by Whit Gibbons

January 15, 2012

I once gave a talk that addressed the question "What does Martin Luther King Day have to do with environmental attitudes?" Below are the salient points of that talk.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and special man, a teacher. Some of his teachings work for ecology as well as for race relations, such as appreciating diversity, developing tolerance, and overcoming fears and prejudices.

A parallel exists between the attitudes Dr. King worked to modify and those some people have toward environmental issues. The parallel is elementary--people discriminate because of ignorance and a lack of familiarity or awareness of another's place in the world. Fear, begot by ignorance, is the primary wrapping on a package known as prejudice. The consequences of opening the package are unfair treatment of others, self-induced anxiety, and loss of harmony in the world.

A variety of groups, both human and wild, have suffered from environmental discrimination, some over the last few years or decades, others for centuries. Among the nonhuman victims are snakes, wolves, and mountain lions. Less apparent in some instances are particular groups of people who have been victims of prejudice, including environmentalists, timber companies, and private landowners. All these groups, including the animal predators, have individual members who have done no harm. Ill feelings toward them come from the fear created by a few and ignorance about the group as a whole. Every one of these groups has members who have done, and will continue to do, positive things for the environment.

A common feature leading to prejudice and discrimination against a group is a negative action by a single member or faction that is viewed as characteristic of the group as a whole. A principle of human behavior is that we judge those in our own group by their individual actions; we judge other groups by the most conspicuous traits displayed by a few individuals.

If environmentalists blow up a whaling vessel, some people then categorize anyone who protests whale hunting as an extremist. If a mountain lion kills a domestic sheep, some ranchers conclude that all mountain lions should be eliminated. If a private landowner destroys woodlands and wetlands on her property, some people get the mistaken notion that private landowners have no regard for environmental stewardship.

Ignorance and irrational fears about groups of people or wildlife lead to negative attitudes toward them and acts of discrimination against them. What is the solution for correcting this situation? As with attempts to overcome racial bias, the formula is a simple one: get to know the group better.

For example, most snakes are nonvenomous and completely harmless to humans; they play an important role as both predator and prey in natural ecosystems and have fascinating lifestyles. Likewise, wolves and mountain lions are natural predators that trim the weak and sick from prey populations. They have captivating behavior patterns as individuals and only intrude on man's domain where man has already intruded on theirs. But people who are ignorant of the group characteristics of these animals are likely to base their opinion on the behavior of a few individuals.

As for the human groups I mentioned, most environmentalists are not reactionaries who are unwilling to negotiate or compromise about environmental issues. Many timber companies use sustainable forest approaches, are concerned about the entire forest ecosystem, and have individual employees who are as ecologically minded as any research ecologist. And the majority of private landowners are good environmental stewards because they appreciate healthy ecosystems as much as any ardent environmentalist.

Members of these different groups should cultivate an awareness of the ideals and goals of the others. They should recognize and respect the differences that separate them, while searching for common ground. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. we should all champion the diversity we find around us, in our own species and in others, by increasing our knowledge about different groups. Fear, begot by ignorance, can be overcome, because ignorance can be remedied.

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