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Dave Dempsey explores connection between people, dogs and environmental policy in new book

Dave Dempsey explores connection between people, dogs and environmental policy in new book
September 22, 2022 Gary Wilson

When we think of our cherished dogs, most of us don’t easily make a connection to environmental policy or protecting the Great Lakes.

But that’s the path Traverse City’s Dave Dempsey followed in his latest book release, Half Wild: People, Dogs and Environmental Policy.

The premise of the book examines our tendency to engage in binary thinking on protecting the environment and the Great Lakes, much like dogs who are domesticated but retain long-ingrained wild tendencies.

Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson recently talked with Dempsey about Half Wild.

Dempsey elaborated on binary environmental policy thinking, the long-standing culture divide between conservationists and environmentalists and provided an insider’s look at how Detroit’s “landfill in the sky” came to be.

Additionally, he shared his views on the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline and its tunnel replacement, invasive (Asian) carp and a message for coming generations.

Dempsey’s 40 year environmental career includes policy adviser to former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, the non-profit Michigan Environmental Council and with the International Joint Commission. He is currently a senior adviser to the non-profit For Love of Water (FLOW).

More information on Half Wild can be found at Michigan State University Press and more information on Dempsey’s Great Lakes books can be found here.

The interview was conducted over the phone and via email and was recorded, transcribed and edited for length and clarity.

Great Lakes Now:  The book title is Half Wild and in the preface you wrote you are convinced “that canines and humans live in a half-wild world.” Can you explain?

Dave Dempsey: The whole premise of the book is that we’ve taken a binary approach to environmental policy so there’s human and non-human and pristine and developed. I have found instead that we’re living in a policy realm where each intrudes on the other. There’s no pure wild and there’s no pure pristine. Humans alter the environment and the environment alters us.

Dogs are an example because they are easily domesticated yet they have these traits that come from centuries or millennia of being in the wild, including defending their food very aggressively.

As that binary thinking impacts policy, the Clean Water Act should be called the Cleaner Water Act. The water is not clean and won’t be no matter how hard we try. We’ll be able to improve it and setting a clean water goal is good, but it won’t happen as everything is a matter of gradations and compromises.

GLN: On people, you chronicle a meeting with a legendary and influential outdoorsman early in your career while advising former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard. The topic was the state of Michigan’s environment and he implied that you represented a green, elitist viewpoint.

With the advantage of hindsight, what do you take away from that conversation? Why did you include it in the book?

DD: The meeting was a rude introduction to a truth that governed all the events that I’ve been involved with. There’s a nearly irreconcilable difference between what we call conservationists and environmentalists. There’s a cultural difference as most of the members of each community come from a totally different approach and background, financially and culturally. It’s been rare that the two communities work together.

An exception, in Minnesota there was a great example where the groups did merge on an issue. Sportsmen had a duck rally and environmentalists had a clean water initiative and they decided that there was a connection between clean water and ducks.

They worked together along with other constituencies and got the Legacy Amendment to the constitution passed which at the time provided $400 million a year for preservation. But most of the time the groups have ignored each other or are at odds and that to me was a surprise when I started. I assumed everyone who was in favor of conservation or environmental protection had the same values and approach. I quickly found otherwise.

GLN: In a chapter about non-native aquatic species you say “human action and non-action” have made it clear that the Great Lakes are half wild. That they’re not the lakes of previous millennial where humans were transients. Can you elaborate?

DD: There are a couple of aspects to that. A great example of non-action is the lack of response to the warning that zebra mussels would colonize the Great Lakes. There was no political will to act until there was a disaster at the end. Basically, the zebra and quagga mussels are here by our permission. We allowed that to happen.

Related to action, I’ve been amazed about the Asian carp issue, but again there’s been non-action involved. It took almost 20 years to get the barrier up in the Illinois River system. It could have been done in a year if there had been political will.

Now, Illinois has begun to think of Asian Carp as a potential asset by marketing them for consumption and that’s not true of the other states.

We don’t have a commitment to biological integrity in the Great Lakes which is what the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act call for. We have a commitment to manipulating and maximizing human benefits. Sometimes the benefits are seen differently by different states or communities and that’s the case with Asian carp.

