Blogger note: there are a number of books that go into detail about the history of the ideas of environmental management and the divergence between what is now called conservation and modern environmentalism. These posts are just skimming the topic, and I will have a reading list in the last post for those really interested in learning more]
We hear a great deal today (2016) about environmentalism, but not as much about conservation, unless it is of a specific thing, like water conservation, or certain specific applications (the Law of the Conservation of Energy). In some ways, conservation is the older of the two, but you can find the roots of environmentalism going back to the Romantic Movement of the early to mid 1800s. This post is going to cover the period before 1910 or so.
Conservation as we tend to think of it today, and environmentalism for that matter, are not “natural.” If you look at land and resource use by hunter-gatherer societies and early agriculturists, you may find social and religious taboos on overhunting, or gathering too many of a certain kind of plant at one time, or of killing pregnant game animals. But you won’t find evidence on the archaeological record for setting aside land and resources in order to preserve them for the long term. Deforestation, for example, was a common problem around the world. Over-expansion of dry-farming into the steppes north of the Yellow River led to desertification. Ethnic Han Chinese deforestation of the river-valley forests caused problems as well. Native Americans deforested as well, sometimes by swidden farming (slash-and-burn) at other times by cutting building timbers and firewood.
Only in places where humans had competition or the environment conspired against us (disease usually) did “untouched” and preserved environments exist for extended periods. Malaria kept the Han Chinese out of southeast Asia, allowing tribal cultures to continue into the 19th and 20 the Centuries, for example. In some places, the desire to keep animal resources around for hunting led to setting aside protect areas where the deer or tigers were not to be touches except by the nobility. On the other hand, you have the destruction of all large non-domesticated mammals in Mesopotamia in order to show the prowess of the various kings. Farmers appreciated the eradication of lions and other predators that endangered their beasts of burden, and of grazers that competed with herds and flocks for forage. Good riddance to dangerous beasts and competitors.
Wilderness was bad. Farmland, domesticated landscapes, were good. Now, the definition of a domesticated landscape varied, because what the Kiowa or Amazonian peoples considered managed environments bore very little in common with the neatly arranged three-field rotation system of medieval Europe, or the rice-mulberry-carp farms in southern China. But “howling wilderness” and “untouched by human hands” were not compliments. I have yet to read a Chinese document decrying the completion of the Grand Canal or of the other enormous water control projects. Likewise ancient Egypt and the management of farmland exposed to the Nile floods. Remember, Paradise is a garden, managed and tamed.
With the exception of a few individual mystics and other Odd souls, no one praised the existence of wilderness. At least, not until the Romantic Era in Western literature and art, and the existence of enough of a surplus of food that people had the luxury of going into the wilderness, or climbing the high Alps to stare in awe at the mighty peaks and ferocious storms. The idea of the Noble Savage living in harmony with nature, not abusing the land or taking more than he needed to live, the sense that nature without humans was superior to nature with humans, that came from the Romantics. It is in part a reaction to the Classical revival of the late 1700s, and in part a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of steam power. But you had to have excess income in order to have the luxury of bemoaning the “dark Satanic mills” that produced less expensive cloth and shoes and dishes. An agricultural revolution preceded the industrial revolution, including better (more efficient) land use, better crop rotations, and more selective breeding for better quality animals (made possible by the higher crop yields). For the first time, humans had a surplus of food and stuff. Not all humans, not even all Europeans, but enough that poets and painters and novelists could make a nice living talking about the wonders of Edenic life before coal and crowded cities.
The rate of change in land use accelerated until humans could see clearly that certain resources were in danger of over-exploitation. Yes, farmers had been practicing wood conservation through coppicing (for example), and selective thinning, and the English government and French governments had set aside certain woodlands for military reasons, but these were protected for specific uses, not for the intrinsic beauty of forests. Conservation is going to start with the idea of wise use, of not squandering resources to the detriment of society. Because cutting down an oak tree for firewood when it might have made a ship’s mast or timbers is wasteful. North America will become the poster child of “Don’t do that!” because there were so many resources in so much land that people reverted to the old practice of use it up, then relocate. Why bother with fertilizer when you can move ten miles west, or south, and just cut down the trees and start again? The Old Northwest, meaning Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota would become examples of terrible forest management because people came in, cut everything, left trash behind, and moved on. This led to things like the Peshtigo Fire being worse than they might otherwise have been, and the loss of millions and millions of acres of trees and top soil.
This was not evil. This was poor management, in part because of the laws of the time, in part because of human nature, in part because of the fevered “get in, get rich, get out” mindset of some people in the 1800s, and 1700s, and 1600s, and . . . you get the idea. Keep in mind too that we didn’t know what we didn’t know about land management. While the Romantics were weeping over dying trees and dreaming of “wandering lonely as a cloud”, people like Gifford Pinchot and European forest managers were saying, “Look, this is wasteful. There’s got to be a better way.” And because the new farming systems, and mechanized farming, allowed less land to grow more crops, people had the luxury of setting land aside for forest reserves, although not without conflict. In 1848, the Prussian pine plantations in the Rhineland were attacked by the locals. Until 1816 or so, they had been mixed hardwood forests used by communities for timber, grazing, and firewood. The Prussians came in, chased out the locals, cut down the old trees and planted pine. When the Revolution came, the pines went.
“But what about Yellowstone National Park? What about Dartmoor and other parks?” Yellowstone was a scientific curiosity, and useless. You can’t farm it, it was too far from civilization for logging, too dangerous to settle, attractive to look at, had geysers, and also had Indians who lived there (and who were moved out). Since only poachers had any use for it, why not make it a park?
With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the industrial West, came conservation. Conservation meant “wise use.” Don’t squander timber or you’ll have “a timber famine.” Timber was fuel, like whale oil had been fuel, and you remember what happened after “peak whale.” If it had not been for the discovery that you could distill some oil seeps and get kerosene, we’d probably have no whales at all. Wise use was scientific, efficient, did not waste resources, and was very modern. Conservation trumped “preservation because it is pretty” until the early 1900s, with a few notable exceptions. And it was a Western thing. The British introduced forest management to India and established nature reserves and forest preserves.
Conserve meant to put up for the future. Ever eat fruit conserves (jam, dried fruit)? As Pinchot wrote in an article for a ladies’ magazine conserving a leg of lamb meant eating it on Monday, having more on Tuesday, making lamb hash on Wednesday, and using the bones and trimmings for lamb broth. Conservation was the main idea prior to WWI.
To Be Continued.