Conservation and Punk Rock

My interest in conservation is deeply connected with ideas of feminism, anti-racism, decolonization, and human rights. As a teenager growing up in the suburbs, I was strongly influenced by local punk rock music culture. The punk scene is known for its association with social and political movements and creating a sense of inclusivity and equality. The band Closet Monster described the punk scene as “a self-sufficient subculture, a home away from hell”. As I’ve gotten older, I have come to appreciate the very real and important relationship between conservation, culture, and politics, and the association in my own head between conservation and punk rock doesn’t seem entirely out of tune. At the time, I was simply angsty and fired up to get involved in social movements dedicated to progressive and positive change. 

I recently read a story about a whooping crane conservationist who began his career as a luxury car photographer. Farley Mowat was once hired by the Canadian government to travel to the Arctic and exterminate every wolf he could find. Some of history’s most important bison conservationists started their journeys by killing bison. People take winding and circuitous paths to conservation, so I find people’s stories interesting. More importantly, as a field that depends on the cooperation of widely different groups of people – environmentalists, hunters, politicians, bureaucrats, business owners – it is perhaps exactly the diversity of our backgrounds that fosters the creativity, enforces the measured patience, and stimulates the perseverance needed for success. A personal and emotional attachment is certainly an important ingredient in our commitment to conservation. In describing Alexander von Humboldt’s unique and profoundly influential understanding of nature, Andrea Wulf says that Humboldt realized that “memories and emotional responses would always form part of man’s experience and understanding of nature”.

CD cover of Propagandhi’s Less Talk, More Rock

Though the association between environmentalism and punk music has been noted (for one example, see this essay), punk music is frequently known for supporting animal-rights causes and vegetarian/vegan lifestyles. As the band Propagandhi sings, “you cannot deny that meat is still murder, dairy is still rape. And I have recognized one form of oppression; now I recognize the rest. Life’s too short to make others’ shorter.” So it was somewhat surprising for me to realize that I likely wouldn’t have become so involved in conservation and hunting without spending so much time in that scene.

A Caveat

I’ve dedicated another post to lay out my disdain for the infuriating habit among some hunters to sling cries of “lefty” or “tree hugger” at anyone who doesn’t blindly support any and all hunting or firearms liberalization. I’ve also suggested that rumours of the gulf between hunters and environmentalists are greatly exaggerated. There are bound to be some people who will pat themselves on the back and write me off as another lefty tree hugger when I suggest that hunting, conservation, and political activism are intimately connected for me. To those people: stop being a walking cliche.

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I would not claim that historical conservation successes belong to left-wing politics, but nor can anyone claim that they belong to the other side of the aisle. (Roosevelt was a Republican, true, but please don’t suggest to me that the Republican party of 1901 is the same as the current one.) It is a historical fact that conservation does not belong on one side of the political aisle.

Conservation binds wildlife and humans together in a shared, complex history. Scientific research has demonstrated a historical correlation between global areas of biodiversity and cultural and linguistic diversity throughout the world. In other words, when people enjoy rich, thriving, and diverse cultures, wildlife and healthy ecosystems also tend to thrive. When you examine the nuanced intricacies of conservation over the last 150 years, the picture that emerges is more complicated than our constructed political ideologies. At the end of the day, conservation thrives alongside human cultural diversity.

Punk to Conservation

By now, there are many hunters and conservationists who have told their journies from vegetarian, vegan, or anti-hunter to meat eater (though I haven’t read it, a notable example is The Mindful Carnivore by Tovar Cerulli). In my case, my times as a vegetarian in high school and university were shortlived, but it isn’t so much the fact that I went from vegetarian to hunter that is the significant transition for me. Describing that might have dramatic appeal but it would be a shallow snapshot of the broader point for me. In fact, there were many years between when I was a vegetarian and learning to hunt. Rather, the connection between those two times of my life is the broader set of ideas I surrounded myself with and how a deeper understanding of and appreciation for those ideas led me to hunting.

I spent my formative teenage years learning that girls did not like me and that the world was a corrupt, destructive, and unjust place. I have, of course, come to a more mature and nuanced appreciation of the world. I was captivated by the lyrics of bands like Bad Religion, Boysetsfire, Anti-Flag, and Rise Against, whose songs about equality and solidarity I found deeply hopeful and inspiring. As Boysetsfire sings, “Hope will heal us all, set to action, our forward thought”. Those songs encouraged generations of people to take action, respect others, and dedicate themselves to issues larger than individual needs.

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Many years later, I have found the writings and ideas of conservationists such as Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Steven Rinella, and Winona LaDuke deeply hopeful and inspiring. They encouraged many generations to take action, respect the natural world, and dedicate themselves to something larger than individual needs. Jane Goodall said, “I do have hope. Nature is enormously resilient, humans are vastly intelligent, the energy and enthusiasm that can be kindled among young people seems without limit, and the human spirit is indomitable”. So there is in some ways a very real and direct connection between the impact of the music I grew up with and the people who apply those messages of hope and empowerment to the environment.

Change Is A Sound

Through music, I was driven to learn about the environmental and human impacts from issues such as resource extraction, military interventions, gender inequality, and Indigenous rights. Among the range of topics my favourite bands tackled through their songs were issues related to environmental destruction. My interest in human rights issues led me to complete a year abroad in Thailand during my undergraduate degree where I worked with Burmese refugee organizations on human rights and resource development issues. In Burma, as elsewhere, Indigenous communities face the most severe impacts, often in the form of horrible human rights abuses and displacement, of resource extraction and environmental degradation. I came to see human rights and environmental conservation as deeply connected. Through those experiences, among many others, I continued to realize the fundamental importance of environmental protection and conservation.

“I was born on planet earth, the rotating ball where man comes first. It’s been around for a long, long time. But now it’s time to watch it die”

Bad Religion, Watch It Die, 1993

I now realize that those songs I was listening to did not address nature from the perspective of someone intimately connected to it, so they might never have been able to bring me to this point on their own, but they contributed important ideas. My own ideas around conservation progressed from what I now see as a somewhat anthropocentric portrayal of nature as a distant concept, to the need to promote conservation as something immediately personal. By this point, it is simply a historical fact that hunters have played a profound role in the development of the ideas and practice of wildlife conservation. As I continued to understand that history and the more nuanced intricacies of ecology, it was clear that detachment from wildlife (such as movements like veganism) will never be sufficient to address the complex issues faced by modern conservation.

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Still Waiting for the Punchline

People come to appreciate the need to conserve the world’s ecosystems and wildlife through dramatically diverse paths. I did not grow up in a hunting family, which is the most common source of introduction to hunting. If I were to visit a handful of alternate universes, I have to doubt that I would find myself as a hunter in many of them. On the other hand, I do see my movement towards hunting, fishing, and conservation as an evolution from simple environmentalist ideals to a more complex understanding of the need to take an active participation in conservation. In the end, being able to trace my current passion for conservation to such an important and formative time of my life grounds me strongly and personally in values of conservation.

My point here is not that there is some metaphysical connection between a genre of music and the conservation of wildlife. Rather, conservation is a big field, composed of people with a vast diversity of identities and motivations. While we share a dedication to a certain vision for the future of wildlife on the planet, we cannot be easily categorized. Or, as the writer Jon Mooallem says while describing an old lady who fed wild whooping cranes, “her story was too idiosyncratic to reduce to some clear and prescriptive moral. Maybe every story about people and wild animals is”.

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  1. Pingback: The Companies We Keep: Politics and Inclusion in Hunting | Landscapes & Letters

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