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What is wrong with pain killers, NPR, the Democratic party, and Conservation Biologists ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Jesús A. Rivas
Axis of Logic
Tuesday, Oct 9, 2007

I realize that this title is likely to produce animosity more than interest since people that read this site, listen to NPR, vote mostly democratic, and support greatly conservation biology causes.  Pain killers are also quite a useful resource, (certainly among the US’s middle class), although their evils are more apparent given their propensity to cause addictions.   I hope to demonstrate that there are many similarities between these categories creating the illusion of a solution and distracting from what is really needed.  I will revise them all, beginning with pain killers.


Lately the USA has been suffering from the problem of addiction to pain killers due to the habit of taking them liberally when there is any problem, instead of addressing the problem that is causing the pain. Let's consider somebody who has a cavity in a tooth.  When the tooth aches, the person can seek a real solution:  make an appointment with the dentist, and have the cavity fixed, or s/he may take a pain killer.  Needless to say,   that the pain killer is cheaper, less painful and produces quite acceptable results,…the first time around.  Of course, since the cavity persists, the pain will come back, and the person will have again the choice of solving the problem or taking another cheap, affordable, convenient solution.  Of course, continuing this cycle that avoids the pain and expenses of a dental treatment would lead to nothing cheaper or less painful, such as root canal, tooth loss and gum infection.  Yet, the use and abuse of pain killers to solve all kinds of problems is not rare. 


Most free minded people, and liberal thinkers resort to National Public Radio (NPR) for their news and we often take their reports for truly fair and balanced, showing both sides of the issues.  However, a closer inspection would reveal how the news is always biased towards one side and often omits critical information, perhaps not as blatantly as other news sources, but still, far from the real accurate news.  Consider the atrocities committed by the occupation forces in Iraq at the Abu-Ghraib prison.  Shortly after the news came out, the Bush administration labeled them as "prisoner abuse" and that was the only term that NPR used to refer to them thereafter.  Now, let's see what constitutes "prisoner abuse" in the English language?  Prisoner abuse would be something of the likes of shoving them around, kicking them on the rump--, that kind of treatment.  To have a prisoner, shackled and treating him/her this way would be wrong and we would be right to label it an "abuse of prisoners".  Placing electrodes to someone's genitalia and giving him electric shocks is torture and it cannot be labeled anything else.  If you label those kinds of atrocities as "prisoner abuse", it really condones the action and allows the perpetrators to soften the atrocity and underplay what really happened.  Among the hundreds of times (or perhaps thousands) that the reporters from NPR have referred to these atrocities in the Iraqi prison,  we would be hard pressed to find a dozen times in which the reporter from NPR press called it torture.  If we continue our analysis we see that NPR is consistently guilty of similar biases around other issues.  For instance, it is not difficult to find reports about the Iranian president, the leader of Hezbollah or any other Persian or Arab officials.  Notice how religiously NPR ends the report reporting with the statement that such person "does not recognize the right of Israel to exist". If the reader is a NPR listener, I am sure s/he can recall hearing this statement countless times; quite often towards the end of the report as a "take home message".  Now, can we recall any broadcast in which the reporter mentions that Israeli officials do not recognize the right of Palestine to exist?  This is quite an omissions, not only for the frequency with which it happens but also because Israel's attitude towards Palestine is at the core of all the problems of the Middle East (Carter 2006), yet NPR's  "fair and balanced" reporting hardly ever (if any time) points out that Israel’s government commits the same fault as the Muslims leaders with regard to recognizing the other party's right to exist. 

