Charlie Chester

Charles C. Chester

Charles C. Chester teaches global environmental politics at Brandeis University and the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he is an adjunct assistant professor of international environmental policy. He is the author of Conservation Across Borders: Biodiversity in an Interdependent World , which focuses on case studies of transborder conservation in North America. He is also co-author of Climate and Conservation. Chester has consulted for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, and other environmental organizations. He is currently cochair of the board of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and has served on the boards of Bat Conservation International and Root Capital.

Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by user Kiwi Flickr

While We're Away ... Enjoy These Field Notes Highlights

Photo by Rob Lee, used under...
Photo by Rob Lee, used under Creative Commons licensing. Photo by Rob Lee, used under Creative Commons licensing.


Our office will be closed for the holidays, so regular posts are on hiatus until the new year. But lest you miss us, I've pulled a handful of popular and enlightening posts from our archives for your reading pleasure. Why Biodiversity is Important to Solving Climate Chaos: Top 10 Reasons: Get your listicle fix in with this post from Dominick DellaSala, who enumerates why having a broad range of healthy species will help us address the looming climate crisis.

Helsinki. Photo by Niklas Sjöblom, used under Creative Commons licensing. Helsinki. Photo by Niklas Sjöblom, used under Creative Commons licensing.


The Role of Wonder in Planning: Timothy Beatley poignantly reminds us of the importance of incorporating respect and appreciation for the natural world into our built places.

Caribou in Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo by blmiers2, used under Creative Commons licensing. Caribou in Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo by blmiers2, used under Creative Commons licensing.


Hunting and the Land Ethic: Cristina Eisenberg goes elk hunting with renowned ecologists Michael Soulé and James Estes to keep an ecosystem in balance in this thoughtful piece. Conservation Efforts for the Rare Lakela's Mint, Dicerandra Immaculata: Cheryl Peterson tells the story of a pretty purple flower in Florida that is hanging in there.

Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. Photo by pclvv, used under Creative Commons licensing. Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. Photo by pclvv, used under Creative Commons licensing.


Confessions of an Ecoporn Addict: Charlie Chester explores the dark side of stunning nature images and lets a plain place where grizzly bears cross the road grow on him. Considering Bees, Industrious but Not Industrial: Ann Vileisis offers a summary of why bees are so important and the challenges they are facing.

adgad akdjf;ald Bluebird. Photo by digital4047, used under Creative Commons licensing.


Load Shedding or Load Sharing?: We take it for granted that unless a big storm hits, our lights will stay on. Edward Grumbine reports from Nepal, where a shortage of electricity means daily blackouts for "load shedding" and asks if the solution lies in "load sharing."

Wyoming. Photo by greg westfall, used under Creative Commons licensing. Wyoming. Photo by greg westfall, used under Creative Commons licensing.


Lessons from Los Angeles: Make Transit Hip: Darrin Nordahl offers lessons from LA's image rehabilitation campaign for public transportation. Happy holidays from the whole Island Press team—we'll be back in 2015 with more solutions that inspire change!

Photo credit: Flock/bandada by user Rafael Edwards

Confessions of an Ecoporn Addict

I’m on a site tour, standing with a group of dedicated conservation advocates in a field just outside of Troy, Montana. It’s a truly unimpressive place. A nondescript forested ridge lies in the far distance, a couple of well-kept houses and not-...

I’m on a site tour, standing with a group of dedicated conservation advocates in a field just outside of Troy, Montana. It’s a truly unimpressive place. A nondescript forested ridge lies in the far distance, a couple of well-kept houses and not-so-well-kept shacks are strewn about in the near distance, I look down to see some nondescript scrub under our feet—and then there’s the rural highway behind me. A land trust official is talking about how we protected this place, how really exciting this is, how it constitutes a breakthrough for the region, how we should be really happy and proud, et cetera, et cetera. My mind drifts off…and in this case it’s to pornography. Yes, porn—but not the regular type. Rather, I’m a big fan of ecoporn. A sucker for it actually, can’t keep my eyes off it. And because we’re here in mid-March, it is very much on my mind since it’s been less than a week since I got around to that momentous annual decision: Which nature calendar to pin-up on my office wall for (what remains of) this year? It’s the same dilemma every twelve (or so) months, and as ever, I’m completely frustrated by the socially unacceptable practice of hanging multiple calendars in my office. Should I go with the Sierra Club’s calendar? World Wildlife Fund’s? The Nature Conservancy’s? Defenders of Wildlife’s? They are all so beautiful, so enticing, so…sexy. Yes, maybe some are more seductive or stimulating than others, but they’re all real good. To paraphrase one incisive and layered definition of ecoporn (see the note on sources below), it’s two-dimensional material that offers comfort to the viewer, that offers gratification without social cost, that satiates by providing objects for fantasy without making uncomfortable demands, and that will always be there, ideal, unblemished, and available. And just as women are trivialized by pornography, as another commentator put it, landscapes are trivialized by ecoporn: We make pilgrimage to the objects we have admired on calendars and trample the habitats of other species or exterminate them for their inconvenience to our viewing pleasure. In the process, our perceptions have been blunted and perverted, just like those of the readers of Playboy.

