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


When we think of our beloved dogs, most of us make no connection to environmental politics or the protection of the Great Lakes.

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

The book’s premise examines our tendency to engage in binary thinking in protecting the environment and the Great Lakes, much like dogs, which are domesticated but retain long-established wild tendencies.

Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson recently spoke to Dempsey about Half Wild.

Dempsey explained the binary thinking in environmental politics, the long-standing cultural divide between conservationists and environmentalists, and provided an insider’s look at the making of Detroit’s “landfill in the sky.”

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

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

Visit Michigan State University Press for more information on Half Wild and click here for more information on Dempsey’s Great Lakes books.

The interview was conducted by telephone and email and was recorded, transcribed and edited for length and clarity.

Great Lakes now: The title of the book is Half Wild and in the foreword you wrote that you were convinced “that dogs and humans live in a half-wild world”. Can you explain?

David Dempsey: The whole premise of the book is that we have taken a binary approach to environmental policy, i.e. there is human and non-human and primitive and evolved. What I’ve found instead is that we live in a political realm where everyone interferes with everyone else. There is no pure wild and no pure original. Man changes the environment and the environment changes us.

Dogs are an example because they are easy to tame and yet have these traits that have come from centuries or millennia of living in the wild, including being very aggressive in defending their food.

As this binary thinking affects policy, the Clean Water Act should be called the Cleaner Water Act. The water is not clean and will not be, no matter how hard we try. We can improve it and having a clean water target is good, but it won’t happen as it’s all a matter of gradations and compromises.

GLN: Speaking of people, you recount meeting a legendary and influential outdoorsman early in your career while advising former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard. The subject was the state of the environment in Michigan and it implied that you took a green, elitist viewpoint.

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Looking back, what do you take away from this conversation? Why did you include it in the book?

DD: The meeting was a rough introduction to a truth that governed all events in which I was involved. There is an almost irreconcilable difference between what we call conservationists and environmentalists. There is a cultural difference as most members of each community have a completely different approach and background, financially and culturally. It is rare for the two communities to work together.

An exception, in Minnesota there was a great example where the groups came together around a theme. Athletes held a duck rally and environmentalists organized a clean water initiative and they decided there was a connection between clean water and ducks.

They worked with other constituencies and passed the Legacy Amendment to the Constitution, which at the time allocated $400 million a year for preservation. But most of the time the groups ignored each other or fell out, and that came as a surprise to me when I started. I assumed that everyone who advocates conservation or environmental protection has the same values ​​and the same approach. I quickly found something different.

GLN: In a chapter on non-native aquatic species, you say “human action and inaction” has made it clear that the Great Lakes are semi-wild. That they are not the lakes of the past millennia, in which people were travelers. Can you explain that in more detail?

DD: There are a few aspects to this. A good example of inaction is the failure to respond to a warning that zebra mussels would colonize the Great Lakes. There was no political will to act until disaster struck at the end. Basically, the zebra and quagga clams are here with our permission. We allowed that.

Action wise I was amazed at the problem with the Asian carp but again non-action was involved. It took nearly 20 years to erect the barrier in the Illinois River system. It could have happened in a year if the political will had been there.

Now Illinois has started looking at Asian carp as a potential asset by marketing them for consumption, and the same cannot be said of the other states.

We have no commitment to biological integrity in the Great Lakes as required by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act. We are committed to manipulating and maximizing human utility. Sometimes the benefits are viewed differently by different states or communities and that is the case with Asian carp.

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We’ve long treated the Great Lakes like a goldfish bowl. Even the introduction of salmon into the Great Lakes by one state, Michigan, was an experiment and didn’t have a serious environmental impact statement because they weren’t in vogue. It was, throw the fish in and hopefully they will eat the Alewives and grow into a viable sport fishery. It was an experiment, and often our experiments with the environment turn out to be disasters.

GLN: Human activity brought non-native (Asian) carp to the U.S. For decades, they were demonized as they migrated toward the Great Lakes, and the federal and regional government are on the verge of spending nearly a billion dollars to keep them at bay. Does this make sense?

DD: It makes no sense. There is a complete lack of prevention ethics in environmental protection. We don’t want to spend money until a problem is staring us in the face. And Asian carp will probably come here. Whether they catch on is unknown, but I would 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 clear lines between the human animal and other animals”. This life runs on a continuum of relationships. How has this affected your environmental work as a consultant and advocate?

DD: It was a great obstacle because this truth is not recognized. One of the essays is about wilderness, and my dear friends fought for wilderness for years, and I was a part of that too. 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 are fighting for are unattainable because they are absolute. I guess the final lesson of my career is that if we are more realistic about what we can achieve, we could have more success, more public support, and more support for funding and maybe even prevention. But when goals are set lofty and not met, it discourages the public.

GLN: FLOW is a strong supporter of closing the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, but the issue is currently mired in a legal quagmire. Anti-pipeline groups have called on the Biden administration to intervene, but that has not happened. Where to take line 5 from here?

DD: I think it will be bubbling up in the courts for the foreseeable future. There is no way Canada as a nation or Enbridge as a company will yield to the state of Michigan.

I see it operating indefinitely, much to my disappointment and anger. Governor Whitmer did all she could by revoking the easement that allows Enbridge to operate Line 5. I am not surprised that the Biden administration does not want to get involved for diplomatic reasons. The best we could hope for was neutrality.

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I also think the tunnel replacement for line 5 is a total red herring. I don’t think they are serious about running the tunnel. It is a trick 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 are even built.

My personal opinion is that with this last minute scam, former Governor Snyder put us in an impossible position by signing into law creating an agency that is essentially a licensing agency for Enbridge.

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

DD: Despite all the evidence, I’m optimistic. There is no choice but to be optimistic, otherwise we become paralyzed in inaction.

The change has to come from somewhere. I may fall prey to the same binary thinking I just criticized, but I don’t see that we’re capable of protecting the Great Lakes without being much more protective and pre-emptive.

I can’t think of a single issue where the Great Lakes jurisdiction would have prevented an issue. It can be said that the Great Lakes Compact will prevent water diversion. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, and of course there are some distractions within the Compact.

I have to believe that when the crisis comes, we will react and hopefully develop a preventive approach. We are on the verge of several potential disasters like the Asian carp and the potential hijacking of our water to deal with the unprecedented water shortages in the West. In addition, climate change will have an unknown effect here.

I want to apologize to the next generation. When I look back 40 years, no matter what I’ve done, we’re in a worse situation than we were then. I don’t take any blame for this, but the best I can say about most of the work I’ve done is that it would be worse without me.


Learn more about Great Lakes Now:

A veteran algal bloom scientist is urging the EPA to shift priorities from focusing on practices to outcomes

Can shipping on the Great Lakes take the next step in transporting high-value containerized cargo?


Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Dave Dempsey





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