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We Only Protect What We Love: Michael Soule On The Vanishing Wilderness

In April, The Sun magazine published Leath Tonino’s probing interview with Michael Soule—preeminent conservation biologist and co-founder of Wildlands Network. While visiting Soule at his home in Colorado, Tonino prompted his esteemed host to discuss his astute insights on wild nature, human nature, and the perilous ground where the two conflict in the contemporary world. The interview is raw and honest and well worth the emotional journey as a reader.

Elder man in sun-protective clothing sits in yellow raft on a river and reads
Michael Soule relaxes on the Green River, Utah, 2013. Photo: Paula MacKay

On a more personal note, I’ve had the honor of knowing Michael for 20-plus years, and of benefitting from his profound knowledge as a scientist and a thinker. It’s no exaggeration to say that Michael has influenced an entire generation of conservation biologists and then some, and that his love for the natural world has permeated the very fabric of global conservation. The pain that Michael conveys in Tonino’s interview—for nature’s loss and for our collective selfishness in bringing it about—is shared by me and many others in the Wildlands community. So, too, is his love for all things wild and free. Thank you, Michael, for reminding us that, even in these divisive times, “the basis for conservation has to be love.”

Thanks also to Leath Tonino for his generosity in allowing us to re-publish a substantial excerpt from his interview, below. Please peruse the interview in its entirety on The Sun’s website.

We Only Protect What We Love: Michael Soule on the Vanishing Wilderness (by Leath Tonino)

Elder man with sunglasses and hat sits at a sandy campsite with a large tree behind him
Soule says he has always loved, and will always love, wild nature. Photo: Paula MacKay

Tonino: You once described conservation biology as a “crisis discipline.” What’s the crisis?

Soule: That phrase is from a paper I published in 1985, outlining what was then a new field of study. The crisis, both then and now, is what’s called the Sixth Great Extinction. It’s the only extinction event in the planet’s history caused by an animal, as opposed to volcanic activity or an ice age or a meteor impact. The animal is us.

The number of species is decreasing. Once one is gone, it’s always gone. Life will go on, but the planet won’t be the same.

Tonino: Not long ago you predicted that the planet will be unlivable for people and the majority of large mammals by the end of the twenty-first century. This prediction seems more daunting than what most of us are prepared to accept. Can you back it up?

Soule: It’s not some special insight of my own creation. It’s a conclusion that many scientists from various fields have come to together. When we started the field of conservation biology in the 1980s, we weren’t aware of global warming, which has since become a major issue, mostly because it’s begun to directly affect our lives. Few people—few politicians, especially—actually give a damn about the damages to nature. Scientists, however, are coming out and saying that, unless we act in a determined and organized way, what we’re doing to the climate will mean the end of civilization as we know it. Most of the large animals are already gone or are disappearing quick. It’s migrate, adapt, or perish. Humanity won’t last either, not in our current numbers.

Climate change spells disaster. The world won’t be recognizable to us in fifty to a hundred years. Scientists conduct research, write books, and hold conferences, and politicians occasionally pass new legislation, but as a society we’re not doing much of anything about it. We appear stuck.

An orange-brown small furry mammal mouths a tiny version of itself
We only protect what we love. Marmots. Photo: William C. Gladish

Tonino: Why doesn’t society act?

Soule: For one thing, it’s because of how we’re organized. In U.S. politics we’ve got two-year terms for congressional representatives, four-year terms for presidents, and six-year terms for senators. Most politicians care only about what will happen on their watch and in the next election. The shit won’t hit the fan today. Twenty or thirty years from now, it will be disastrous, but by then these people who are neglecting their responsibilities will be retired or dead.

And it’s not just politicians. We all think this way. It’s human nature to be concerned mostly with short-term threats. We don’t change our behavior to avoid future disasters. Instead we wait around for something to force us to change. It’s part of our genetic makeup. Population biologist Paul Ehrlich, who was my mentor at Stanford, pointed out that we didn’t evolve to deal with these medium- and long-term crises. Immediate crises we can deal with superbly. When the lion is circling our camp right now, we’re very capable of protecting our children and our livestock.

If we want to make changes to the way society operates, we’ve got to be political. There’s no way around it.

Maybe we can’t change, even though the day of reckoning approaches. In western Colorado we’re at the edge of the Southwest, a very dry place. Climatologists say that water-stressed regions will be altered dramatically. Drought will become the norm. What little water remains will be the most valuable resource. In some parts of the world it already is. Most people who study climate change agree that droughts, rising seas, forest fires, and hurricanes will exert such overwhelming stress on daily life that even politicians will be concerned. By then it will be too late for a lot of species and a lot of places and a lot of human communities. It’s an “interesting time,” as the Chinese say.

Tonino: What do you mean?

Soule: There’s a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” An invading enemy makes for “interesting times.” So does a global extinction crisis. It’s much better to live in boring times.