We’ve treated the Great Lakes like a fish bowl for a long time. Even the introduction of salmon to the Great Lakes by one state, Michigan, was an experiment and there was no serious environmental impact statement because they weren’t in vogue. It was, throw the fish in and hopefully they’ll eat the alewives and become a viable sport fishery. It was an experiment and often our experiments with the environment turn out to be disasters.

GLN: Human action brought non-native (Asian) carp to the U.S. Over decades they’ve been demonized as they’ve migrated toward the Great Lakes and the federal government and the region are on the cusp of spending approaching a billion dollars to keep them at bay. Does that make sense?

DD: It doesn’t make sense. A prevention ethic is completely lacking in environmental protection. We don’t want to spend money until there is a problem staring us in the face. And Asian carp are likely to be coming here. Whether they establish themselves is unknown but, I’d take that billion dollars and spend it on a lot of different things.

GLN: In your CODA in Half Wild, you say that “there are no bright lines between the human animal and other animals.” That life runs on a continuum of relationships. How has that impacted your environmental work as an adviser and advocate?

DD: It’s been a major hindrance because that truth is not recognized. One of the essays is about wilderness and my dear friends have fought for wilderness for years and I too was involved in the effort. But now I realize that the idea of wilderness is noble but the reality is that nothing is true wilderness anymore.

Some of the goals we’re fighting to achieve are not attainable because they’re absolutes. I guess the final lesson of my career is that if we are more realistic about what we can accomplish we might have more success, more public support and more support for funding and maybe even prevention. But when goals are set high and not met, it discourages the public.

GLN: FLOW is a strong advocate to shut down the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline but the issue is currently bogged down in a legal quagmire. Anti-pipeline groups have called on the Biden administration to intervene but that hasn’t happened. Where to from here on Line 5?

DD: I think it will sputter around in the courts for the foreseeable future. There is no way that Canada as a nation or Enbridge as a corporation are going to yield to the state of Michigan.

I see it operating indefinitely, much to my disappointment and anger. Gov. Whitmer has done all she can do by revoking the easement that allows Enbridge to operate Line 5. I’m not surprised that the Biden administration doesn’t want to get involved because of diplomatic considerations. The best we could have hoped for is neutrality.

I also think the tunnel replacement for Line 5 is a total red herring. I don’t think they intend to seriously operate the tunnel. It’s sleight of hand to divert our focus  from the risk of the pipeline. It will take years to go through the process of permitting and exploration before they even build it.

My personal opinion is that former Gov. Snyder left us in an impossible position with that last minute scam, signing the legislation to create an authority that basically is a permit processing agency for Enbridge.

GLN:  Looking back on your 40 year environmental career and into the future, are you optimistic about protecting the Great Lakes? That we will find the will to deal with the big issues like algal blooms and prevent the waters from being diverted to drought-stricken places?

DD: I’m optimistic in spite of all the evidence. There is no choice but to be optimistic because otherwise we’ll be paralyzed into inaction.

The change has to come from somewhere. Maybe I’m falling victim to the same binary thinking I just criticized but I don’t see us being able to protect the Great Lakes without being much more protective and preventive.

I can’t think of a single issue on which the Great Lakes jurisdictions have prevented a problem. You can say the Great Lakes Compact is going to prevent water diversions. I don’t think that’s necessarily true and of course there are some diversions happening under the Compact.

I have to believe that when the crisis comes we will respond and hopefully develop a preventive approach. We’re on the brink of several potential disasters like Asian Carp and potentially hijacking of our water to deal with the unprecedented water shortages in the west. Plus climate change here will have an unknown effect.

I want to apologize to the next generation. Looking back at 40 years no matter what I’ve done we’re in a worse situation than we were then. I’m not taking the blame for it but the best I can say for most of the work I’ve done is it would be worse without me.


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Veteran algal bloom scientist calls on EPA to shift priorities from focus on practices to outcomes

Can shipping on the Great Lakes take the next step toward transporting high-value container cargo?


Featured image: Photo courtesy of Dave Dempsey

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