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Conservation, Preservation, Ecology & Go Green: History & Lessons

Updated on November 30, 2012

Are We Really Going Green?

Many people accept the Go Green movement at face value. Others brush it off. Let's get some perspective on the 150 years of historical effort on national environmental work - the conservation, preservation, ecology, and green movements - and learn some lessons. Then we can decide what will really work to solve today's ecological problems.

Yellowstone Falls

It started with art: Paintings like this one inspired Congress and the general public to create the National Park System and preserve America's wilderness.
It started with art: Paintings like this one inspired Congress and the general public to create the National Park System and preserve America's wilderness. | Source

Henry David Thoreau

The thinker who started it all.
The thinker who started it all. | Source

Back to the 1800s: The Conservation and Preservation Movements

Americans have been working to protect the environment for 150 years. The conservation and preservation movements began with vision - with painters capturing the wonders of the American wilderness. Early proponents were explorers and oil painters. Later proponents included photographers such as Ansel Adams, whose work helped expand the National Park System and supported the aims of the Preservation Movement and the Sierra Club. What began in images grew in words with the writings of Henry David Thoreau, developed into action with the work of John Muir, and moved into government through Theodore Roosevelt.

Stewardship: The Conservation and Preservation Movements

The conservation movement in the United States began in the mid-1800s and transformed our conscious relationship to nature. Henry David Thoreau, through the book Walden, was its primary philosopher. John Muir was a strong and steady worker who founded the Sierra Club. It's first major victory was in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park. The creation of the National Park System with the Park Service and U.S. Forestry Service with its national forests between 1890 and 1905 established conservation as a central part of American national government and states, counties, and cities followed suit with the legislation of park lands.

Prior to this notion of national stewardship, local government and custom regulated land use. And the regulation did not address the idea that people might be permanently changing their landscape, driving species to rarity or extinction, or creating what we now understand to be ecological imbalance.

The Fundamental Concept: Stewardship

The conservation and preservation movements defined the ideal relationship between government and the environment as one of stewardship. To be a good steward means to take care of something for which we are responsible, but we do not own. This approach creates a mindset of right relationship and humility in relation to nature.

This stewardship took two forms: Conservation and Preservation. The distinction between these two is rarely understood well, and is a crucial issue in evaluation of the Green movements of the early 21st century.

Conservation: Caring for Natural Assets

The focus of conservation is the maintenance of natural assets for human purposes. The National Forest Service sets aside forests not so that they will remain unchanged, but so that they will be forested in a sustainable way, allowing for more forests in the future. The focus is on the benefits to mankind - primarily social and economic benefits.

Preservation: Maintaining Natural Beauty and Wonder

The preservation movement was lead by John Muir and the Sierra Club. It found some expression in governmental policies through the National Park System, but less than the conservation movement. It's goal was to preserve natural wonders undamaged. For example, Muir wanted to allow hikers, but no cars, in national parks.

The focus of preservation is the retention of natural feature and natural environments as they are. The benefits to humanity are secondary, and are focused on aesthetics (beauty) and spirituality (inspiration and purification of spirit).

Natural Beauties of Yellowstone

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts about once every 91 minutes, is the most predictable geographical feature on Earth. It's also among the easiest to preserve: Just leave it alone.Rivers like the Yellowstone, can be harder to preserve. Keeping a river alive requires care for its source waters and protection of its living ecosystem.Plants near Yellowstone River. Each plant and animal makes a unique contribution to the environment.This is a Rocky Mountain Elk in Yellowstone. Although it is not endangered, it's cousin, the Eastern Elk is already extinct, due to human population density, habitat destruction, and over-hunting.
Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts about once every 91 minutes, is the most predictable geographical feature on Earth. It's also among the easiest to preserve: Just leave it alone.
Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts about once every 91 minutes, is the most predictable geographical feature on Earth. It's also among the easiest to preserve: Just leave it alone. | Source
Rivers like the Yellowstone, can be harder to preserve. Keeping a river alive requires care for its source waters and protection of its living ecosystem.
Rivers like the Yellowstone, can be harder to preserve. Keeping a river alive requires care for its source waters and protection of its living ecosystem. | Source
Plants near Yellowstone River. Each plant and animal makes a unique contribution to the environment.
Plants near Yellowstone River. Each plant and animal makes a unique contribution to the environment. | Source
This is a Rocky Mountain Elk in Yellowstone. Although it is not endangered, it's cousin, the Eastern Elk is already extinct, due to human population density, habitat destruction, and over-hunting.
This is a Rocky Mountain Elk in Yellowstone. Although it is not endangered, it's cousin, the Eastern Elk is already extinct, due to human population density, habitat destruction, and over-hunting. | Source