Tonino: John McPhee, in his book Annals of the Former World, says that writing about geologic time scales is “mind-fracturing.”

Face shot of elderly bald man with short gray beard and mustache, arid mountain landscape in background
Photo: Courtesy of Michael Soule

Soule: Yes, and it’s not only time that’s hard for us to grasp but space. We have evolved to comprehend issues at the scale of a watershed or mountain range. Thinking about anything “global” presents a serious cognitive challenge.

Few fields in science deal with these widespread, long-term issues. People in politics and business and the media don’t look at these phenomena. Our life spans are so short that we just can’t deal psychologically with long-term changes in the environment. We’re not equipped.

Tonino: To shift the scale: What about the microscopic? You’ve written that we aren’t just losing grandeur but also subtlety.

Soule: The obvious losses in the natural world, such as the whales and elephants—the megafauna—are manifestations of the more invisible losses. One of the delights of exploring nature is entering that realm of subtlety where the smallest detail matters: The molecular composition of the soil. The microscopic creatures in the water.

Orange marble-like spheres with tiny fish barely visible within them
Salmon eggs. Photo: Peter Steenstra, USFWS

Subtle changes go unnoticed unless one is a naturalist and has spent time in the field getting to know the flora and fauna over seasons and years. The changes we see, if we see them at all, are the larger trends that result from the small changes. There are some politicians who recognize what’s happening, but it’s political suicide to publicize these issues. At best, a fraction of your constituency cares. Publicly discussing the environment only alienates the majority of your supporters.

Tonino: You keep steering us back to politics. Is that because conservation biologists’ work is of limited value unless it actually alters the political process?

Soule: If we want to make changes to the way society operates, we’ve got to be political. There’s no way around it. But conservative politicians are in the business of denying that anything bad is happening, and just about all politicians want to avoid controversy. In the most recent presidential election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both avoided talking about environmental issues. About half of American voters are Democrats, and about half are Republicans. If that split is immutable, we have to accept gridlock. Progressives who support environmental protections aren’t going to be able to make the majority adopt their viewpoint.

Tonino: Aren’t there any groups of voters who do place a higher premium on environmental issues?

Rugged mountains and small clouds reflected on a lake at dusk
Wilderness reflection in the Olympic Range, Washington. Photo: Paula MacKay

Soule: There are people who work for government agencies that protect habitat. There are people who work on behalf of hunting and fishing interests. There are people whose business is to conserve natural resources.

For the record, I don’t like the term “natural resources.” It almost always refers to resources valuable to humans, not to the huge diversity of nonhuman species.

Maybe it’s a foolish hope to lean on, but religious Christians represent another potential group of voters who care about nature. The Bible says God created everything and pronounced it good. That must mean biodiversity is good, right? If we’re destroying creation, surely that’s a bad thing in the eyes of God.

I don’t know how many conservative Christians feel that way—probably not very many—but at least there’s some common ground there, a point of contact between the religious folks and conservationists. Maybe together these groups can act as a kind of brake on our short-term economic impulses.

Tonino: We’ve been discussing imminent threat as a motivator for people to take action, but what about the love of nature? Might it stir people to action better than fear?

Soule: We need both. Anxiety and passion often go hand in hand for conservation biologists. We are dealing with a diminishing asset—wildness—whether it’s the disappearance of a single species or an entire fauna, such as Africa’s wildlife. Lurking in the minds of most conservation biologists is a singular realization: Our subject matter is disappearing. When this awareness becomes commonplace—just part of the job, another day at the office—much anxiety and passion can be lost, bumped out by the everyday concerns of making a living. So we have to keep feeling our way through the crisis. We have to feel frightened, to feel the loss and not just understand it from behind a desk.

Maybe it takes a tangible threat to our home environment to make us realize that we really do love the earth.

I have always loved, and will always love, wild nature: Plants and animals. Places that are still intact. Though others might avoid the word, I insist that we talk about “love” in conservation, because we only protect what we love. The reason we act when something threatens our family or our neighborhood is because we love these people and places. Maybe it takes a tangible threat to our home environment to make us realize that we really do love the earth.

These days, from what I can tell, not many people are passionate about biodiversity. At best, families pack into the car and head out for a summer camping trip. If you’re wealthy, maybe you fly to a resort town where you own a second or third home. For many the enjoyment of nature usually involves a snowmobile or off-road vehicle—a “gas toy,” as my wife calls them. When the vacation ends, it’s back to the “real world.” Of course, the real world is the one where the permafrost is melting and the extinction rates are ramping up, all of it very rapidly. But, as I’ve said, our time scales of concern are days and weeks, not decades and centuries. The big picture is lost.

