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Conservation and Preservation


Ideas of conservation and preservation play central roles in ethical discussions of science and technology, especially in relation to nature and the environment. The terms also figure prominently in museum and historical work, where programs of conservation (not losing) and preservation (protecting from deterioration) are associated with specialized sciences and technologies. With regard to environmental issues, the concepts appear more closely related, both implying respect for nature.

John Muir versus Gifford Pinchot

Since the early-twentieth-century break between Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946), first director of the U.S. Forest Service, and John Muir (1838–1914), founder of the Sierra Club, conservation and preservation have sometimes served as technical concepts with different connotations. In this context, conservation signals rational human use, preservation a protection from human use.

Although originally allies in creating Yellowstone, the first national park, in 1872, Pinchot and Muir took opposed positions in the debate, which lasted from 1909 to 1913, over building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy valley of Yosemite National Park in order to supply water to a growing San Francisco. Pinchot believed that "The first great fact about conservation is that it stands for development" (Pinchot 1910, p. 42); the only question was what kind of development, and whether for short-term single-focus exploitation or long-term multiple public use. For Muir, by contrast, national parks were to be preserved in their original form. "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man" (Muir 1912, chap. 15).

Out of this debate, which Muir and the Sierra Club lost, began a tension in the environmental movement between those who seek to conserve and those who seek to preserve nature. Conservationists sometimes accuse preservationists of failing to appreciate human needs. Preservationists accuse conservationists of being too willing to compromise the intrinsic value of nature when faced with economic or political interests. The issue, in these terms, will only grow sharper as world population races toward doubling by 2050.

The Preservation-Conservation Spectrum

But the distinction between conservation and preservation is not always clear, and in fact environmental policies may often line up along a spectrum from protection of nature or ecosystems for their own sake to libertarian exploitation. The spectrum also to some degree parallels that between ecocentric (nature centered) and anthropocentric (human centered) environmental ethics. The extreme protectionist position, evident in wilderness preservation slogans and policies, and exemplified by Earth First! direct action, views natural systems as possessing intrinsic value independent of human use and as better off if protected from human interventions of any kind. Conservation would fall not necessarily on the other extreme, in which nature is presented as devoid of intrinsic value except insofar as it is available for obligatory human exploitation, but somewhere in the middle.

The spectrum is slightly complicated by self-defined conservationists such as those identifying with the Wise Use movement, which is especially hostile toward radical environmentalists. According to Wise Use advocates, the pastoral ideal was kidnapped by urban wilderness ideologues who lack the living relation to the land found among farmers and ranchers and thus fail to appreciate the value of the human transformation of the earth (Arnold 1996, 1998). But given its stress on the rights of property owners to develop land in virtually any way they see fit, Wise Use is perhaps more concerned with libertarian free enterprise than with the environment.

Nevertheless conservationists do tend to stress the importance of human interests, needs, and wants over any intrinsic values nature or the environment may be thought to possess. Yet this emphasis is easily combined with various gradations emphasizing high to moderate degrees of preservation of nature from human use and with a range of balances between natural and human needs in relation to natural exploitation.

Furthermore the spectrum need not be considered simply linear. Robert Paehlke (1989) argues that preservationist and conservationist views are distributed on a grid of two axes, with the left-right political spectrum crossed by a vertical axis running from environmentalism to anti-environmentalism. The point is that environmentalists and their opponents, on ethical as well as political grounds, use terms such as conservation and preservation—along with related terms such as sustainable development and restoration ecology—in myriad and often idiosyncratic ways. Careful analysis in conjunction with accurate observation of real-world practices is necessary to know what individual groups actually mean.

Practical Applications

The implications of these controversial word uses for science and technology may not always be obvious either. Certainly strong preservation environmentalists view major technological exploitations in nature (oil drilling and pipelines, for example) as wholly negative, whereas extreme opponents believe in a technological fix for any natural shortfall, even the extinction of species or ecosystems (through DNA rather than whole species preservation), while conservationists tend to be open to a modulated range of technological interventions, including the techniques of restoration ecology.

Radical preservationists sometimes oppose further scientific examination of nature, arguing instead for the sufficiency of existing research and for more aesthetic or experiential appreciation of nature. Their opponents, by contrast, often demand something close to scientific certitude concerning problems—as in the global climate change debate—to justify any change in exploitation patterns, and thus defend making more public funds available for environmental research. Such critics view radical preservationists as too willing to accept the flimsiest of scientific evidence.

In still one more somewhat ironic comparison, those who would protect the environment from human degradation often advocate advanced technologies that pollute less and promote high-tech gear to assist individuals in the noncontaminating exploration of wilderness. Such technologies may even include photographs and IMAX presentations designed to cultivate the aesthetic appreciation of nature as something good and beautiful in itself among those who may never have any direct wilderness experience. In opposition, those who would promote diversified human utilization sometimes find themselves apologizing for whatever technologies exist and denigrating innovations that could both improve exploitation and protect nature. One example might be defending personal automobile and snowmobile use in national parks when light rail or other innovations could enhance accessibility for all, including some such as the handicapped, who have previously been excluded. Diverse assessments of ecotourism have also been known to conflate expected conservation and preservation divides.


SEE ALSO Environmental Ethics; National Parks.


Arnold, Ron. (1998). Ecology Wars: Environmentalism as if People Mattered. Bellevue, WA: Merril Press. Reprint of a book first published in 1987, with an introduction by Alan
M. Gottlieb, founder of the Wise Use movement. See also Arnold's "Overcoming Ideology," in Philip D. Brick and R. McGreggor Cawley, eds., A Wolf in the Garden: The Land Rights Movement and the New Environmental Debate (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield [1996]).

Foreman, Dave. (2004). Rewilding North America: A Bold, Hopeful Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century. Covelo, CA: Island Press. By the founder of Earth First!

Muir, John. (1912). The Yosemite. New York: Century.

Paehlke, Robert C. (1989). Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Pinchot, Gifford. (1910). The Fight for Conservation. New York: Doubleday.

VanDeVeer, Donald, and Christine Pierce, eds. (1994). The Environmental Ethics and Policy Book: Philosophy, Ecology, Economics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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