Conservation ethic

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protection. Its primary focus is upon maintaining the health of the natural world: its forests, fisheries, habitats, and biological diversity. Secondary focus is on materials conservation and energy conservation, which are seen as important to protect the natural world.

Satellite photograph of deforestation in progress in the Tierras Bajas project in eastern Bolivia. Photograph courtesy NASA.



Template:Environmental technology To conserve habitat in terrestrial ecoregions and stop deforestation is a goal widely shared by many groups with a wide variety of motivations. These issues and groups are covered in their own articles.

To protect sea life from extinction due to overfishing is another commonly stated goal of conservation — ensuring that "some will be available for our children" to continue a way of life.

The consumer conservation ethic is sometimes expressed by the four R's: " Reduce, Recycle, Reuse, Rethink" This social ethic primarily relates to local purchasing, moral purchasing, the sustained and efficient use of renewable resources, the moderation of destructive use of finite resources, and the prevention of harm to common resources such as air and water quality, the natural functions of a living earth, and cultural values in a built environment.

The principal value underlying most expressions of the conservation ethic is that the natural world has intrinsic and intangible worth along with utilitarian value — a view carried forward by the scientific conservation movement and some of the older Romantic schools of ecology movement.

More Utilitarian schools of conservation seek a proper valuation of local and global impacts of human activity upon nature in their effect upon human well being, now and to our posterity. How such values are assessed and exchanged among people determines the social, political, and personal restraints and imperatives by which conservation is practiced. This is a view common in the modern environmental movement.

These movements have diverged but they have deep and common roots in the conservation movement.

In the United States of America, the year 1864 saw the publication of two books which laid the foundation for Romantic and Utilitarian conservation traditions in America. The posthumous publication of Henry David Thoreau's Maine Woods established the grandeur of unspoiled nature as a citadel to nourish the spirit of man. From George Perkins Marsh a very different book, Man and Nature, later subtitled "The Earth as Modified by Human Action", cataloged his observations of man exhausting and altering the land from which his sustenance derives.

Usage of term

Template:Progressivism In common usage, the term refers to the activity of systematically protecting natural resources such as forests, including biological diversity. Carl F. Jordan defines the term in his book Replacing Quantity With Quality As a Goal for Global Management

"biological conservation as being a philosophy of managing the environment in a manner that does not despoil, exhaust or extinguish."

While that usage is not new, the idea of biological conservation has been applied to the principles of ecology, biogeography, anthropology, economy and sociology to maintain biodiversity.

Even the term "conservation" may cover the concepts such as cultural diversity, genetic diversity and the concept of movements environmental conservation, seedbank (preservation of seeds). These are often summarized as the priority to respect diversity, especially by Greens.

Much recent movement in conservation can be considered a resistance to commercialism and globalization. Slow food is a consequence of rejecting these as moral priorities, and embracing a slower and more locally-focused lifestyle.


The origins of biological conservation can be traced to philosophical and religious beliefs about Man as a full part of Nature. Conserving natural resources and the environment is not a recent concern, but has deep cultural roots and the protection of nature, and especially forests, has been promoted for centuries.

The Torah, or Old Testament discusses the concept of the Sabbatical Year, a period whereby the fields are left fallow, presumably in order to rejuvenate the soil. This would appear to be an ancient form of the ecological practice of crop rotation. The weekly Sabbath is also a time when beasts of burden are given rest from their work. The Torah further prohibits the destruction of fruit bearing trees, and this commandment has been extended to encompass all manner of wastefulness.

Taoist and Shintoist philosophies encourage recognition of special sites, allowing spiritual experiments.

Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism grant a sacred value to animals. Primitive religions also recognize sacred values to sites such as forests, lakes, mountains. Islam recognizes each species as its own "nation", and an obligation of man to khalifa, or "stewardship" of the Earth. Specific conservation mechanisms such as haram and hima zones, and the origins of the idea of carrying capacity, were a product of Islamic civilization. Indigenous strategies successfully combated soil erosion and deforestation in pre-colonial East Africa, as well as in the early colonial empires in China and Venice. As early as 450 BCE Artaxerxes I attempted to restrict cutting Lebanese timber (Grove 1992). Plato, writing in the 4th century BCE, noted that the removal of trees in Attica produced soil erosion "and what remains is like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease". Some historians claim that the idea of conservation originated in conflicts over the use of forests (Glacken 1965).

Conservationism embraces a spectrum of views, ranging from anthropocentric, utilitarian conservationism to radical eco-centric green eco-political views which advocate the total preservation of forest resources and which seek to establish a radically new relationship between humanity and nature. There are three main philosophical movements roughly characterized as conservation movements (plural):


Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, in 1880, defend the idea that Nature has a meaning, beyond economic profits. Nature is a temple where the Man can share and communicate with God.
John Muir defends a preservationist ethic, according to which the beauty of Nature stimulates the religious feelings and supports spiritual experiments. He also sees in biological communities, groups of species evolving together and depending ones on the others. These communities, superorganisms, are a prelude to the Gaia hypothesis developed later by James Lovelock (1988) and the Gaia philosophy that began to stem from it.

Resource conservation

Gifford Pinchot, at the beginning of the 20th century, develops an ethics of resource conservation, which is based on a utilitarian philosophy encapsulated in his slogan "the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time". Pinchot, trained as a forester in Europe, believed in the complementarity of conservation and development. According to him, Nature is a set of things defined by their utility or their harmful character. He defends the sharing of resources between all users, current and future (a first approach to sustainable development) by avoiding despoiling. However, he does not take into account the costs of degradation and pollution of the environment nor the erosion of resources. This view is taken by the modern environmental movement and the attempts to assign a value of Earth, value of life and quantify nature's services.


With Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac, 1949), an evolutionary ecology develops, a prospect marked by dynamism rather than by static conservation. In his famous chapter The Land Ethic, Leopold states A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

As an extension, Donella Meadows later defined eco-evolution as a prerequisite to the intelligent extension of a system — a theme carried to its limits by Deep Ecology.


Beyond these philosophical underpinnings, one may think in terms of two distinct trends to the way in which conservation developed in practice. While many countries' efforts to preserve species and their habitats have been government-led, those in the United Kingdom tended to arise out of the middle-class or aristocratic interest in natural history, expressed at the level of the individual and the national, regional or local learned society. Thus Britain had what we would today term NGOs — in the shape of the RSPB, National Trust and County Naturalists' Trusts (dating back to 1889, 1895 and 1912 respectively) — a long time before it had National Parks and National Nature Reserves. This in part reflects the absence of wilderness areas over much of the country, as well as a longstanding interest in laissez-faire government, leaving it as no coincidence that John Muir, the British-born founder of the National Park movement (and hence of government-sponsored conservation) did his sterling work in the USA, where he was the motor force behind the establishment of such NPs as Yosemite and Yellowstone.

See also



  • Conservation: Replacing Quantity With Quality As a Goal for Global Management by Carl F. Jordan-John Wiley & Sons — ISBN 0-471-59515-2 — (January 1995)
  • Conservation Biology : an evolutionary ecological perspective (SoulĂ© et Wilcox, 1980)
  • Conservation and evolution (Frankel et SoulĂ©, 1981)
  • Glacken, C.J. (1967) Traces on the Rhodian Shore. University of California Press. Berkeley
  • Grove, R.H. (1992) 'Origins of Western Environmentalism', Scientific American 267(1): 22-27.
  • Grove, R.H. (1997) Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History 1400-1940 Cambridge: Whitehorse Press
  • Grove, R.H. (1995) Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Orgins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 New York: Cambridge University Press
  • Leopold, A. (1966) A Sand County Almanac New York: Oxford University Press
  • Pinchot, G. (1901) The Fight for Conservation New York: Harcourt Brace.

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