I have seen attitudes to conservation split into the following categories:
- The Romantic-Transcendental Conservation Ethic
- In the mid-nineteenth century Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir waxed eloquent about the wonders of nature in a mystical, almost religious language. Their writings convinced many of the need to save wild places, regardless of whether those places provide any direct economic benefit. The Sierra Club, which was among the earliest of the formal conservation organizations, grew out of Muir’s efforts to protect Yosemite and other parts of the Sierra Nevada.
- The Resource Conservation Ethic
- In the late nineteenth century Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, and others recognized that it was in our own best interest to protect at least some portions of the natural world. Their motivation for doing so, however, was that we derived important “natural resources” from the earth. Unlike the philosophical conservationists, who hoped to protect natural areas for their own sake, Pinchot and the utilitarians hoped to protect natural areas for what they could do for us.
- The Evolutionary-Ecological Land Ethic
- The most eloquent exposition of this approach is, of course, in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. It is, in many ways, a synthesis of the preceding two. It lacks, mostly, the quasi-religious overtones of Thoreau and Muir, and it lacks the strictly utilitarian approach of Pinchot. Fundamentally, the land ethic recognizes that we do derive benefits from nature, but the connectedness of ecological systems means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify only some components as useful.
In Tasmania, and I think it must be quite similar elsewhere, certain groups of people fall distinctly into these three categories. Most people who are not sympathetic to conservation ideals fall into the second category. They recognise the need for conservation only where it has demonstrable, and usually short term, benefit to humans. A high proportion of the most committed conservationists fall into the first category, although many of them would also agree with the evolutionary-ecological position. The final group of people fall squarely into this division, although they may be sympathetic to the idea that maintaining a balanced and healthy ecosystem has its own value apart from the fact that humans are inextricably part of the environment and affected by it. My guess is that the population of Tasmania could be split approximately 10%, 60%, 30% into these categories.
The thing which strikes me about this is that the people who believe, as I do, that the wilderness has its own value independent of mankind, almost never use that argument when trying to convince others that a particular part of the planet should be protected from destruction. I think they feel that it’s too mystical, and therefore won’t be understood. Most commonly they instead use arguments to do with the ecosystem, or else utilitarian arguments such as the value of the area to tourism. Thus the debate becomes “we are making best use of the earth’s natural resources by destroying the wilderness and building something productive (resource conservation ethic from the developers point of view)” versus “that’s very short term economics and anyway you haven’t taken into account the wider effects on the ecosystem (resource conservation plus evolutionary – ecological from the conservation point of view).”
Unfortunately shifting the grounds of the debate in this way can be fatal, because it allows the boiling frog. The developer argues that the destruction of this particular piece of wilderness produces a small overall effect on the ecosystem whilst giving and important direct benefit to the economy. Or that natural resources extracted in the short term will be followed by regeneration of the area giving environmental and tourism benefits. Sometimes conservation groups have been successful with ecological arguments, usually when a species has become endangered.
I think conservation will always be fighting a losing battle with what’s called development, so long as the majority of people have a selfish or human centred response to the environment. There are obviously good reasons for conservation both in terms of direct economics and even more so in terms of the preservation of the complex planetwide system which sustains life, but without a consideration of the wilderness as a thing in itself we’ll end up with what we’re fast heading toward – a few monuments to what used to exist, like a Disney park of nature.
Twenty five years ago I was a firm believer in conservation, but it came entirely from an ecological perspective. What changed my thinking was a speech by Bob Brown about the idea of wilderness. He said something about the south west forests of Tasmania having just as much importance to him even if no human actually went there, rather than being important because of what humans can gain from their existence. Since then the idea has seemed more and more obvious, although it’s hard to explain to people because it does not deal in the common currency of economics by which all value is increasingly measured.
But I’m not being entirely altruistic: I think that this sort of change in our attitude to the environment is essential to humans being able to regain their internal balance. I don’t think a person can have a harmonious relationship with the world by coming from a perspective of either exploitation or dominion. It’s really a big cultural shift, especially since it’s bound up in economics, so I expect it will be a rather slow process. I just hope we have long enough.