What We Didn't Know a Century Ago

Ecological science - the concept of the ecosystem as a complex, interdependent system of species - was unknown during the era of conservation and preservation. Evidence was being gathered and patterns were being seen. The first proposed ecological model came out in 1905, but fundamental issues weren't really clarified until the 1940s and 1950s. Without the knowledge of ecological science, national parks could preserve geological features such as mountains, mesas, and geysers. But they could not preserve natural living environments or ensure that species would not either go extinct or go into wild overpopulation, as happened with deer when wolves were exterminated. And the overpopulation of deer led to habitat destruction in the wild lands and to epidemic Lyme disease for people.

As a result, the best intentions of conservation and preservation were not supported by knowledge of how to conserve and preserve natural systems. But there was also a bigger and deeper problem: Conservation and Preservation were, to some degree, fads, and were not the central issue of American politics and government for long.

The Dust Bowl

In the 1930s vast amounts of America's richest topsoil blew away as dust. It floated clouds all the way to Chicago & New York and out to the Atlantic ocean. This topsoil, built up over centuries, was lost in just a few years due to poor conservation.
In the 1930s vast amounts of America's richest topsoil blew away as dust. It floated clouds all the way to Chicago & New York and out to the Atlantic ocean. This topsoil, built up over centuries, was lost in just a few years due to poor conservation. | Source

Lessons From the Dust Bowl

Some argue that the Dust Bowl that swept away the topsoil of Oklahoma, north Texas, and several surrounding states, was, in fact, the worst ecological disaster in history. Over 2.5 million people lost or left their homes and migrated, many to California. The dust bowl was created by farming without concern for conservation of the topsoil. Topsoil that had built up for centuries was lost in just a few years. The land was permanently denuded and devalued, becoming barely usable as farmland.

On the positive side, the government planted the Great Plains Shelterbelt, a band of 220 million trees, 100 miles wide, stretching from the Canadian border to Abilene, Texas. It is still protecting the Great Plains from another dust bowl, and has only needed improvement in the past few years. The government also encouraged more conservation-based farming practices and came up with effective price supports that kept the food supply steady as agriculture failed. These are probably the best examples of conservation management we have to go on as we face climate change and toxic waste issues in the 21st century.

1915 to 1969: Issues We Thought Were More Important than Conservation

It is essential to understand that, while preservation and conservation were somewhat at odds with one another with regard to fundamental purpose, they were in agreement regarding the stewardship of nature, and, even at their height, were a minority voice in American government, politics, and economy.

Not long after Theodore Roosevelt established the National Parks and National Forests, foreign policy became the central issue for the United States as we got involved in World War I. After that, President Calvin Coolidge asserted that "the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world." His policy towards business was called laissez-faire, a French phrase that basically means: Don't regulate business, let them do what they will do. It is very similar to the deregulation policies of Presidents Reagan, George Bush, and G. W. Bush.

This "laissez-faire" policy does not just let business do what it will do in business. It actively supports business growth while allowing business to do whatever it will do to the environment. Human energy and ingenuity became highly industrious, powerful, and destructive. There were early signs of the problem during the Roaring Twenties, with a disastrous flood of the Mississippi resulting from Coolidge's resistance to Federal flood control and the beginning of serious trouble for American farmers. Here, too, Coolidge resisted Federal support of sustainability by rejecting two farm subsidy bills.

Then, shortly after Coolidge left office, the stock market crashed in 1929, and the central issue of the United States government became the Great Depression. What most people don't realize is that the Dust Bowl, a central feature of the Great Depression, was an issue of ecology and overpopulation. (See the Sidebar: Lessons from the Dust Bowl.)

Then, during the 1940s, World War II occupied the center of American concerns. This was followed by the Cold War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, keeping America focused on foreign policy issues until the late 1960s, when the Ecology movement was born.

Earth Day 1970

This is the original Earth Day symbol, from when Senator Gaylord Nelson called for a national teach-in on ecology.
This is the original Earth Day symbol, from when Senator Gaylord Nelson called for a national teach-in on ecology. | Source

Walter Cronkite Reports

From Earth Day 1970 to Today: The Ecology Movement and the Go Green Movement

Ecology regained center stage at the end of the 1960s protest era. As anti-war protestors succeeded in calling for an end to the Vietnam war, U. S Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin created Earth Day. He called for a teach-in at every U. S. university modeled on the Vietnam War protest teach-ins, announcing it by saying

I am convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically. To marshal such an effort, I am proposing a national teach-in on the crisis of the environment to be held next spring on every university campus across the Nation. The crisis is so imminent, in my opinion, that every university should set aside 1 day in the school year-the same day across the Nation-for the teach-in.

