American Conservation Movement

(Reading notes from Taylor Caldron):

The conservation movement is like the frontier itself; it is a century-long struggle of walking the line between individual freedom and regulated social responsibility, between private and public lands, between utilitarian and aesthetic conceptions of nature, and between short-term profit and long-term prosperity.

The first wave of conversation, beginning in 1890, focused on specific places in the landscape and whirled around a deceptively simple dichotomy about choice between preserving or using resources in these places. Theodore Roosevelt was a pioneer of this first wave, making conservation a primary concern. He tended to preserve especially scenic areas, while his forestry chief, Pinchot worked on bulk forest. But Pinchot believed that forestry was basically tree farming – he was into sustainable forestry/sustainable yields. Muir, the quintessential preservationist, worked on saving Yosemite and the Sierras. Muir and Pinchot had slightly different ideals (utilitarianism vs. preservationism), but they were still both part of a wave that perceived humans and nature as separate and required governments to intervene. Additionally, nature was preserved almost exclusively for recreation and human fulfillment. Franklin Roosevelt continued this tradition.

The second wave had roots in the public health movement and swept across America since about 1950. It is about protecting the commons. As pollution began to threaten health, legislators responded swiftly. Post WW2, we were facing fish kills, toxic dumps, smog, polluted rivers. This is when Hardin began to speak of the tradgedy of the commons. Rachael Carson wrote about the impacts of agricultural chemicals in Silent Spring. Nixon understood that resource management gave political clout, and so National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) passed, a bill of environmental rights and responsibilities. It focused on allowing “values-free” science play an important role in decision-making, and established the EPA to help this happen. Until the Reagan administration, the EPA was “king of the mountain” in protecting the commons. This era also saw the rise of many NGO’s like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherds, etc. Once again, the second wave viewed nature as distinctively separate from humans. The actions were mainly at the hands of professionals who got their orders from the government or large corporations, and were not very accountable to common citizens. However, there was still a believe in continued growth and higher standards of material comfort. Environmental legislation lacked idealism – it didn’t make it clear that things like pesticides were a war on nature. Laws were largely ineffective in actually protecting the environment – they just gave the appearance of protection.

In the 1980s however, began a third wave based on an ecological worldview. Although still a minority to the other two, it is building strength. It is based on a more sophisticated understanding of nature’s flux and the relationship between humans and nature and community-based action. The responsibility is held by the individual and the community, not a depersonalized government. People began to view the earth as a living space with supreme interconnectedness. Arne Naess invents Deep Ecology, a fully biocentric alsmot spiritual system that advocates ecological equity, intrinsic value of every species, reduced human population growth, preservation of pristine places, and self-realization through simpler lifestyles. There has been an emphasis on rebuilding local/regional economies and social networks as essential to sustainability. Also, a new non-equilibrium paradigm (i.e. no real ‘balance of nature’) became essential to the new ecology. The author compares embracing this third wave to a ‘Copernican revolution.’