Yosemite Half-Dome at Sunset by Flickr user longdiver
Yosemite Half-Dome at Sunset by Flickr user longdiver

Is this harsh? Should we all be blushing at the sight of our nature wall calendars? I get the point of these critiques, and I accept that they are making a point that deserves serious and lasting consideration. Yet I know that when I gaze at, say, Ansel Adams’ stark portrait of Yosemite’s Half Dome, I’m not exactly saying to myself: “Yowza, what an awesome fantasy—and how great is it that it comes at no social cost!” Rather, I’m usually just thinking: “Wow.” Which is to say that I do not have the psychological, moral, or poetic insight that would allow me to say anything profound or game-changing regarding whether or not we should abhor ecoporn. I do, however, think there’s a parallel to be drawn here to historian William Cronon’s now (in)famous essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” That article drove many wilderness defenders nuts, and generated a tremendous debate within the conservation community over the role of wilderness—or the concept of wilderness—in environmental history. Cronon covers a lot of ground in that essay, but whatever one thinks of Cronon’s numerous arguments, there’s one on which all combatants in the debate could agree: viz., that wilderness should never be used as an excuse, conscious or unconscious, to allow for the degradation of the environments within which people live their daily lives. My wilderness advocate friends would say “no duh,” but I think it was a worthwhile point for Cronon to emphasize to disinterested lay readers (of which there may have been three or four). Similarly, whether or not one considers a glorious picture of the Grand Canyon or the Great Barrier Reef as constituting “ecoporn,” we should not let those pictures trick us into thinking that these are the only places worth protecting. That is, our innate and/or culturally induced attraction to the monumental and the spectacular may or may not be problematic, but whatever it is, we should not let it detract from our capacity to perceive the value—sometimes the extremely high value—in what may not be all that monumental or spectacular.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia by Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia
Great Barrier Reef, Australia by Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia

Which brings me back to this G-rated plot of land where I’m shuffling my feet, nodding my head in what I pray looks like sage agreement with whatever the land trust official is telling me about how important the place is. As it turns out, this is where grizzly bears cross the road to make their way from one relatively secure area to another, and we know this because of the many years of hard work by bear biologists, road ecologists, and the people and institutions who both financially and logistically support their work. The group I’m with at this particular time, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, has ponied up a sizeable portion of the purchase price of the land, and looking around, it’s patently obvious that we aren’t spending all this money because you’d want a picture of this place on your wall. You might think we’re doing it because Y2Y hasn’t produced a calendar in a couple of years and we figured what the hell…but no, that’s not the case. Rather, it is due to our initial investment in conservation science that we know that this is the right place to focus our conservation action.