Ecological concerns came front and center once again. People read Thoreau's Walden and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Ecological science was more firmly in place, allowing us to understand how extinction of a single species could throw an ecosystem out of balance. The use of Agent Orange in Vietnam made people sensitive to environmental poisons that could kill people. And so, ecological concerns became part of the national consciousness. Over the next two decades: Crusaders like Ralph Nader raised environmental issues; Love Canal introduced us to the dangers of toxic waste and we created the Superfund in response; We prevented a disastrous hole in the ozone layer created by chemical waste in the atmosphere; And we became aware of the problem first called global warming, and now called climate change.

In the 1980s, the fervor died down. By the 1990s, the Superfund was allowed to lapse and run out of money. Conservative government policies once again made business the business of America through deregulation.

Meanwhile, underneath all of this, the long term trends of global environmental poisoning and global warming continued unabated. All freshwater fish, and all ocean fish not in frigid arctic waters, are contaminated to the point where eating more than about two portions per week is dangerous. Overfishing has led to the collapse of ocean ecologies, so that fish that were once abundant in the wild, such as salmon, come now largely from fish farms that can easily be poisoned by industrial and agricultural runoff. Extinction of species and degradation of habitats through overpopulation and exploitation of resources may be slowed, but goes on unchecked. And substantial business lobbies prevent effective long-term governmental and international action as the problems grow worse.

All this is the background for the new Green Movement. But for the Green Movement to succeed, it must change our behavior, across all of the developed and developing world, for centuries to come. It is the largest challenge that the human race has ever faced. And, unlike the danger of nuclear weapons during the cold war, it does not call for changes in military and government policies. The hearts, minds, and actions of nearly every person must change for us to succeed.

Earth Day was a teach-in, but clearly intended, just like the Vietnam War teach-ins, to be a call to action. To see what has happened to Green political action since then, you can read Green Government & Green Politics in the US: Is Go Green a Go?

Lessons from Preservation, Conservation, and Ecology

What have we learned from this history?

  • Successful solution to ecological problems begins with a shift of attitude. We must realize that: We are changing the Earth that has kept us alive for millions of years; The changes may make human life difficult to sustain; The changes do threaten civilization and will bring about the deaths of millions of people; We must all change if we want to manage the situation.
  • Deep understanding, excellent science and top engineering are needed to resolve these problems.
  • The problems occur in all types of habitats: Cities face smog, heat waves, and blizzards; Coasts and hilly areas face floods; Farmlands can be denuded; Natural areas can be destroyed; the entire atmosphere can be over-heated.
  • People are affected directly: All of our food is, to some degree, poisoned. We face plagues, epidemics, and pandemics. Evacuation becomes mass migration, affecting the education and emotional stability of an entire generation.
  • The problems are global: Climate change is not the only global issue. For example, protection of migratory species of birds, fish, polar bears, and whales from extinction requires international cooperation.
  • Management by crisis will not solve these problems: We must learn to prevent, rather than respond to, environmental destruction such as the Dust Bowl and the destruction of rainforests in Brazil. We must learn to keep species off the endangered species list, rather than let them fall onto it, then cycle on and off as they partially recover, are ignored, and cycle back towards extinction again. And, as a global or even a national society, we've never had that kind of long-range view.

All this background can help us evaluate and improve the Go Green Movement.

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    • KrisL profile image

      KrisL 4 years ago from S. Florida

      What I like most about this essay is how it puts "going green" in historical perspective. Many of the problems, and many of the the solutions are not new, and as you say "management by crisis" will not solve the problem.

      Voted "awesome" and shared.

    • SidKemp profile image
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      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks so much, Kris. It occurred to me recently that "management by crisis" means, be irresponsible (manage badly or not at all), create a crisis, then deal with it. A very expensive way to live!

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 4 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

      A good summary of the lessons learned - or that we should have learned. Let's hope we take action in time. I was at Glacier National Park in 2010, and I guess they'll have to change the name soon, since almost all of the glaciers have melted. On to read about what we can do "Go Green in Time...". Voted up, interesting, useful and awesome!

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Wow! Do you have photos from your trip?

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 4 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

      Here's a link to my blog. We covered lots of territory on the cross-country trip, and saw 11 National Parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite and Olympic National Park. Here's a link with pictures of Glacier.

      http://maggie-retirementdreams.blogspot.com/2012/0...

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks so much. Would you be open to me using some of these photos in future hubs?

    • starstream profile image

      Dreamer at heart 4 years ago from Northern California

      Thanks for sharing this hub. I believe we all need to come to terms with our mutual worldwide need for fresh clean water.

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Yes, StarStream. Since water is your concern, be sure to check out hubs by my friend WaterGeek. And you might look up Charity:Water, too.

    • AmbitiousMarketer profile image

      Mark Johnson 3 years ago from England

      It's a shame isn't it. If we carry on the way we are all these beauties will be gone and you know why? because we choose to believe human life is more important than the natural world. I tell you what's not important keeping those scumbag re-offenders alive. Lets say 1 re-offender cost $12,000 a year 10 cost 120k a year. That 120k alone could be funded into protecting 100 sq miles of rainforest, desert, forest etc. But no humans are more important than the millions of beautiful species out there.

      You wouldn't nurse, look after and protect rats in your back yard and buy more land to house the next generation so why would you let those who don't positively contribute to society in any way or form continue to consume our ever decreasing resources.

      A majestic creature in India is losing its habitat because people choose to have a big family. That's selfish.

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 3 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Ambitious Marketer, I deeply appreciate your love for nature. And there is insight in your point about humans not being more important than nature, and more insight in what you say about selfishness. But, after that, in terms of a solution, you and I have different views. In your thinking, who are "we" and who are "they"? You compare repeat polluters to rats. That is called pseudospeciation, saying that members of our own species (human) should be killed like members of another species.

      Once we make the error of pseudospeciation, humanity becomes divided into "us" and "them." This leads to the perpetuation of hatred, nationalism, and war. These divisions are exactly why humanity cannot pull together and solve environmental and social problems.

      Let us be very careful about being divisive, and choosing to hate the "other." Gandhi didn't do that. He encouraged unified effort and acceptance of diversity. Jesus did not call for the death of repeat offenders, but for us to forgive them (for they don't know what they are doing), and help them out of their ignorance until they "go and sin no more." In fiction, Yoda holds the light side of the Force in patience, and it is impatience that creates a Darth Vader - even impatience on the right side, in a good cause.

      In history, Hitler wanted to eliminate the people he thought of as "scumbag" (impure) "re-offenders." In ancient times, 26 schools of Buddhist wisdom were eliminated because they were "selfish."

      In my view, the essential lesson of nature is that means and ends are one. We cannot unify through divisiveness. We cannot heal through hurting. We cannot love nature in effective ways by hating and harming our brothers and sisters.

      Again, I understand your pain and frustration. But let us all keep looking deeply until we find a peaceful solution that restores the harmony, not only of nature, but also of our own humanity.

    • AmbitiousMarketer profile image

      Mark Johnson 3 years ago from England

      I like the point you made and it was very insightful but I just think we won't take serious action until its too late. Just like the bees, only a small sect of researchers and participants did their best to conserve and protect the bees as they knew how important they are to us. Although the issue has been raised, it seems that man made problems are at the top of the priority list - war, crime, famine etc but if the wealthy nations get to the point whereby they can't look after themselves (something we are starting to see with rising unemployment and inflation) then we won't even be able to help others.

      They are trying to control the population boom with education but this only works for a small number of people. Unless the government takes serious action like the one-child policy, then I don't see what else will stop kids having kids as they know they will be looked after by the struggling taxpayer. Most of those in power come from stable, high-class backgrounds. It'd be like putting yourself in charge of a business organisation yet you haven't had the experience and know-how to get to the top, they just offered you the job and you begin to make decisions based on the statistics you see on paper. This lack of knowledge and lack of experience results in a mess.

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 3 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Ambitious Marketer, Yes, we agree on all points this time. It's hard to be a Yoda. We know patience is essential, but that seems to lead only to no solution coming in time. A unified, peaceful, respectful, loving humanity could solve these problems easily, but we don't know how to get there before we wreck Gaia, our home. The people at the top are disconnected, and the people at the bottom are disempowered and fragmented.

      On a rational level, I do not see a solution. But on a holistic level, I know how to do my part in creating the solution. I live true to what I believe; I keep healing; I keep sharing. It is all each of us can do. But Life is a more powerful force for harmony than any one of us can imagine. Let's keep dancing in its flow, and trust that a solution will arise. Even if not, the planet and humanity will survive. It is only civilization that is in danger of collapsing. And it is time we outgrew civilization itself, perhaps.

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