Racism in Ecology

The topic of racism came up in a private email thread recently, and I share my thoughts on the matter with you.

“Racism” is a hot button word. Its use often inflames passions and thereby clouds the actual point an author/scholar wishes to make. However, there IS such a thing as racism, just as there ARE such things as cultural bigotry, genocide, eugenics, prejudice, and general socio-cultural blindness to various forms of discordant anti-human behaviors throughout history.

Racism is prejudice or animosity against people who belong to other races and the belief that people of some races are inherently superior or inferior. We are all quite familiar with the common cultural usage, which refers to current events and modern social strife. But in my usage of the term, I have meant something more historical and existential and perhaps less overt — a type of insidious racial prejudice ingrained in the science of ecology.

The blindness I refer to is the galloping ignorance displayed almost ubiquitously regarding the historical role of human beings in nature.

Humanity has shaped landscapes, vegetation, and wildlife populations since our emergence from the shadows of some African cave 150,000 years ago. Our forebears created cultural landscapes through fire, hunting, proto-agriculture, and other impacts on every continent most especially over the last 10,000 years (the Anthropocene).

The evidence is overwhelming that people have been shaping nature for umpteen centuries. Please see the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: History of Western Landscapes [here] for landmark studies of historical human influences on the environment.

Those studies are rare. Our collection is special. That is because, for the most part, modern ecology all but denies historical human impacts.

Ecology is, or should be, an historical science. Ecologists seek to understand how animal and plant populations change over time. Popular ecological theories tend to leave humanity out of the equation, despite glaring empirical anomalies that negate and disprove those theories.

It is also clear that those defective theories are a product of Western (European) science and are not shared by traditional ecological schools of thought of non-European cultural origins. It is also a hard lesson of history that Western (European) cultures have profoundly racist roots. The connection (same foundation) between philosophies of science and of socio-politics that emanate from the Western (European) tradition cannot be ignored.

When a branch of science denies the existence and essential humanity of non-European peoples, what should we call that? “Galloping ignorance” is fair but perhaps too forgiving, because the pervasive blindness of ecologists towards historical human influences is rooted in a profoundly racist tradition.

Many scholars trace the origins of the wilderness movement to European romanticism, primativism, and transcendentalism, and to 19th Century American adherents such as Thoreau, Muir, Emerson, etc. See The Pristine Myth by William Denevan [here] and Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation by S.B. Hecht [here] for examples. But the notion of a wild frontier devoid of significant human influence extends much farther back, to the European Medieval period and the first exo-European explorations, and perhaps even farther back to the Dark Ages and that extremely xenophobic (and xeno-ignorant) Europe.

Some find the concept of a human-less wilderness world in the Bible, but I don’t share that conclusion. The early Biblical scribes were well-aware that different tribes of people inhabited the known world. Some modern scholars (Mark Vande Pol for instance) find an environmental ethic (and specific environmental stewardship instructions) in the Old Testament [here].

I surmise from my study of history that the worldview of nature-absent-humanity is more recent, Dark Aged more or less, and of European origin.

Whatever the origins, modern wildlife studies worldwide (as promulgated by scientists of the Western tradition) routinely ignore historical human influences. The same is true of vegetation studies. I can count on one hand (well, maybe two or three hands) the scientists (and environmental historians) who acknowledge the fundamental historical role of human beings in shaping nature and “natural” environments. Conversely, there are thousands of scientists and environmental historians who are utterly clueless regarding the anthropogenic development pathways of our forests, woodlands, savannas, prairies, and of wildlife populations for millennia.

I’m not talking about casual or garden-variety racial prejudice; we all acknowledge that and decry those mindsets and practices. I am referring to a deeper sort of essential philosophical blindness that infects our shared worldview across Western science, religion, politics, and culture in general, manifesting itself in ecology, natural resource management, and indeed every other sort of environmental study and endeavor.

It could be that the word “racism” is too strong and leads to greater misunderstanding. To be sure, I very seldom use the term for exactly that reason. But the mountain of ignorance we face is huge and largely inert. Maybe the clueless mass of scientists, historians, natural resource managers, and the general public need a strong jolt to shake them out of their (essentially racist) fog.

Reactions to the use of the word “racism” are understandable (predictable, typical). Strong words evoke strong emotional responses. I hope, however, that we can corral our emotions, recognize though introspection that anger and dismay are reactive rather than reasoned, and that we will seek to find the deeper message being conveyed.