The reader probably thinks that even though NPR may not be perfect, it is a hell of a lot better than other news media.  While it is true, it does not change the fact that NPR is presenting us with biased information.  It is also true that by being less biased we are less likely to doubt what we hear and less likely to seek better sources of information, thus creating a distraction that serves the agenda of the main stream media.  The other part that many people do not know is the darker side of NPR, that  lobbies in order to stunt the growth of other community radio operations that may be their competition for local audiences.  While I was involved with Knoxville First Amendment Radio (KFAR) we knew that our main obstacle in getting a license to broadcast with higher power was the local NPR station preventing us from getting the permits.  Understandably, if there were a high power community Radio they would compete for audience (and donations) with WUOT.  So, not only is NPR  not doing their job of giving the people fair and balanced news, but also by their sole presence (and active lobbying), they are preventing the people from getting more complete news. 


The Democratic Party is just as guilty as NPR of producing the illusion of an alternative to the Republican Party.  Nobody would argue that their policies are not a lot better than those of the Republican Party for the poor people of the country and also for the environment.  But the solutions that the Democratic Party offers fall far from the real needs and the problems of the country.  For instance, they talk about making health insurance more affordable or universal health insurance, not about universal health care and making sure that everybody receives the medical care that s/he needs (as in the case in all the developed countries and several developing ones). They talk about raising minimum wages, not about making sure that every body can make "living wages". They talk about keeping more jobs in the US, not about stopping NAFTA and other free trade agreements that are so badly strangling the working classes (and the environment).  They talk about  "better diplomatic policies" and working with our allies, not about a deeper change in our approach to international politics; stopping for once and for all, policies of invasions, warmongering and "regime changes" that have characterized the US for the last century.  This is only a list of the many issues in which, while having a better proposal than Republicans, the Democratic Party still falls short of providing a real solution. In the mean time, because of their sole presence (and also active lobbying) they prevent the development of a truly pro-people and pro environment party that would stand for world peace, the rights of the working classes, true environmental policies and not catering to the corporate interests.  So while the Democratic Party produces the illusion of an alternative, it does not help to solve the real problems the people have and ends up distracting from the search for a real solution.


Although it we may not like to hear this, conservation biologists also incur  pretty much the same sin as the previously mentioned groups by creating the illusion of a solution while at the same time diverting attention (and funds) from what would be a real solution, some times engaging in what has been called Tylenol Conservation (Rivas 2007a).  We can see this trend in the many aspects of the work that conservation biologists do.  I am talking about things such as setting up priorities for conservation, or trying to find out what is the minimum amount of land needed to preserve this many species, or protecting hotspots to protect the larger amount of diversity, or trying to pass legislation that would protect pristine areas, or to get the government to subscribe to the Kyoto protocol. 

There is no doubt in my mind that by now if the reader is up to speed on the priorities of environmental conservation, s/he may be up in arms against me since these activities I have listed are considered as THE thing to do, the landmarks of success, what conservation is all about. How dare I present them as diversions and illusions to a solution!  Well the truth is that all these activities are equivalent to racing on a treadmill.  We will never beat the treadmill and we always know that the best we can do is buy a few more years before the other shoe drops yet conservation biologist present them as great alternatives.  If there is any doubt, let's consider the case of the Alaskan National Wildlife Artic Refuge (ANWAR). At the end of the 1990s after a lot research documenting its uniqueness and a years of intense lobbing by environmental activists, it finally acquired legal protected status.  At the end of the Clinton Administration it was protected "in perpetuity".  A great victory for the environmental movement and an example of "how things should be done".  Five years later the legislation was abrogated and now it is, again, available for exploitation and we are back where we began.  The campaign to protect it "in perpetuity" lasted longer than it lasted under protection!!  I am not saying that the protection of the Alaskan wilderness was not a great, and well deserved, triumph of the environmental movement but, as the facts have shown, it did not solve the problem so long as the bigger problem was not addressed. 

These measures of conservation that only produce the illusion of a solution can be found on the "best" cutting edge conservation planning around the world.  Consider the looming problem of global warming.  Conservation biologists and conservation advocates are pushing hard to get the US government to subscribe to the Kyoto agreement, yet all studies and scientists agree that even if the world were to abide by the Kyoto protocol we still would be way short of the mark we need to meet to stop global warming. Like universal health insurance proposed by the Democrats, it falls short of what we need and in the mean time it drains all the resources, and efforts that the conservation movements need to move towards a real solution. 

