Corporate crimes against nature
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Across the country, corporate interests are on the offensive against the laws that protect our natural world. The fossil fuel industry, the wealthiest and most profitable business the Earth has ever seen, pursues a campaign to smear environmental groups as a "billionaires' club" concerned only with money. Far-right legal philosophers are rebranding selfishness and greed as a private property right guaranteed by the Constitution. And in Congress, politicians gather up corporate largesse, then attack the nation's bedrock environmental laws with one hand, even as they vote themselves loopholes to accept ever-bigger campaign donations from the industries they regulate.

Against this backdrop of lucre and corruption, the great moral battle of our generation plays out. A small but dedicated band of environmentalists toils against all the odds stacked against them to protect the natural world from an unprecedented onslaught of destruction: an extinction episode to rival the disappearance of the dinosaurs; the cooking of the planet's climate; the strip mining of global fisheries; wholesale conversion of natural habitat to industrial agriculture, mines and suburbs; the contamination of groundwater aquifers; and the pollution of the seas by massive oil spills. These crimes against nature have perpetrators of immense wealth and political influence. Nonprofit citizens' groups are seeking to enforce the law and halt, or at least slow, the pace of destruction.

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Back in the day when the Cuyahoga River was on fire, cities were wreathed in smog and communities were poisoned with industrial pollutants, America's political leaders recognized that our environment needed protection. These were days — during the Nixon administration — when politics had a stronger moral backbone and Congress enjoyed the widespread confidence of the American public, drafting a series of wise and farsighted laws to protect our shared environment.

And while extractive industries are fond of painting conservation professionals as motivated primarily by money, nothing could be farther from the truth. I have been approached by corporate headhunters offering salaries more than three times as much as I make working for an environmental nonprofit. Conservation work has never been the path to riches. What motivates professional conservationists to take this pay cut? We want to make the world a better place and save the Earth and all its wonders from destruction.

Conservation groups are able to keep the lights and computers running and their staff paid with modest salaries thanks to millions of Americans who contribute their hard-earned money to ensure that the natural world has a voice in the public debate and a legal defense team in the courtroom. How many Americans make contributions to the industries that destroy the environment, because their brand of profiteering is a good cause? No one.

Why do conservation groups litigate, when they could simply collaborate with the industries that are causing environmental problems and identify mutually acceptable compromises? The answer is simple: Litigation results in solutions that protect the environment, while collaboration is often limited to solutions that protect the bottom lines of industries. Humanity might go extinct before heavy industries voluntarily offer a meaningful measure of environmental protection.

Conservation groups (including mine) are not afraid to take legal challenges to the courts, where they face off against phalanxes of the most expensive attorneys money can buy. Not because they like conflict, but because legal action is the necessary tool for change in a world where collaboration and compromise yield little benefit for the environment. And often they win. Not because they're more popular than the industries that engage in environmental destruction, but because they work hard to built watertight cases that prove our foundational environmental laws are being broken and ignored, to the detriment of native wildlife, public lands, human health and safety, or all of the above.

In the court of public opinion, conservationists face off every day against the nation's glitziest ad agencies, which produce a blitzkrieg of paid ads trumpeting the benefits of destructive industries and warning against regulations that curb their monetary ambitions. Despite being overspent and outgunned, often the conservationists win, because Americans have respect for the land, a love for native wildlife and a clear appreciation for the importance of clean air and water. And because the public's appreciation of integrity and trustworthiness is gained through actions, not ad buys.

Our generation occupies a tipping point, during which humanity's choices will dictate a slide toward ecological ruin for the planet, or a new day when growing human prosperity is linked to the blossoming of a healthy environment. I come to work each day because I'm an optimist, and believe that one day, the crimes against nature will stop.

Unlike most species, humanity has a choice in how we relate to the world. Our relationship could be parasitic, benefiting the human race while destroying the host. This path leads to our own extinction. Or we could establish a mutualistic relationship, in which we benefit while treating the Earth and its community of life with responsible stewardship, such that both humanity and nature thrive. Let's choose wisely.

Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.