I see I have written an apologia of sorts. Let me formalize it: I am sorry for using the term “racist” to describe an entire branch of science. I meant it when I said it (wrote it), I still mean it, but I am sorry for the hurt feelings and misunderstandings my belligerent forthrightness may have caused (and probably will cause in the future). Mea culpa.

But I am not asking for forgiveness. Instead I am asking for ecologists to examine their own scientific prejudices, the origins of those, and to do some thinking outside the traditional box. Because the traditions that constitute the box have flaws, and those flaws blind us to reality.

Sometimes the truth can be uncomfortable, or even downright painful. Like a slap upside the head. Science should, however, be respectful and appreciative of the truth. It is our grail, after all. We should welcome the shock of realization when the Brick of Truth is thrown through our windows.

6 Jun 2010, 12:40am
by Bob Zybach


Nice essay. For reasons you cite, I often use the qualified term “institutionalized racism” to describe the ecological sciences, national policies, and natural histories that ignore the obvious role of people in their common disciplines. (It is ironic that so-called “climate sciences” seem to be the only ones putting people in their place these days — and they seem to be missing the mark badly.)

Yes, these people are “ignorant,” but that is too mild a term. And they are certainly “racist,” but — as you point out — that word has all kinds of politicized baggage attached to it and is usually misinterpreted for that reason. Context is everything, but subtlety is often lost when charged terms enter the discussion.

The point has been made, in North American ecological studies as an example, that agency scientists and politicians are specifically racist — discounting 10,000 years of American Indian influence as largely incidental and localized; while 300 years of European influence is seen as widely harmful and permanently degrading. Similar “scientific” and political visions exist for Australia, Africa, South America, and even Europe.

But, in the greater context, “institutionalized racism” can be seen as a basic hatred and disregard of all human efforts and activities, no matter the skin color — where “man is a visitor, who does not remain” is a kinder, gentler way of stating that all people are basically pathogens and tend to seriously mess things up, no matter their motivations.

This, then, is largely a self-hatred exercise, for whatever reasons. Scientists should know better, but apparently don’t, or can be bought on the cheap. Something needs to be done, and it is hard to tell what it is and how it can be best achieved. More light on the topic? Or better mirrors for ourselves and our (true) motives?

We need to get this elephant out of the room and into the streets. It will never be housebroken, and it costs to much to feed and clean. Thanks for your work in that regard.

6 Jun 2010, 1:21am
by Mike

What can be done?

My friend the Rogue Pundit wrote an interesting post today [here]

Celebrating Poverty

For the third year now, National Geographic and opinion research firm GlobeScan have teamed together to produce the Greendex, a metric designed to discourage consumption. As one would figure, the U.S. scores poorly.

The Greendex is a comprehensive measure of consumer behavior in 65 areas relating to housing, transportation, food and consumer goods. Greendex 2010 ranks average consumers in 17 countries—up from 14 in 2008 for which changes are tracked—according to the environmental impact of their discretionary and nondiscretionary consumption patterns within these four major categories [housing, transport, food, and goods--everyday consumption and big ticket items].

Here are the results. Notice how the least developed nations are all at the top of the list as having the greenest consumers. Excessive consumption is obviously an important topic, but this type of survey essentially ends up celebrating poverty. …

Down and out in Ecotopia. Poor is rich, sick is healthy, famished is full.

What movie are these people in? Nat Geo pushes a clay-coated glossy pile of fresh tree pulp, a heavyweight wood product commodity that the recyclers don’t want. They pile up in basements and garages, while the publishers sip martinis at Beltway parties and champion the virtues of poverty. Film noir, irony personified and portraited, the pop of champagne corks, bared breasted indigenes, fly mottled children with distended stomachs…

From the outside it seems to be a form of insanity, self-inflicted and incurable. But it could be that the pristine myth, akin to the people-as-pathogens concept, is more of a worldview than a psycho-pathology [here]:

[T]he fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing natural philosophy, fundamental existential and normative postulates or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.The term is a loan translation or calque of German Weltanschauung, composed of Welt, ‘world’, and Anschauung, ‘view’ or ‘outlook’. It is a concept fundamental to German philosophy and epistemology and refers to a wide world perception. Additionally, it refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual interprets the world and interacts with it.

Mario Blaser argues [here] that worldviews (or ontologies) are made up of “factishes”, something between a fact (external, objective) and a fetish (internal, subjective). All ontologies are made up of factishes, and so it is not so much a clash of worldviews but of actual worlds.

