Don’t you love the awe-inspiring beauty in our national parks and state parks? Let’s be grateful for the vision and tenacity of the people who fought hard to protect these natural areas from development.
But did you know that the conservation model of environmental protection is based on some questionable assumptions? Today it actually dissuades people from taking care of the environment.
John Muir established the ideal of a national park as a nature preserve where no humans live at the end of the 19th century. He built a cabin and a water-powered mill in Yosemite, then a state park, and considered it a temple.
He wrote, “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.”
Eventually, he advocated emptying the park of all other occupants, which meant eviction of the Miwok Indians, who had lived there for generations.
Since Muir’s day, the reason for establishing parks has shifted from preserving scenic areas to preserving biodiversity. Proponents of these parks consider that fragile, primeval nature risks collapse because of too much human use. It’s as if people are the enemy of nature.
Fewer than 10,000 protected areas existed worldwide in 1950. That number reached about 100,000 by the end of the 20th century. The amount of land now under protection comprises an area larger than the entire continent of South America. The model no longer works. It is not sustainable.
Limitations of protected areas
The creation of virtually every national park in the world has, like Yosemite, resulted in the expulsion of people already living there. If conservationists think they threaten nature, the expelled people see nature, or at least nature preservation, as a threat to them. They return as poachers.
Recently, conservation NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) have begun to protect the rights of indigenous people and incorporate their communities into the strategies for conservation. Still, the emphasis on the creation of protected areas remains both controversial and counterproductive.
In Indonesia, for example, all the protected areas are so heavily logged that deforestation rates are greater inside than outside of them. That logging is by definition a criminal act, and criminals care nothing about preservation of nature. Local communities manage other forests specifically for logging, and are careful to do so sustainably.
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Is nature fragile?
Some ecologists claim that if a single species is lost in an ecosystem, it disturbs the entire balance of nature and sets it on the verge of collapse. Data do not support this idea. The dodo and passenger pigeon have long been extinct. The American chestnut was once one of the most common and important trees in the forests of eastern North America until a foreign disease wiped it out.
The ecosystems themselves continued as if nothing had happened. The extinction of one species did not lead to the extinction of others. Nature is resilient. Industry once turned rivers into open sewers and dumped noxious chemicals into them. Once the dumping stopped, the rivers came back to life. Much of Lake Erie was declared dead in 1970, deoxygenated by algae blooms. Oxygen and fish returned by the end of the decade.
This is not to say that nature returns to its pristine state or that chemical spills do not do permanent damage, but human technology has transformed the environment countless times everywhere on earth over the thousands of years of human existence. People and nature are not natural enemies. People are a part of nature.
Therefore, the best way for people to take care of nature is to learn to live by its rules. Conservationists and coalmines alike have failed to do so. The best way to deal with the damage caused by coalmines is to develop good enough alternatives that no one needs coal any more. The best way to deal with damage caused by conservationists is to redefine conservationism.
Conservation beyond preservation
If wilderness means a place unaffected by human activity, then there is no such thing as wilderness and there never has been. If nature is some kind of ideal that gets along best without people, the only way to protect nature is to get rid of people.
That, of course, would be unethical. And what conservationists have ever advocated getting rid of themselves for the sake of nature?
Humans use technology and always have. Human technology can have a devastating effect on natural systems, as understood by their biological, chemical, and physical operation. Human technology can also at least partly clean up the mess. Technology can put entire species at risk of extinction. Or it can operate in harmony with the species’ habitat so both can coexist.
If people do not see taking care of the environment in their best interests, they will not take care of the environment. Right now, conservationists have not given people any reason to to see taking care of the environment as in their best interests.
In trying to preserve nature and biodiversity for their own sake, conservationists are fighting a losing battle. They are failing and will continue to fail as long as they regard people as nature’s natural enemy. Conservationists will begin to succeed in taking care of natural systems sustainably when they start to reconcile with technology and development and start to help society plan it intelligently.
The next time you hear that some proposed project will destroy wildlife habitats and ruin whole ecosystems, investigate the effect of previous similar projects. The new project won’t be as wonderful and benign as its advocates want you to believe. Then again, it might not be the unmitigated disaster its detractors want you to believe.
Is there anything in particular you want me to investigate? Leave a comment.
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Karieva, Peter, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier. “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility.” in Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, edited by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. Kindle edition, no date.
Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Valley observation” by Boris D. (talk · contribs) – Transferred from to Commons by Hike395.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Deforestation by criminals. Some rights reserved by Daniel Beilinson
Sheep grazing on reclaimed wetlands. Pubic domain from geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons.