Conservation, Preservation, Ecology & Go Green: History & Lessons
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.
Henry David Thoreau
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 YellowstoneClick thumbnail to view full-size
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
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
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.
- To see how the lessons of Conservation, Preservation, and Ecology have influenced the Green movement, please read Going Green: Is it real, or is it a scam?
- To see how the above principles apply to our future in the 21st century, you can take a look at Go Green in Time: Stop Climate Change & Clean Global Environment.
- To see the article that introduces this entire series of articles on Go Green, please read Go Green: The Big Picture for Climate Change and Healthy Living.
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Real Green solutions come from deep thinking about the causes of problems we created over centuries. Natural crises have deep roots in human actions.