The Yshiro call their territory the yrmo, a word that also connotes world or cosmos…

We live in different yrmos, like parallel universes. We need something to bridge the void, like a rocket ship capable of traveling between planets.

6 Jun 2010, 3:06pm
by John B.

I don’t know if “racism” is as accurate as “self-aggrandizement,” but my view is that it’s still a subset of “might makes right”.

Ecologists that I know personally are all quite aware of the “management” that humans, stone-age and modern, have provided to our environs. There are issues of “Intention” and “Degree” that also affect outlooks about what’s been going on… and, of course, ecologists (maybe more than any other science other than nuclear physicists) are guilty of “bearing the white man’s burden”… at least subconsciously.

It isn’t fair, either… why the rangeland scientists or the Schools of Forestry grads rarely feel so moved; but that’s one advantage of our system of scientific method that has used and supported deductive reasoning and the atomization of scientific pursuits into specialties as a way of avoiding confrontation with “the Big Picture” — which is what ecologists attempt to embrace, in their efforts to comprehend what they behold.

When I look at time-lines and degrees of changes in ecosystems myself, I see that Douglas-fir was lurking somewhere south of the Oregon/Cali border when the most recent glaciation began pulling back… and that, in only a couple thousand years was crossing the Columbia River (around the time the Fort Rock sandals were removed from someone’s feet for the last time). The pamphlet, “Trees to Know In Oregon” (which taught me that hemlocks and spruces weren’t fir trees back in ‘69) showed that, when it was written (1930s) Douglas-fir had progressed well into BC. It looks like incense cedar is about to follow it North across the big river, in the next few hundred years.

Trees with big fat seeds, like oak, don’t get around as easily. The indigenous trade routes through the Cascades in WA show a trail of Garry oak from the west side prairies into the Yakima Valley, as well as progression north from the Columbia Gorge onto the plateau “homelands” of the Yakamas. The northernmost population of these that are breeding successfully and holding their own is a population in the upper Yakima River in the Swauk Creek drainage.

I don’t know how long it took the oaks to get there, but in all likelihood humans played a key role. As a keystone species, the oaks are important in ecosystem delineation… as are Douglas-fir, western red cedar, hemlock, Sitka spruce and a few other major coverers of real estate including sagebrush, dominant prairie grasses, microbiotic crusts, mosses and other growy things.

Wheat and cheatgrass are growy things, too… prominent and dominant in ecosystems here and there, thanks to ‘modern’ agriculture. The leverage provided by the industrial revolution and a world-view that recognized commerce as superior to subsistence made changes at a relatively breath-taking rate, compared with that of the wind, birds, wandering animals and stone-age peoples. I’m quite certain that ‘early’ humans made what they considered “big mistakes” at times with fire. Today we see “big mistakes” from a number of vectors… including fire.

The “might is Right” thing is pretty obvious, to me, in any number of displays of socio/politico/economic thinking… e.g. “We can’t trust the Iranians to develop nukes.” I recall a “Q and A” session years ago at which a Weyerhaeuser executive responded that “Red cedar is not conducive to regeneration.” (Now, if he had said “Sitka spruce”, I might have agreed… but I digress.) Maybe it was a question about why they logged out the cedar and hemlock and planted fir exclusively. Whatever…

I don’t know an ecologist who’d deny that indigenous peoples “parked out” the valleys and prairies and post-glacial outwashes west of the mountains using fire. I also don’t know one who’d argue that lightning on the east side of the mountains hadn’t done pretty much the same… in the random and apparently haphazard ways of ‘Nature’.

I DO hear arguments pro and con about post-1900 fire prevention efforts, and the thinking that drove it… and the “natural vs artificial” restoration of burned-over land… and stuff like that. But, if I had to pick my “bought and paid for” scientific outlooks based on what I see in the forests these days, I’ll go with the government’s “experts”… simply based on the condition of the forests that each camp represents… AND the ways in which they’re run (if anybody is “running” forests these days). They look, feel, smell and taste better… maybe because they aren’t being run with money uppermost in the minds of the management.

As I see what’s happening to the private forests within commuting distance of urban centers. It’s obvious that timber companies are morphing into real estate speculators (or in some cases, have already cashed in… e.g. the sales of large tracts to cash-rich industries like the insurance companies who have added “timber wings” to their conglomerate operations to clearcut what’s standing now and wait for a resurgence in the housing market… a pretty sure thing unless we see the introduction of Chinese birth control brought to bear here).

I am definitely a romantic, Euro-educated and influenced white guy, who happens not to be a scientist… so there’s plenty of salt available to sprinkle on my thinking. Feel free… ^..^

6 Jun 2010, 4:28pm
by Bob Zybach


Thanks for weighing in. A good share of what you say regarding western Washington ecologists and current forest conditions rings true — but you are working with National Parks there, and Washington DNR, which are entirely different than USFS and ODF holdings here in western Oregon.

Too, recent fire histories differ for the two States; at least the western parts (I won’t go into your east-west differentiation of people vs. lightning ignitions, but suggest you talk with some Yakama historians and consider the Mt. Adams huckleberry fields and Palouse camas prairies). Here we have the Silver Complex/Biscuit and B&B Wilderness areas as illustrations of what happens when people are removed from the landscape — what a mess! The “Six-Year-Jinx” of Tillamook Fires from 1933-1951 provided lessons for getting into and out of such problems, but our scientists and resource managers have not been paying much attention to those lessons.

A few months ago I gave a presentation in your neighborhood at the annual NW Chapter of Society of Ecological Restoration meeting in Tulalip, and got a good reception from Tribal reps and agency scientist there with my basic assertions that:

1) the principal need for modern landscape restoration projects is a better understanding of the role of people in the environment (depending on the timeframe selected for restoration goals);

2) the principal purpose — and need — of successful restoration projects is to return people to the land (rather than exclude them, as Wilderness largely does); and

3) there is virtually no practical difference between precontact cultural landscape patterns and prehistoric native wildlife habitat patterns in North America during the past 10,000+ years.

Trust me, most of the agency scientists and university scientists practicing and teaching fire ecology, forestry, and wildlife sciences today have NOT got this message.

If you haven’t already, I’d suggest you read Mike’s posts of Charles Kay’s work on lightning fires vs. Indian fires, and on Kat Anderson’s recent report on the Olympic Peninsula — and of course her books (and Mike’s posts on) Tending the Wild and Forgotten Fires. Good stuff! And I’d be interested in your thoughts on them as well.

6 Jun 2010, 7:32pm
by Mike

Eastern Washington has suffered megafires recently, including the combined Tripod and Tatoosh Fires in 2006 that burned over 215,000 acres in the U.S. and an additional 20,000 acres in Canada, the School Fire (52,000 acres, 2005), the Columbia Complex (110,000 acres, 2006) and many others. That region is not immune to the tragedies that result from ignoring ecological history.

Indigenous peoples “parked out” entire landscapes across North America, not merely valleys and not in just a few locales. The impact of humanity on all terrestrial environments has been expansive, intensive, and of long vintage in the “New” World.

If we can get past the denial and prejudice, and look at the evidence, then we might advance our understanding of landscape history and then be able to apply that knowledge to current environmental management. Easily said, not so easily done.

6 Jun 2010, 11:00pm
by John B.

Yes, Mike, I agree that indigenous people had a persistent, wide-ranging effect on the environs… and that what they did occurred over millennia. It was done as a function of subsistence living… and it was so successful that the remains of what they’d done, over millennia, was still apparent, even after disease had decimated them severely, and another socio-cultural entity took up residence, with entirely different methods and aims. The speed of the latter-day conversions has been breathtaking in its scope… and some ‘aftermath’ (e.g. bug kills in warming, pine thicket forests) ain’t even really showed its hand, yet… with a couple of exceptional displays (Yellowstone and the Rodeo Chedeski Fire in Arizona).

Yo, Bob — people who are living in/around forests- NFs, private, State (doesn’t matter) are not gonna want to see anything change from “Fireman, Fireman, save my child!.. er, chalet!” Isn’t gonna make management any easier. The people who did the earlier “parking out” were living All Over the place… moving freely, without major infrastructure, following game without 4WD and logging roads, interstates etc. and without the presence of gigantic impediments in the watersheds of the major rivers — WHICH WERE ALSO THE PRINCIPAL WILDLIFE CORRIDORS for many species — by having to deal with dam pools.

I don’t know why you don’t notice the NFs in the WA Cascades, but the Gifford Pinchot and the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie (as well as Oly NF) do actually manage some acreage, here.

I’ll give you point #1. I agree… and said so in a conference in Tacoma 10 years ago (about Chinook salmon) when I asked a Puyallup fisheries biologist (and tribal member) if I should consider the tribe as “an indicator species”. It led to an interesting discussion. Dennis Martinez was there, that day… and might remember it, if you should run into him, somewhere.

As for points 2 and 3 I just holler “bullshit”, my friend. In the circumstances in which we live, with the particular “dominant paradigm” (i.e. “people like us”) wilderness is a “bank account” — refugia for species who have lost their opportunities to interact by our self-serving control of the environs. They’re “tree museums”… and “bug museums” etc. etc. The shrinking islands of connected habitats are losing species diversity, big-time. I’m sure you’ve checked out (and possibly dismissed) E.O. Wilson’s take on this… but a Google Earth assay of what the ground looks like in the places where wildlife may still move about freely will show you Plenty. And consider this: if you expect wolves to emigrate into Oregon Cascades, they’ll have to cross TWO very busy interstate highways to get there from their present refugium — Canada.

There were mountain tops that the glaciers didn’t cover that actually had plant material right through the Ice Age. That’s where the boreal plants hung out, until the ice pulled back. They were already on the ground when the north-moving ‘pioneer’ species began their migration.

Wilderness does kinda the same thing as those vegetated mountain tops did… offers biota an opportunity to escape the rigors of life that our modern world of Foresters, herbicides, pavement, agriculture and hydroelectric reservoirs makes all too obvious. (You know that there’s already signs of speciation occurring in small mammals and insects that can’t get across I-5?)

I’d say that an amount of wilderness equal to the agriculturally converted (or at least tree farm acreage) would be the very least that we require… remembering, of course, that the tree farms are converted timber stands and former prairie, and a lot of wilderness is high, rocky and cold a lot of the time.

More than anything else, there needs to be some places where people aren’t scheming on converting something there into MONEY. There was damned little of That… until the Europeans showed their faces here… and ‘convinced’ people to pursue what was good for the Europeans. (Might makes right, again…) ^..^

6 Jun 2010, 11:49pm
by Mike

Wilderness is a myth. Abandoning land to “nature” is kinda racist. It disrespects history and heritage. It perpetuates a worldview about ecological processes that is Euro-centric and scientifically flawed. Wilderness is doomed to fail in achieving its putative goals, be they wildlife goals or whatever.

I realize that it is a tough thing to reorient fundamental cognitive orientations of individuals and society. Factishes dominate the ontology. We live in different yrmos.

Even so, unless and until the racist mote is removed from the eyes of the culture, we will not be successful in seeing things clearly, nor in achieving protection, maintenance, and perpetuation of “natural” systems.

7 Jun 2010, 12:46am
by Bob Zybach


Thanks much for adding to the discussion. I see Dennis fairly often from time to time, and agree that bipeds probably ARE an indicator species (no matter their culture or race), and — more importantly — probably THE keystone species. Like it or not.

Points #2 and #3 are not bullshit at all — but rather the culmination of several decades of speculation, research, analysis, and peer review. Passive management of our Wilderness areas and our so-called “roadless” areas is proving these points. They are not “refugia” at all, as desired by many, but artificial firebombs — ready to go at any time, and having already gone off in many locations already.

Wilderness is an interesting concept (”humans as pathogens”), and hatred of “European” culture endemic at this time, but the proof is in the pudding. Wildernesses and so-called “roadless areas” are destroying themselves, and “antiquated” precontact landscape management methods are emerging as likely the best way to preserve — and manage — our declining old-growth populations. “Biodiversity”; the same.

(PS. NOTE: the idea that American Indian populations took part in “subsistence” living over millennia is the very type of “institutionalized racism” we are talking about. It is a white, European conceit, not a fact. Incas. Mississippi mound builders. Willamette Valley agrarian communities. Corn. Aztecs. Pueblos. etc. That is NOT “subsistence.” That is resource management, cultural development, and landscape patterning — to say the least).)

7 Jun 2010, 7:02am
by Larry H.

And, don’t forget the promised “wildlife corridors” that are becoming so vogue in land management right now. They want to create vast wildlife corridors to link the areas between wilderness areas that don’t qualify as bona fide “Wilderness”. Sadly, they like to think of our forests as static and unchanging but, they are watching in horror as millions of acres continue to die, leading to inevitable firestorms.

Eco’s continue to lose credibility, as our own predictions continue to be true. They truly are “deniers” of what is happening right before their eyes. Their levels of junk science is reaching a peak, with even the mainstream media abandoning the loonier “papers”.

Even eastern Republicans wouldn’t vote for Tester’s bill. Voting for “Wilderness logging” isn’t politically smart.



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