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The Gods of Small Things 

The Center for Biological Diversity cares as much about the unarmored threespine stickleback as it does a cathedral forest of trees, which is why it is reinventing the environmental movement and could be saving Southern California in the process.

Wednesday, Nov 20 2002
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Page 5 of 10

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.

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”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.

To Suckling, Cronon‘s ideas seemed outdated, hopelessly pre-postmodern. “This is where I take issue with Cronon and Nash [Roderick Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind],” says Suckling. “Because Cronon and Nash want to write a biography of wilderness, they have to come up with a concept of wilderness.

”In fact,“ Suckling contends, ”wilderness is antithetical to concept itself. It’s where you go to get rid of your concepts. That‘s what I mean when I say wilderness deconstructs us. It’s comforting because you realize you don‘t need to be in control.“

Today, Suckling runs an organization of 30 employees, raises a multimillion-dollar budget, cuts deals with Bush’s Interior secretary, Gale Norton, and defends the environmental position on CNN‘s Crossfire. He also puts up with occasional hostility from the media -- The Wall Street Journal editorial page in particular. He’s not afraid to show that under the Lamborghini brain is a nice Irish Catholic boy from Massachusetts. He still refutes Cronon, for lack of a better opponent. But his argument is subtly different. At 37, he talks less about philosophical ambiguity and more about morality.

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