In the environmental world, it’s characterized as the classic battle: Should wild areas be preserved for their intrinsic qualities or conserved for their resources? In other words, should nature be used for “the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time,” as nineteenth-century progressive environmentalist Gifford Pinchot put it; or should the wilderness be protected and revered without human intrusions, a view espoused by romantic environmentalist John Muir?
Today, with a burgeoning population encroaching on our remaining wild areas and economic help scarce, many would say that Pinchot’s beliefs are more realistic for the modern world. In fact, there are even those, such as Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, who would take Pinchot’s notion a step further: Natural areas must be managed to benefit humans, if they are to survive at all.
Natural areas must be given human relevance
Although most of us are well aware of Muir’s sentiments that we should keep our remaining wild areas pristine because of their soul-stirring beauty and our inner need for such areas to escape to, few are familiar with Pinchot’s ideas. The first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot was the first American to take up the profession of forestry. He firmly believed that public wilderness areas could be used as a source of income if their resources were handled wisely.
In spring 2011, The Nature Conservancy’s Kareiva, who leads more than 500 scientists at the worldwide organization, shocked environmentalists when he said in an article in Nature Conservancy Magazine that safeguarding Earth’s biodiversity — or “species preservation” — should not be Job One. The ultimate goal, he said, is to better manage nature for human benefit, taking Pinchot’s tenets to the extreme.
Although the knee-jerk reaction to such a statement is that Kareiva is anti-environment, he and his supporters say he is not. He’s simply articulating his belief that it’s imperative that we meet humankind’s basic needs (water, food, shelter and clothing). If we don’t, nothing we say regarding the environment will have any impact. People must see nature as relevant to human lives if it is to be protected at all.
Kareiva — who’s not afraid to admit that he prefers cities to natural areas (blasphemy in some environmental circles) — says that the days of Muir’s pristine wilderness are long gone. Our fingerprints are found everywhere on the planet. But development and conservation, he states, aren’t mutually exclusive. We need to start focusing on creating healthy environments because they will benefit us.
As an example of Kareiva’s innovative thinking (or reverse psychology), in 2008 he and a co-researcher did a random-sample study of World Bank development projects. The results showed that the inclusion of a biodiversity component had no bearing whatsoever on a project’s ultimate success or failure. Therefore, he concluded, there was no excuse for the World Bank not to be a more active proponent of biodiversity.
What can’t be measured
But some feel that Kareiva is selling conservation efforts too short. Human beings aren’t always self-interested and will, sometimes, act with altruistic motives. Deep inside — and as important to our well-being as water, food, shelter and clothing — we desire places that remain almost as they did when the world was new, such as the Galápagos Islands, the remote Arctic or Yellowstone National Park. Our innate longings and “better natures” still have sway with us.
It’s said that during one overnight government expedition to the Grand Canyon, Pinchot and Muir were walking together on a rocky, canyon trail when they came upon a tarantula. Gifford raised his boot to step on it, but Muir stopped him. Muir reportedly told Gifford that the tarantula had just as much right to be on the trail as they did.
That evening, the two men stayed up until midnight, telling each other stories about their adventures in the wilderness.
It seems that, at times, Gifford and Muir may have considered themselves as working on the same team, rather than as mortal enemies in the environmental battle. I’m not sure, however, that conservationists and preservationists think of themselves in the same way today.
Do you think that Kareiva’s ideas go too far off the environmental track? Should we put people — or pristine environments — first?
Feature photo: John Muir expressed many of his preservationist beliefs when writing about Yosemite National Park. ©Colby J. Brokvist