, the fur trade and sport hunting. They have not even been able to protect their symbol the Panda.

On the other hand we have groups like Earth Island, Wild Aid, Sea Shepherd and others that despite the relative lack of funds can still direct volunteers into the front lines to actually save species and habitats.

The paradox is that the groups with the money do relatively little in comparison to the groups without the money.

The reason for this is that power corrupts and most groups lose their ideals and original objectives when they reach a certain level of bureaucratic complexity.

Bureaucracy translates into ineffectiveness and the inability for anyone to make an intelligent decision.

I have almost completed my three year term as a Sierra Club director and looking back I am hard-pressed to see where we discussed much about conservation and the environment at all.

For three years we have been locked into inane debates over administration, election of directors, staff issues, changing the rules to protect the Club from conservationist idealists and other boring non-relative issues. During the last meeting, the topic was raised about our fiduciary responsibility to our members to make money on our investments by lifting some of the environmental screens on these investments.

The movement to un-democratize and make the Sierra Club boringly administrative is moving right along and this year for the first time there were no petition candidates for the Board of Directors. They had all been bullied off by the sheer power of the Club’s Executive Directors’ influence backed up by Club legal, public relations and financial resources. The Executive director and his staff even thought it was amusing to put up a web page featuring Club leaders posing with their trophy killed animals and fish.

The Sierra Club now condemns sprawl without citing population increase as a reason for sprawl. The Club now wants to restore the Colorado River without removing dams. The Club wants to be seen as the vanguard of the environmental movement while maintaining the status quo. After all there are Club jobs and benefits at stake and they have no intention of having unpaid volunteer idealistic directors like Ben Zuckerman, Lisa Force, Doug LaFollette. Marcia Hanscom, myself and others upset their little nest egg.

This planet will not be saved by their eco-institutions. They are simply a distraction and a bottomless pit for well-intentioned donations siphoned off for the material support of eco-bureacrats, mundane and useless reports, boring committee meetings, and conferences that serve as a forum for people to sell t-shirts and remind each other that we have problems that some day we really must address.

How can I say this more directly?

The fact is that the oceans are dying. That is a fact backed up by so many damn research studies, reports, conference results and expert opinions. The problem is that there are research studies, reports, conference results and expert opinions to say just the opposite and since the money is to be made from those who promote the sunny and bright approach, that is where we sit – in the sun watching the world turn to shit at our own hands.

People are either making money off of exploiting the planet or they are making money off of saving the planet. Very little money is actually being spent to protect the planet.

An example is the plight of the whales. Groups raised a few million pounds to unsuccessfully “protect” a whale caught accidentally in the Thames River. Around the world the large organizations raise tens of millions of dollars to “protect” and “save” the whales.

Yet when two of my crew dive into the water in Japan to cut the nets to save 15 dolphins from certain death, they are condemned as “radicals.” When I chase outlaw pirate whale killers out of the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary, I am called a “renegade.”

In fact anytime anyone actually does something physically, they can expect to be condemned. The conservation movement seems to only value action on paper.

“Wow, we had a successful global warming conference in Montreal.” I heard one Greenpeace spokesperson say. “We really got to talk about the problem.”

Or, “we got an editorial in the New York Times, man that’ll show Bush we mean business.”

Or, “we have twenty million pieces of mail out there asking for support to end the seal hunt. That will give us enough support to finance mailing out another twenty million pieces of mail.”

The fact is that wildlife rangers in Africa, South America and Asia need vehicles, rifles and funds to stop poachers. The Galapagos needs resources to stop poachers. My request to the Sierra Club for financial help for the Galapagos rangers was met with the argument that I would have to go through the international committee and they decided that the Galapagos was not a priority. What is a priority is sending Sierra Club International Committee members on junkets to attend conferences in Bangkok or Halifax.

The fact is that logging roads need to be blocked and illegal logging needs to be stopped in the courts or on the road. The fact is that funds are needed to directly combat illegal fishing.

We have talked about the issues for years and we have done little. And when we do something, anything we are condemned.

We need to drop net-rippers on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland to stop illegal trawlers. We need to aggressively promote birth control and encourage people to voluntarily reduce the number of children they inflict upon the Earth. We need to change our diets, our habits and our material desires and we need to end our addiction to oil.

President George Bush and Sierra Club Director Carl Pope have both said we need to end our addiction to oil. They are both posturing, saying what people want to hear in a passive aggressive attitude of “do what I tell you but not as I do.”

One of the Sierra Club directors who was so viciously vilified by the Old Guard in the Club is Dr. Ben Zuckerman, a distinguished astronomer from UCLA who was viciously dismissed for his views on population. Yet Ben practices what he preaches. He has had no children and avoids driving a car, preferring to utilize public transport to walk.

This is the man that I have heard other directors and Club staff say, “Thank God he’s not around anymore.”

Thanks to the Club’s actions in making it more difficult to be elected to the Board, exemplary directors like Ben Zuckerman will not be allowed to taint the Board with “radical” ideas like addressing population growth. And they will be very relieved when I am no longer on the board to question their dietary priorities or question their right to shoot a moose.

Yes, just another report of gloom and doom. Species extinction blah, blah, destruction of habitats, blah, blah blah.

Break out more fiddles and strum those banjos louder because humanity does not want to know what is coming down the road towards us.

Bird flu, hey we’ll deal it it when it gets here. Running out of water, we can always invade Canada. Species extinction, who needs bugs and rats. Over-population, hey we need votes, donors and consumers – it’s the economy stupid.

Yes Sir, just another report.

Life goes on. Or will it?

Captain Paul Watson
Founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (1977)
Co-Founder of Greenpeace International (1979)
Co-Founder of the Greenpeace Foundation (1972)
National Director of the Sierra Club USA (2003-2006)
Director of the Farley Mowat Institute

Give me a fair ship so that I make sail into harm’s way.

– Captain John Paul Jones
– Founder of the United States and Russian Navies

Whom when I asked from what place he came
And how he hight, himselfe he did ycleepe,
The Shepheard of the Ocean by Name,
And said he came from the main-sea deepe.

– Edward Spencer