Conservation and Environmentalism Part 1

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.


9 thoughts on “Conservation and Environmentalism Part 1

  1. It’s thanks to Pinchot and other foresters like him, and people who wanted to hunt bobwhite quail, that fires in the Southeast aren’t worse than they are. The bobwhites need freshly burned areas to thrive, which meant rich hunters were willing to keep controlled burns going when out West they were “Fires bad!” This is a fire ecology, and putting out all wildfires makes things worse!

    • Now the environmentalists (not conservationists) think controlled burns are good, but not only is logging evil, but they will fight tooth and nail to stop the slash burning of clearcuts after they are logged. Sorry I can’t see how burning valuable timber to create habitat is good, but removing that timber (to make habitat for humans) before you burn the area to create the same habitat is bad.

      Note: this is a complaint against anti-logging environmentalists, not controlled burns in general, there are areas that a simple controlled burn is the proper, and economical solution. But there is a reason many environmentalists are referred to as watermelons, they have an extreme aversion to the capitalist system, and would rather destroy everything of monetary value in the name of environmentalism than remove it first, and use the resulting profit to pay for further conservation management.

  2. “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?”

    I will point out that it was Theodore Roosevelt, who hunted what became Yellowstone National Park, who created the National Park system. He created them in order to preserve certain unique areas for future generations to visit and enjoy. Outlawing hunting in the National Parks where he used to go hunt and get away doubtless has him rolling in his grave.

    What I’m saying is those “poachers” that were the only ones with a use for the park? Yeah, they weren’t poachers at the time, they only became “poachers” AFTER it was made a park and hunting was outlawed there.

    • The history of Yellowstone is it’s own, and a rather contentious, topic. “Poachers” was the term conservationists used, commercial hunters and sport hunters the people doing the hunting at least at first, and then the laws were changed shifting things from reserves to parks to preservationist parks. The book “Nature’s Army” about Yosemite includes a bit about the mindset shifts in general. Another new and pretty good one, albeit written by a former park ranger so he’s a little biased, is “Engineering Eden” by Jordan Smith. “Disposessing the Wilderness” by Spence focuses on removal of the Indians from Yellowstone, Glacier, and a few other areas and includes their hunting.

      • Contentious… I think that is an understatement. 😉

        I live far enough from the Park that the decisions there don’t generally affect us directly. (The decision to release wolves there and then let them propagate outward being a notable exception) Although the decision to let the fires burn unchecked in the park fifteen years ago, came dang close to affecting us, as by the time they left the park they were too big to control and burnt three quarters of the way across Idaho, as well as large non-park portions of Montana and Wyoming. Unfortunately the decisionmakers for the Park often affect both the choice of decisionmakers for the surrounding areas, and the choices those decisionmakers choose. This ripple effect is what causes a lot of ill will and downright antagonism to the Park.

        You bring up a good point with the shifting from reserves, to parks to preservationist parks. There is actually nothing that specifies that National Parks have to be closed to hunting, mushroom picking, shed antler gathering, or 2-stroke snowmobiles. The fact that those in control of the decisions all to often seem to be “environmentalists” or “preservationists” rather than conservationists and work ceaselessly, to incrementally exclude human activity and humans themselves from Parks, Monuments, and Wilderness areas, is where a lot of the knee-jerk antagonism (which I am guilty of) to any action of the US Park Service, USFS, BLM or any other authority stems from.

      • I touch on the use vs. preservation vs. “human no touchee!” tomorrow, and go into more detail on Friday. I’m not certain which park has had more ink spilled over it: Yellowstone (oldest, most developed early), Yosemite (Hetch Hetchy, Indians, and enormous number of visitors), or Grand Canyon (the entire modern environmental preservation movement).

  3. Vermont was another one that was clear cut to the point that ALL original forests were lost to ‘improvements’ and building materials. All the trees there now are NOT part of the original growth. The conservationists are fighting with the environmentalist about controlled burns, selective cutting and planting replacements for the old growth on the original lands.

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