By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
The Center for Biological Diversity‘s rise came at a time when the environmental movement as a whole had lost its footing. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a confusing time for progressive politics in general and above-ground environmentalists in particular. Many environmentalists found themselves wondering what the hell was wrong in their world. “Who’s the next David Brower?” was the question asked over and over in rambling phone calls and buzzed late-night, drunken agonizing.
In the 1960s, Brower, the legendary Sierra Club director and “archdruid” profiled by The New Yorker‘s John McPhee, had democratized the elitist wilderness movement, lobbying Congress with theatrical flourishes and taking on issues like nuclear power that lay outside the stodgy movement’s traditional purview. Brower, who was both a creative genius and a towering egoist, attracted a talented lineup to the environmental movement that has not been matched since. He set loose adman Jerry Mander and world-class photographers like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter to shape the marketing iconography of an idealized America: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone.
But as environmental groups became institutions with big budgets, they grew vulnerable to the cyclical nature of the public‘s interest in environmental issues. To support larger staffs and higher overhead through lean times, big groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society had to rely on the whims of rich patrons and the fads of fickle foundations. They became hesitant to offend friends and enemies alike. Once the province of visionaries, environmentalism became the domain of political lobbyists whose only philosophy was pragmatism.
As it turned out, the environmental movement didn’t need another David Brower. It needed a 21st-century Arthur Rimbaud, the tousled, dirty prodigy whose only interest in convention was flouting it. Rimbaud reinvented poetry. Kieran Suckling would do the same with environmentalism.
You wouldn‘t have known it to see him in action in the early days. Ten years ago, the eminence grise behind the Center for Biological Diversity was in a smack-induced stupor in British Columbia, doing field research on the heroin habits of out-of-work loggers. Logical enough, maybe. Suckling thought he should know the culture in which he was working. The environmental movement, with its quasi-religious overtones, is prone to anointing epic heroes for its epic battles. In those days, Kieran Suckling was probably not at the top of anyone’s list as most likely to be anointed. Paradoxically, it may be just this willingness to go beyond normal limits that helped him become the first truly original thinker that the movement has seen in decades.
Suckling grew up in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Peru, Ireland and England. His mother is Irish and his father is English, a civil engineer whose work on power plants and pulp mills ensured a peripatetic existence. His parents divorced when he was 12. His loyalties swung to his mother, whom he describes as “a pagan Catholic.” Suckling says his mother keeps not only a lock of a sainted aunt‘s hair but also dirt from her grave, and she prays fervently to an up-close-and-personal Virgin Mary.
This otherworldly bent was not lost on her son. When one of Suckling’s many Jesuit uncles returned from a missionary stint in Africa with a hard-to-shake tropical disease, he bequeathed his philosophy books to the impressionable teenager. As an undergraduate at Holy Cross College, Suckling discovered he loved philosophy and befriended Joe Lawrence, a philosophy professor.
“He‘s intense, he’s energetic, he‘s creative,” said Lawrence. “A very interesting question is what in the hell was Kieran Suckling doing at a Catholic school.
”If you think of the Grand Inquisitor chapter in The Brothers Karamazov, which was Dostoyevsky’s critique of the Jesuits, it makes sense. The Jesuit is the one who realizes that Christ should have accepted the Devil‘s offer to turn stone into bread -- he could have fed the hungry. He should have accepted the offer to make a magical display of his power and reformed the world.
“That desire for achieving a humanly made perfect world, that’s the Jesuit desire,” said Lawrence.
Suckling took up phenomenology, the study of direct experience. He studied linguistics and the deconstruction theory that was ubiquitous in the academy. His conversation is peppered with references to mainstream philosophers like Aristotle and Heidegger, but edgier characters like the French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida, a coyote trickster whose work suggests that meaning is ever-shifting and relational, clearly have influenced him.
Suckling didn‘t just study experience. He hurled himself into it. You could say he transcended ethics in favor of Kierkegaardian intensity. He became an industrial-strength shoplifter and all-around grifter, not an illogical lifestyle for a perpetual student from a financially strapped family. Orgies, anarchism and the occasional arrest were de rigueur in the radical environmental movement. Suckling navigated the underworld with apparent ease. When he came back into the mainstream, it would be to fight for the very definition of wilderness.
That fight began with William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin, who is considered one of the environmental movement’s leading intellectuals. For years, Cronon has been vocal about his belief that wilderness is a mere intellectual construct. Many rank-and-file environmentalists, drawn to the movement by their quasi-religious fervor for the tangibility of the outdoors, found Cronon‘s ideas horrifying. At the very least, Cronon’s announcement (tantamount to saying “God is dead”) was spectacularly poor strategy -- especially since he made it rather publicly in The New York Times Magazine in mid-1995, when the newly empowered Republican congressional majority was taking a run at the country‘s basic environmental laws, with a special emphasis on the Endangered Species Act. Cronon’s article, or at least its timing, seemed to characterize the anemia and disarray plaguing the movement.