A female moose dips her head into blue-green water as her calf nuzzles her neck, knee-deep in the water.
A mother moose and her calf. Photo: William C. Gladish

I once did a rough estimate of what percentage of Americans truly care about the diversity of species and ecosystems. I approached the estimate by looking at charitable giving: To what causes do people donate money? It turned out that less than half of 1 percent of donations went to conservation organizations. That’s just enough to keep some of these organizations alive — and, by extension, to keep some endangered species alive. Half of 1 percent. Or less.

Tonino: Many of us have probably forgotten, if we ever knew in the first place, why biodiversity is important. What is its value?

Soule: I don’t know. All I know is that I spent a tremendous amount of time outside as a kid, wandering around, mostly by myself, and that I always felt at home in nature. And nature is biodiversity. It’s difficult to speak about this feeling of being at home—of finding solace in nature—because the experience is emotional. It’s the heart that falls in love.

Close-up of a hand holding a small lizard with red spots.
Long-nosed leopard lizard. Photo: Tracey Butcher

Nobody else in my family shared my particular fascination. I lived near the coast in San Diego and was always out on the beaches, or on the cliffs above the beaches, or on the chaparral slopes, or in the nearby mountains. When I was a teenager, somebody told me I ought to go to the natural history museum; a bunch of kids who cared about butterflies and snakes and rodents hung out there. That’s how I found my people. There were probably twenty of us junior naturalists. We studied birds and lizards the way other kids memorized the San Diego Padres’ batting lineup and the makes and models of automobiles.

We loved the desert because it was full of reptiles. We would take field trips down to the Anza-Borrego Desert and Baja California. Our parents were nervous about letting their teenage children roam around Mexico totally unsupervised. We played a game while driving: Who could recognize a species of plant or animal in the distance and shout out its Latin name first? Our little competition helped us learn the scientific names of hundreds of plants and animals. That’s what got us excited. My mother must have thought I was strange, but she encouraged my pursuit. That support from her and from my friends was a blessing.

Close up of very pointy cactus needles and green cactus growth
Cactus in Anza-Borrego Desert, California. Photo: Jon Sullivan (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Tonino: But what’s the value of biodiversity from the scientific perspective?

You just want to be around the things you love because they make you feel happy.

Soule: I could talk about the integrity and resiliency of ecosystems and other principles you might find in a textbook, but that misses the point. People always look for the rational reason, the utilitarian argument, the economic justification. My interest in nature never had a payoff, except emotionally. When I’m in a place with many creatures, I feel good, and when there are no creatures around, I feel bad. It’s not rational. It’s a personal aesthetic. You just want to be around the things you love because they make you feel happy.

When I was with that group of kids, we never once talked about why we wanted to explore dry washes in the Borrego Desert, or why we wanted to study plants in the Cuyamaca Mountains. It was just so satisfying to be out there, flipping over rocks in search of creatures.

Species have an intrinsic value. They’re valuable simply because they exist. They don’t need our stamp of approval. Biodiversity doesn’t have to be of use. Almost everything important in our lives comes back to love, to what feels good, to the people and places we like to be around and the activities that stimulate us.

(read the entire interview)

6 thoughts on “We Only Protect What We Love: Michael Soule On The Vanishing Wilderness

  1. Many of my friends of like age and inclination tell me they’re glad they will be dead before the full disaster hits. Even though I, too, will be dead by then, I am sad and disheartened to know what the future holds for this planet.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Axel–and indeed, as Michael said, these are “interesting” times. But of course none of us chooses when we enter this world, and these happen to be the times in which you and I and 7 billion-plus other people are living. The best we can do is celebrate the beauty of our wild Earth and do our darnedest to protect what we love. Let’s tell our pessimistic friends that nature needs love now more than ever.

  2. Beautiful work, Michael and whole Wildlands team! It’s an inspiration to be working with you, for the greatest cause on Earth.
    Gratefully
    John Davis, Rewilding Earth

  3. After almost 3 decades of my own conservation education and work, luckily with people like Soule, Foreman, and John Davis, I fear I’ve made one key miscalculation. It has to do with what Soule said early on about him being the only kid in his family turning over rocks, being in nature. There are tons of families that don’t even have that one kid. Then his calculation about 1/2 of 1% donations going to conservation organizations. All this time I’ve always thought that, deep down, people would care. I’d keep fighting because they’ll come around. We just have to find a way to “wake them up,” or as Soule said here “feel the connections.” My outlook was wrong. People currently, probably inherently, care about people first, nature second, if at all. If there is any hope in all of this it is that we may finally, after decades of failure, figure out a way to make vast swaths of humanity suddenly care very deeply about nature in a non-economic, selfless way. At the end of the day, for me, it’s the only fight worth having and I’ve got nothing else to do until I die, so I’m having it.

  4. Thanks, Jack. I think part of our work is to remind (and model for) today’s kids that there are STILL many rocks to be turned over–if we can only step away from our phones and other screens long enough to notice the mysteries of nature all around us.

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