Environmentalists v. the Environment

Orangutans are on the verge of extinction. A mere sixty-thousand orangutans remain in the wild, and fifty-thousand of them live on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. Even they, however, are under threat. These fascinating and intelligent apes are being systematically killed. The UN estimates that within the decade 98 percent of the Borneo jungle, the orangutan’s natural habitat, will be destroyed. Even as charities rush in to save the remaining apes, it is unlikely that orangutans will be able survive in the wild by 2015. Some estimates place the apes’ extinction as early as 2012.

As unfortunate as the orangutan’s imminent extinction is, it is exacerbated by the fact that environmental groups are largely ignoring the issue. Issues like rainforest destruction and species preservation used to be headline environmentalist issues, but not anymore. Today, climate change is the only issue that environmentalists want to discuss, and all other issues—including rainforest destruction and the annihilation of an evolutionary cousin—must be sacrificed on the global warming altar.

There is another reason, however, why environmentalists are ignoring the death of the orangutans. They are being killed in the name of environmental progress. As environmentalists have increased pressure on governments to restrict the use of fossil fuels—presumed to be the chief cause of global warming—they have turned to biofuels as the solution. According to the European Union’s 2003 climate change goals, 5.7% of all diesel must be made with vegetable oil, rising to 10 percent by 2020. This policy has created a demand for an otherwise undesirable product—palm oil. Palm oil is produced in Indonesia and involves clear-cutting large amounts of forest. As the forests recede, the orangutans starve.

The United Nations’ report, “The Orangutan’s Last Stand,” states, “Today, the rapid increase in [palm oil] plantation acreage is one of the greatest threats to orangutans and the forests on which they depend. In Malaysia and Indonesia, it is now the primary cause of permanent rainforest loss. The huge demand for this versatile product makes it very difficult to curb the spread of plantations.”

Many orangutans come onto plantation land looking for food where workers are instructed to protect their crops. “Some plantation owners put a bounty of $10 or $20 on the head of orangutans,” Michelle Desilets, director of the Borneo Orang Utan Survival Foundation, told reporters, “which is worth a few weeks’ salary for the workers. Workers don’t usually have guns: the orang utans that get shot are the lucky ones. We’ve seen them beaten to death with wood sticks or iron bars, doused in petrol and set on fire, trussed up in nets or tied up with wire which cuts through their flesh. Often a mother is killed and eaten while its baby is sold on or kept as a pet.”

Although the leading environmental group, Greenpeace, does include the orangutan’s plight on their homepage, it only links to a donation site—no mention is made of the causes of the orangutan’s peril. Meanwhile, six of their top eight stories report on the war against climate change. The other two make no reference to orangutans. Similarly, World Wildlife Federation makes no mention at all of the orangutans’ plight on their homepage while they provide a variety of links to prevent climate change.

We do not need to deny that climate change exists to conclude that it should not be our only environmental priority. The monolithic drone from environmentalists has radically altered the United States’ environmental agenda, so much so that other legitimate enterprises go unfunded and unpublicized. Climate change may be a problem several hundred years from now (or maybe and more likely people will have adapted as they always have done), but either way, deforestation and species extinction are immediate threats that deserve immediate attention and support. Rather, Greenpeace and other environmentalist groups like World Wildlife Federation expose their real priorities, war on private business and capitalism, by ignoring an imminent problem in favor of policies that turn business, energy producers, and other agents of economic progress into villains. But more importantly, their policies have turned the orangutan into a villain—another obstacle to environmental progress.