Conservationists around the world frolic furiously with all kinds of Tylenol solutions to the problems such as ethanol, biodiesel, compact halogens and what-have-you while very few are really bringing the point home of the real solution: cut down in consumption by changing our life styles and redefining our society to meet energy limitations of the planet. 


Surely the reader may think that even though this goal would be nice, it is unrealistic and we would rather do what we can, than not do anything.  Just like somebody with a tooth ache could have a root canal or take a pain killer, the pain killer is cheaper, and does not involve the complicated process of getting an appointment.  Plus, the root canal itself is not barrel of laughter.  However, can the person afford not to have the root canal?  The pain killer produces the illusion of a solution and diverts from the real actions that are needed to solve the problem, just like the actions of many conservation biologists do. 

Just out add the third strike that completes the out I will comment on the fact that all conservation biologists, without exception, will agree that consumerism, leading our society, is a terrible problem causing not only pollution, but also depletion of prime matter and a myriad of bad consequences for the environment. Yet, most conservation biologists would advocate, vehemently, for recycling, buying from more thoughtful sources that practice sustainable use and so on, while very few conservationists would advocate against consumerism and the capitalist system that relays on it.  We all know that recycling is a good thing but, again, it falls short of the real need,  which is to reduce the consumption of prime materials that are been depleted. Notice that I am not arguing against recycling, (I would not tell someone with a tooth ache not to take a pain killer.) what I argue against is recycling (or down-cycling as McDonough & Braungart 2002 would prefer to call it) as the only solution, without moving swiftly to a change the in paradigm in which our consumptive and wasteful style of living is significantly lowered or eliminated.   Back to the comparison with the tooth ache analogy.   It is acceptable to take the pain killer once you have made a dental appointment and a real solution is underway.  What one should not do is to focus too much on getting better and stronger pain killers (biodiesel, ethanol, compact halogens, protecting hotspots, electric cars, and so on) and not target the real problems.

No doubt I have exceeded the doses of iconoclastic rhetoric the reader is willing to withstand.  After taking aim at to the Democratic Party, NPR and the conservation biology itself, I am also taking aim at the Capitalist system.  People are capable of great deeds.   We are capable of deciphering the secrets of nature and we have learned to predict the behavior of very complicated systems.  However there is something we do not do well.  We do not unlearn well.  Things that we have been taught, and on which we have based not only our jobs, life styles and society, and even strategies for conservation, - are the same thing that we have a hard time changing, or even considering they may change.  We knew that capitalism and free market economy was THE way to go, the "end of the story", the greatest system-- period.  Few people will argue against the notion that at the core of most (all?) conservation problems we can find one or many of the following: over consumption, poverty, corporate greed, pollution, corruption, hunger, and unfair distribution of resources.  Few people would disagree that all of these are Captialism's despicable close relatives.  Yet, very few biologist dare to propose a system different than capitalism and free market economy even though it can easily be traced as to being responsible (at least partially) for the great majority of conservation problems.  Brian Czech has presented theoretical arguments and data demonstrating that the unlimited growth economy is not compatible with conservation (Czech 2000; Czech et al. 2000).  I argue elsewhere that an economic system that is not based on the unlimited accumulation of capital, but on the well being of the people, has a better chance of providing a frame work for conservation efforts to flourish and obtain best results (Rivas 2007b). Perhaps, the one that puts it best is Wendell Berry. "We do need a "new economy", but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy"(Berry 2001).

I imagine that the reader may be asking: But what can we do?  We are not economists or politicians?  I do not know the answer to that.  We can certainly learn about those things we did not learn in school, such as politics, macro economics and so on.  We should not fear changes.  Many people panic when the news gets out that NPR may be running out of funds.  We must remember the basic principles from ecology, if NPR goes out, there will be an open niche that will soon be filled.  We shall not fear changes on the political landscape of the country either.  If there was a new raising party or a division of the Democratic Party with a more liberal, pro people branch, it might not be all that bad on the long run.  And, of course, if there was a proposal for a different economic system that did not have the accumulation of capital as sole and only goal and guidance, it might be an idea worth exploring.

