The March 4 headline in Buzzfeed was startling but perhaps not surprising: “WWF’s Secret War: WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured and Killed People.” The WWF, of course, is the World Wide Fund for Nature (formerly the World Wildlife Fund), a leading environmental group that boasts annual revenues of $335 million and offices in 40 countries. At that size, one would expect the WWF to be doing a lot more than recycling and eating granola.
Indeed, as the Buzzfeed article—actually three articles, stretching to over 11,000 words—makes plain, the WWF’s critter-friendly vibe cloaks a strong hammer: “In national parks across Asia and Africa, the beloved nonprofit with the cuddly panda logo funds, equips, and works directly with paramilitary forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people.”
Moreover, as Buzzfeed also details, the WWF has actively worked with governments, such as that of Nepal, to clear away entire local populations to make room for parks—and the experiences of the locals have not been happy ones.
To be sure, all throughout human history, people have been fighting over territory. And beyond the myriad wars, conquests, and banditries waged over land-lust, the past is also replete with instances where the powerful used legal processes to evict the powerless from given patches of ground. Oftentimes, animals were a part of the equation.
For instance, in the 18th century, landlords in Scotland realized that sheep were worth more than tenant farmers, because wool could be sold to the burgeoning mills of Birmingham and Manchester. And so the lords launched the highland clearances to get rid of the people. Depending on who was handling the jurisprudence, this was a supposedly legal—albeit not particularly peaceful—process of dispossession. That’s how people with names such as “Pinkerton” ended up in North America.
At around the same time, the English gentry got to thinking that it was tiresome to share the abundance of common areas, such as fields and forests, with the peasantry. For centuries, all classes had enjoyed the right both to hunt game and pluck plants, but as populations rose—and as the elite grew greedier—the traditional arrangement became untenable. The result was a massive crackdown on the folk, when, in 1723, Parliament passed the Black Act (the “Black” referred to the practice of poachers blackening their faces as a means of disguise).
Three centuries later, that law is still remembered for its property-first ruthlessness.
As recorded by the British historian E.P. Thompson in his 1975 volume Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, the legislation imposed the death penalty for dozens of crimes, including poaching deer, rabbits, birds, and fish. Capital punishment was also threatened for other rustic offenses, against orchards, gardens, and cattle.
It’s been estimated that the total number of executions under the Black Act during the next century amounted to somewhere between 200 and 350. That’s not that large a number, and yet to evolving English sensibilities, even a single judicial killing for grabbing a conie was one too many. Happily, the law was repealed in 1823.
Yet if we step back and consider both the highland clearances and the Black Act, we can see that see that people will fight over animals as much as anything else.
So it’s not surprising that in the 20th century, a new kind of animal-related cause arose, and it was once again a fight—a fight to protect animals as well as their habitats.
In 1906, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the federal government assumed control of what’s now Yosemite National Park. And yes, there were people living on the land at the time: we can leave it to others to judge the humaneness of depopulating the park.
So now to today: as the Buzzfeed articles help make clear, environmentalists—now a worldwide group, even if they are, of course, strongest in the West—are increasingly finding themselves in feuds with local populations.
You see, the greens are often far fonder of wild animals than are the locals, who have to actually live among them. For instance, in India, hundreds of people are killed each year by elephants and tigers. And the affection of some Indians for nature is not likely to be increased by a recent court decision that could lead to nearly two million people being evicted from the land on which they live—or, if one prefers, on which they squat. The point here is not to judge who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s to count votes—and it’s people, of course, not animals, who cast ballots.
In India, it’s a clear battle: champions of animals versus champions of people. And this clash extends across the globe. In Brazil, for example, new president Jair Bolsonaro won a big mandate last year, in part on his pledge to open up the Amazon rainforest to development. And in Indonesia, authorities have approved a China-financed dam that greens say could destroy the habitat of orangutans.
It would seem that the fundamental issue is that the world has a population of nearly 7.7 billion—and that they all want better lives. And most of the planet’s teeming masses seem to define “better” the same way the American labor leader Samuel Gompers put it a century ago: “more.” Synonyms for “more,” we might note, include “larger,” “newer,” and “more convenient.”
With the Gompersian injunction of “more” in mind, it’s obvious that any ideology that advocates “less” is not going to be popular in very many places. And yet ever since Malthus, the greens and other kinds of conservatives have typically been associated with “less”—that is, “less” for ordinary people.
Yet at the same time, we must observe that the greens have a point about animals, nature, and the natural order: biophilia is, after all, a deep-seated human impulse.
So is there a way to reconcile development and nature? “More” and “less”? To harmonize these antonyms? Perhaps there is, thanks to transformational technology. Yes, counterintuitive as it might seem, the geek can be a friend to the green.
From a geeky perspective, we might consider three variables of “more” as applied to the cause of protecting nature—that is, more land, more animals, and more animal parts.
In this world, if land gets scarce, we can always make more of it. The Dutch have been reclaiming land from the sea for centuries, and many coastal and riverine cities around the world, including in the U.S., have substantially infilled. And of course, they’re building new places in the Mediterranean, in the Persian Gulf, and in the South China Sea. (As this author has argued, carbon sequestered from the atmosphere, as part of an effort to combat climate change, would make dandy material for landfill.)
Needless to say, many greens oppose these and other land reclamation efforts. Yet the human imperative to build is almost always stronger than the opposition to building—that’s why the world looks as it does. It’s simple really: “more” beats “less.”
Shifting from land to animals, we can note that the idea of a technological stratagem to save animals is as old as Noah’s Ark. We’ve had zoos for centuries, and we’ve bred once-wild animals. In fact, we have enough money in the world now to do just about anything we wish. It’s been estimated, for example, that more than 1,000 animal species have been “translocated” from one place to another, for reasons of both animal well-being and human enjoyment.
Admittedly, the mere transfer of a prized species to a safer locale doesn’t protect the entire native ecosystem. And so more elaborate forms of translocation might be needed. Yes, this would be expensive, but it’s likely to prove more politically sustainable than hiring murderous mercenaries to protect ecosystems in situ. It’s worth remembering, too, that England’s Black Act was repealed; in other words, even if the gentry is okay with killing poachers, the local population doesn’t much care for the practice—and eventually the majority rules. So if rich Western greens think they can hire enough local compradors to do their bidding over the long run, well, they should study the history of colonialism.
As for beefing up animal populations, there are lots of strategies for that, too, including the relatively new strategy of cloning. It’s now easy to crank out animals, from cows to pigs to house pets, and so if we need more Bengal Tigers, well, that’s doable.
Of course, there’s another possibility: making, in a lab, animal parts. As we know, most poaching these days is in pursuit of given animal features, such as rhinoceros horns, elephant tusks, and shark fins. So with a geek’s eye, we can see that if we can create those desired body parts artificially, we could take the pressure off of natural animals.
Yes, the heebie-jeebie factor in such artificial production is strong. And yes, it’s a bit unhinging to think that we could be mass-producing animal parts, the trafficking of which we currently seek to ban. And yes, too, some consumers might still prefer “natural” to “artificial”—even if the distinction is all but indistinguishable. As we know, few things are actually easy to do and get done—but they still might be worth doing. If the old paradigm isn’t working, it’s better to try a new one.
That is, if the earth is crowded and getting more crowded, and the goal of saving animals and nature is colliding with that crowd, then it might be time for the greens to learn from the geeks and embrace new and disruptive approaches.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.