Yellowstone to Yukon
Yellowstone to Yukon

This all may seem a bit strange, particularly given that Yellowstone to Yukon bookends itself between two iconic names that resonate with Americans and Canadians (or, as the critics might put it, that Y2Y stretches between two XXX ecoporn studios). No doubt, from its origins Y2Y has been a conscious and deliberate approach to turning heads and focusing people’s attention. But here’s what’s so critical about the idea of Y2Y: those spectacular bookends highlight the connected character of what lies in between. As a conservation geography, Y2Y is vast; if you superimposed the outline of Y2Y on a map of the east coast, it would stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to Quebec’s Gaspé Peninusula. From its first conception, the rationale for Y2Y has largely focused on the needs of large animals that survive by moving across this enormous landscape, between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Yukon. With the looming threat of climate change, that rationale has only become part of a more urgent emphasis on protecting the land; Y2Y and 18 other geographic case studies of large landscape conservation responses to climate change are highlighted in Climate and Conservation: Landscape and Seascape Science Planning and Action. So I try to put it all together. Here I am, a conservation supporter who originally got in this game at least partly due to an ecoporn addiction to the spectacularly monumental. Subsequent to that immersion into conservation, my latent conservationist ideals have been informed and enriched by the idea that we need to protect large landscapes. That knowledge in turn led me to get involved in one of the largest landscape efforts on the planet—viz., Yellowstone to Yukon. Finally, that involvement has brought me to this comparatively bland point on the map where we’re spending a lot of money to protect something the size of (and what, frankly, looks like) a cow pasture. And by making sure that this pasture doesn’t become ranchettes or gas stations, we are doing the critical work of protecting the continent’s wildlife. How strong is this causal chain? I’m not sure, but I’m not at the point where I can swear off ecoporn. To try to keep myself mindful, I have tacked up a picture of this plot of land next to this year’s calendar. It ain’t pretty, but the more I look at it, the more I like it. By the way, I went with The Wilderness Society’s calendar; it starts the year with a spectacular photo of Grand Tetons, and I can live with January showing for a little while—I never actually use the calendar anyways.

Source notes: The first definition for ecoporn comes from Lydia Millet’s High Country News article, “Die, baby harp seal! It's time for environmentalism to get ugly,” which was later reprinted in Utne Reader as “Ecoporn exposed.” The second comes from Jose Knighton’s essay, “Ecoporn and the manipulation of desire,” which was originally published in WildEarth (Spring 1993) and then reprinted in Wild earth: Wild ideas for a world out of balance (Milkweed 2002, edited by Tom Butler). It’s worth noting that the earliest reference to “ecoporn” I was able to find comes from the 1980 edited volume, The new environmental handbook, which contained an essay entitled “The new, improved ecopornography.” However, author Tom Turner used the term in reference to “image advertising” by large corporations—what we largely call “greenwashing” today. Maybe we should have left it at that.

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Tool Chests, Toolboxes, and Tool Belts

On Monday, June 18, 1883, “Darwin’s bulldog” made a big mistake. Famous for his pugilistic defense of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Thomas Henry Huxley played a prominent role in English society—and on this particular day he was delivering...
On Monday, June 18, 1883, “Darwin’s bulldog” made a big mistake. Famous for his pugilistic defense of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Thomas Henry Huxley played a prominent role in English society—and on this particular day he was delivering the inaugural address to the assembled representatives at London’s “great International Fisheries Exhibition.” Over twenty governmental entities, some as far flung as China and Tasmania, displayed their wares at the Exhibition, so this was no small honor for the great English scientist. Huxley’s mistake was to characterize ocean fisheries as “inexhaustible.” He has ever since been widely derided for that characterization—and rightly so, for the most part. But Huxley’s error casts a long shadow over something else, something altogether more hopeful, that he identified in the very same speech: the conservation toolbox. Huxley did not label it as such, and if he had, his terminology would likely have been something along the lines of “the conservator’s tool chest.” But when during his address he came to the topic of protecting salmon fisheries, he articulated the following conservation tools:

• construction of fish passes;

• an annual “close” time;

• predator control;

• artificial stocking;

• removal of pollution;

• prohibition of taking parr and smolts;

• restrictions on the character and on the size of meshes of nets; and

• license duties on nets and rods.

That’s quite a list, one that should be familiar to human fishers at both geographic ends of a salmon’s life cycle. The list does not, certainly, contain all of the tools available to today’s salmon devotees (watershed management being one that should jump out to contemporary conservationists). Nonetheless, what Huxley has come up with here is a conservation toolbox that contains many of the very same shopworn hammers and screwdrivers we’re using today. Seventeen years later, Europe would present the world—or at least, a part of the world that Europe considered its property—with another conservator’s tool chest. But instead of the plain wood box dragged up from the musty laboratory of a prominent scientist, this gold-and-silver treasure chest was paraded out of the grand hallways of European royalty. Specifically, in 1900, the English “Queen, the German Emperor, the King of Spain, the King of the Belgians (for the Congo State), the French President, the King of Italy, and the King of Portugal” had agreed to a treaty for the “preservation of wild animals in Africa.” In this treaty, they proposed the following tools:

• Prohibition of hunting

• Prohibition of hunting & destruction of young animals

• Prohibition of hunting & destruction of females

• Establishment of reserves

• Establishment of close seasons

• Hunting licenses

• Restriction of nets & pitfalls (hunting methods)

• Prohibition on hunting with explosives or poison

• Export duties

• Prevention of the transmission of contagious diseases

• Special measures (for elephants & ostriches)

• “Schedules” (appendices)

And there you have it: a terrestrial tool chest to stack on top of Huxley’s aquatic one. If it sounds too good to be true…well it was, inasmuch as the treaty never received enough ratifications to enter into force. But much more importantly, this document has PANIC written all over it—PANIC being a cute heuristic for patronizing arrogant neocolonial ignorant condescension. To oversimplify only a tad excessively, this early conservation treaty was intended to protect the animals for the benefit of the aristocrats. To give credit where due, the royals weren’t just trying to beat down the black African natives; they were also targeting their own lower class colonials—the folk who left Europe to make their way by whatever means possible, and who were far too self-absorbed to understand the importance of protecting high-class hunting opportunities. Although today’s conservationists decry this unfortunate legacy, its aura unfortunately and unfairly clings tenaciously to the very act of conservation (and supplies fodder to those who rely on labels of “enviro-elitistism”). But that’s a big story for another day. Suffice it to say that despite the 1900 Treaty’s human beneficiaries being decidedly point-one-percenters, the treaty nonetheless constituted a conservation toolbox whose tools remain readily familiar today. Here’s a critical question for our contemporary conservation community: To what degree do these tools assist today’s conservation community respond to the threat of climate change? This brings to mind a question that a prominent scientist recently asked one of my co-editors: “With so much of your recent book, Climate and Conservation, focusing on the dramatic changes that climate change will bring, why is there nothing new in the section of the book covering conservation actions or recommendations?” One might rephrase his question as: If the problem of climate change is as bad as you say it is, why are you looking into an old toolbox for solutions? It is a good question, one that most of us working on the broad topic of “climate change & biodiversity” grapple with incessantly. The first answer is that there is a new tool that biodiversity conservationists can and ought to wield against the threat of climate change: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, this “tool” fits into our traditional conservation toolbox in the way an industrial backhoe fits into a household toolbox. For those of us trying to conserve penguins, pikas, and polar bears, restructuring the global economy so as to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions…well, that’s a bit out of our league. We’re good with a hand shovel or bow saw, but we’re all just a bit too impractical, too wonkish, too geeky, or just plain too inept to have what it takes to jump in a bulldozer’s cab and start pulling levers. For better or worse, perhaps one exception to this is the conservation community’s focus on REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). Yet with all due respect to those working diligently and sincerely to make REDD work for the larger cause of reducing global GHG emissions…I can’t block out the image of fun-loving teenagers slipping into a construction yard to see if they can jumpstart the heavy machinery. Our critic’s point still stands: why did we write so much about the effects of climate change, and then pull out all the shopworn tools? Here’s the answer, as succinctly as I can put it. What we were arguing in our book—which, importantly, had the subtitle of Landscape and Seascape Science, Planning and Action—was that the most effective way of responding to climate change for biodiversity conservation is to confront and challenge our biological and normative assumptions about where that biodiversity is situated at the current moment. For if we ultimately cannot escape the juggernaut of higher and more extreme temperatures at regional and localized levels, then we should be thinking not about where species are now, but where and how they will (and will not) move across the landscape or seascape. It is our job as conservationists to use the tools at our disposal, but in a world with climate change we are going to have to use those tools in different ways—and, very likely, in unexpected places. We are going to have to reexamine why we are using particular tools in particular places, how much of those tools are needed, and how urgent it is that we rethink when and where we use any particular tool. But most importantly, what we need to do is reconceive the toolbox itself. Given how clunky toolboxes can be, maybe it’s time we stopped referring to a “conservation toolbox” and reconceived it as a “conservation toolbelt,” one that will immediately move around with us as we respond to the threat of climate change to protect biodiversity worldwide.