In the US, where did our modern ideas on conservation and environmentalism, or not, come from?

In the early part of the 20th century, conservation and environmentalism started being debated politically. And, just like now, the main points are around money.


Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt argued to create a long term plan to manage and maximize economic benefits of our natural resources. With a fine mustachioed man named Gifford Pinchot, plans were put into place to mange forests through planned use and renewal. Pinchot was the one who created the term “conservation ethic” as well as promoting scientific forestry.

Again, all this was for the ‘benefit of mankind’, so we would have a continuous source of wood products (etc.) with which to build.


John Muir is the clearest example of the early 20th century environmentalist. For one thing, he lived the life, striving to understand nature, how glaciers carved valleys, all with unending excitement for the nature he lived in. He advocated for establishing ‘nature reservations’ (now National Forests and Parks). It seems that the main difference in thinking between conservationalists and environmentalists is the idea that environmentalists believe that forestry (“tree farming” to Muir) was for people, but did not protect the diversity, integrity and spiritual qualities of nature. Thus, wild spaces needed to be saved in order to preserve the inherent beauty and complexity of nature.

Because of both his passion and use of religious metaphors to speak of nature, a lot of adjectives like “preached” still get tossed at environmentalists today. To some, it is the extreme position, if only because it considers nature to be on equal footing with people (and our urge to consume natural resources).  I won’t lie, if you read Back Country Geezer, you know I am sympathetic to this cause.


Admittedly, no one calls it this any more, but this is the most promoted form of dealing with nature in our country right now, and most of the Republican government seems to be on board with it. This is the idea that land should be in private hands, not government, and that the owners of the land have the right to do anything they want to the property.

So, technically, a very rich person could buy Wyoming and close it down to preserve nature there, or clear cut it, open pit mine, and frack for natural gas. This method also is generally distrustful of regulations, as that puts costs of clean-up and environmental regulations onto the people who own the land.

Generally, the people pushing this tend to be energy companies – say the Koch brothers – who are spending a lot of money to insure that less regulations get passed and Federal lands get sold off. This leaves a lot of us who are not rich completely at the mercy of the people who are for open space.


My thoughts.

If I had a high view of people’s moral and ethical compass, I would feel better about an open private market. But I don’t. History has shown that short term greed is a strong motivator even for the super rich. Environmental catastrophes of the past, and the general hesitance to accept responsibility to either clean up or even slow the rate of pollution, make me think that self regulation is not going to go well for the general population.

I am a pragmatic environmentalist, meaning that I believe that in order to have a thriving environment, we need to set aside large areas of wild lands. This preserves the genetic diversity that, as we keep learning, is so important to our planet and, therefor, to us. But, I support the conservationists, the managed forests and lands, because resources are important to our species, to continue, to thrive.

I would be happier if we were actively pursuing ways of cutting need for virgin wood, oil, gas, minerals, and other materials.Ideas to “mine” our burgeoning landfills for materials we can reuse, finding ways to use more solar, wind power, and more sustainable food production techniques should all be a national priority. Sadly, science is seen as an enemy right now, so these things are moving much more slowly than, I think, is needed.


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