Sunday, 27 May 2018

A Brief History of the Conservation Movement

Early conservation writing:
1662 paper by John Evelyn,
cited by Wikipedia as a beginning
point of the conservation
Historically, the conservation movement as most people know it comes from a sort of business model for forest management that was first promoted in 17th century England to encourage more sustainable timber harvests. This concept was refined in the 19th century and solidified around three core assumptions:

--Human activity damages the environment
--The natural environment needs to be maintained for future generations
--Scientific methods should be applied to conserve forests
19th century conservation in America probably has its philosophical roots going back to Henry David Thoreau and his writings about nature at Waldon Pond—an observational and reverential approach to the environment—and the naturalist John Muir, often called “the father of national parks”. The earliest political push for conservation in the US probably came from President Teddy Roosevelt and his desire to preserve what was left of North America’s big game species. He was an avid big game hunter, and he created the US Forest Service, established five national parks, and four national game preserves as well as other public forests and reserves.

Practically—after all, we live in a world driven by economics, and they did back then too—the stated American government conservation goal was to maximize natural resources for long-term economic benefit. Today the US Environmental Protection Agency is government-funded, and continues to serve that goal, at least more or less.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of non-government, non-business conservation organisations sprang up, started by concerned citizens who felt government guidelines and regulations didn’t match the true need for conservancy and environmental protection. These were groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and Friends of the Earth. The focus of these groups was moving away from an emphasis on forests to include the whole range of “natural” environments, and from conservation of economic reserves to conservation in its own right—a desire to save the natural environment and at-risk species, and to mitigate man's impact upon the planet (different organisations have somewhat different goals). To get the private donations they needed to do this, they learned to build campaigns around poster animals such as whales, tigers, elephants, and polar bears—wild at-risk animals that it is relatively easy to get people to care about.

In New Zealand, as in many pockets of the world, we have had a mix of government and non-profit organizations working towards “conservation”. And I put that word in quotes here because meanings are a little fuzzy sometimes. In almost all cases, economics remains a primary driver, nature is seen as a commodity, and results are measured using pseudo-scientific methods. Poster animals are used to capture public support for various campaigns: save the kakapo, kill the possum sort of things. Winning the hearts and minds of the public for various projects ensures funding.

Conservation today has become a sort of “farming” of the common land, done using all of the tools farmers use to shape their land and make a profit. Conservationists choose which plants and animals to nurture, or ignore, or cull; they manage wildlife and plants as class groups rather than individuals. Until it is down to the last few members of a species, individuals don’t really count. A stated goal is to protect biodiversity. But what, exactly, does that mean?

In an up-coming post, I’ll be looking at that biodiversity issue along with the conservation movement themes of ecological restoration and invasion biology.