Conservationist or Environmentalist?

The worldview of today's environmental movement is radically different from that of the conservation movement predominant for the first 70 years of the 20th century. In the past, conservationists were concerned with leaving the environment in a better state than the condition he or she found it. The contemporary environmentalism movement, on the other hand, increasingly seems to view humankind as an inherently intrusive interloper upon nature. This may explain why the debate on environmental issues has become increasingly polarized.

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The conservation movement evolved out of necessity. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Michigan's natural resources provided the basis for much of the U.S. economy. We utilized our natural resources oftentimes without concern for the future. Extensive logging of white pines in northern Michigan is a good example. The harvesting of such wood was important to the economy of a growing nation, but it was done without replanting trees as an investment in the future. Recognition of this abusive plundering of a tremendous natural resource was a major impetus for the conservation movement in Michigan.  

The modern environmental movement began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congressional passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other major environmental laws. Creating laws to deal with the impacts of pollution from an increasingly industrialized economy is strikingly similar to the wisdom behind promoting conservation practices to deal with the effects of an economy based on natural resource use.

The impetus for the conservation and environmental movements may be similar, but the two movements have developed distinctly different value systems, the result of very different worldviews. Conservationism, properly understood, employs traditional values of environmental stewardship. A good steward takes care of what has been entrusted to him or her, thereby leaving an inheritance for the next generation. This worldview allows that it is ethical to employ natural resources for the betterment of humankind, as long as they are properly cared for and managed with a concern for future generations. It is permissible to cut trees, for example, as long as new ones are planted in their place. Similarly, wildlife and fish can be harvested as long as they are left in sufficient numbers to ensure future populations. Humanity is seen as an intregal part of the ecosystem rather than an intruder in the natural world.

By contrast, the worldview of many modern-day environmentalists is much different. The mindset of such adherents is pantheistic - in which nature is deified and worshipped while the welfare of humans is prioritized beneath the animal and plant kingdoms and other aspects of the natural world. According to this worldview, humans exist separate from nature and act immorally when they disturb or disrupt nature. Even the slightest disturbance - such as cutting and replanting trees - represents a violation of nature by humans.

The differing worldviews between conservationists and environmentalists makes agreement on environmental and natural resource public policy all but impossible. This was dramatically demonstrated to me in a conversation I had with prominent Michigan environmentalists while serving as director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. As I was explaining the clean air benefits of a new program to assist fleets in converting diesel and gasoline powered buses to cleaner natural gas fuels, I was interrupted by one environmentalist who told me, "We should not build cars and buses in the first place." Needless to say, there was little common ground left to continue the discussion.

When clean air, water and land are not as important as protecting the sanctity of nature from human intrusion, agreement on practical solutions to real environmental threats becomes difficult. The core beliefs and values of Americans will determine, more than any other factor, future public policy on natural resources and environmental issues. Will we deal with environmental threats utilizing ingenuity and technology or, conversely, will our solutions presuppose that man is outside the realm of nature and therefore cannot be trusted?  Let us hope that the traditional worldview of the conservationists prevails. A future based on the environmentalist worldview is too bleak to contemplate.


Russ Harding is director of the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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