Despite the similarities I have pointed out between NPR, the Democratic Party, and conservation biologists with pain killers, there is a big difference.  Pain killers will never be a solution to the problems. For their very nature they are not intended, and cannot solve the problem permanently.  This is not the case with the NPR and the Democratic Party or conservation biologists.  They can begin by start taking more radical positions (as understood for as addressing the roots of the problems).  NPR can start reporting all the other sides of the issues, even if this may mean losing some contributors.  The Democratic Party can start representing more the underrepresented majority of the country, even if this costs one election or of two (like the pain of a root canal treatment) while they gain the trust of the people.  Conservation and conservation biologists can start working more in a multidisciplinary fashion towards solving the real problems; even if this means learning things we did not know and we were not interested in originally.  At the very least we should start talking about a change in paradigms beyond the pure scientific issues, and open up the debate about going beyond simply suggesting conservation policies.  Another desirable consequence would be for conservation biologists to stop practicing Tylenol conservation.  Granted that many will continue doing the work we know how to do and a lot (most?) of it falls within the category of palliatives rather than solutions.  However we must not call it a solution if it does not address the real problem.  We must identify it as being a palliative and go on record, pointing out what the real solution would be and that the real issue must be addressed.  So long as the people, and funding organizations, feel they are doing something to solve the problems, it diverts them from taking real actions and making the sacrifices that are needed to make a difference.


Berry, W. 2001. Thoughts in the presence of fear. Orion:available at

Carter, J. 2006. Palestine peace not apartheid. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Czech, B. 2000. Economic growht as the limiting factor for wildlife conservation. Wildlife Society Bulletin 28:4-14.

Czech, B., P. R. Krausman, and P. K. Devers. 2000. Economic associations among causes of species endangerment in the United States. BioScience 50:593-601.

McDonough, W., and M. Braungart 2002. Cradle to cradle: remaking the way we make things. North Point press, New York.

Rivas, J. A. 2007a. Conservation of Anacondas: How Tylenol Conservation and Macroeconomics Threaten the Survival of the World's Largest Snake. Iguana 14:10-21.

Rivas, J. A. 2007b. La conservación ambiental y el Socialismo: ensayo para un manifiesto conservacionista. Encontrarte 55:1-20   availabe at English version HERE

© Copyright 2007 by

The Author

Jesús A. Rivas is a biologist from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. His research interests include natural history, ethology, and conservation. He has been working for a number of years in the study of behavioral ecology and conservation of large tropical reptiles of the llanos of Venezuela which is his homeland. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee (Laboratory of Reptile Ethology). He taught for one year at Boston University, made TV documentaries for National Geographic Television as a field correspondent and continues to make independent film documentaries.  He is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Math and Natural Sciences at Somerset Community College in Somerset, KY. He is also a prolific writer on social and political matters. His essays are frequently published in Spanish at

Read more about his interesting background at:

He can be reached at: Visit his website at:

Other articles by Jesús A. Rivas

Environmental Conservation and Socialism. A Conservationist Manifesto for the Venezuela's revolution


Rivas, J. A. 2007a. Demografía y conservación: ¿Cuantos somos, cuantos necesitamos y cuantos cabemos? Aporrea

Rivas, J. A. 2007b. La conservación ambiental y el Socialismo: ensayo para un manifiesto conservacionista. Encontrarte 55:1-20   disponible en

Rivas, J. A. 2007c. La diferencia entre el socialismo y el capitalismo: mas allá de las relaciones de producción. Aporrea

Rivas, J. A., and R. Lavieri. 2007. El manejo social del Latifundio y la conservación del medio ambiente. Aporrea

Contact Jesús Rivas:


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