Why Conservation Is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground

Why Conservation Is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground

by Eric T. Freyfogle

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Critics of environmental laws complain that such rules often burden people unequally, restrict individual liberty, and undercut private property rights. In formulating responses to these criticisms, the conservation effort has stumbled badly, says Eric T. Freyfogle in this thought-provoking book. Conservationists and environmentalists haven’t done their


Critics of environmental laws complain that such rules often burden people unequally, restrict individual liberty, and undercut private property rights. In formulating responses to these criticisms, the conservation effort has stumbled badly, says Eric T. Freyfogle in this thought-provoking book. Conservationists and environmentalists haven’t done their intellectual homework, he contends, and they have failed to offer an understandable, compelling vision of healthy lands and healthy human communities.
Freyfogle explores why the conservation movement has responded ineffectually to the many cultural and economic criticisms leveled against it. He addresses the meaning of good land use, describes the many shortcomings of “sustainability,” and outlines six key tasks that the cause must address. Among these is the crafting of an overall goal and a vision of responsible private ownership. The book concludes with a stirring message that situates conservation within America’s story of itself and with an extensive annotated bibliography of conservation’s most valuable voices and texts—important information for readers prepared to take conservation more seriously.

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Why Conservation Is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground


yale university press

Copyright © 2006 Eric T. Freyfogle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11040-1

Chapter One

The Four Faces of Resistance

In one of several essays lamenting the decline of his home countryside and farm communities like it, Kentucky writer-farmer Wendell Berry comments pointedly on what he perceives as the fading away of old political distinctions. Long-standing political dichotomies, Berry tells us, have become confusingly meaningless. Communists and capitalists, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives: all have bowed down to supranational corporations and to the juggernaut of the global economy. None takes interest in food quality, land health, or the plight of struggling communities, urban and rural. All show contempt for country life and country places. For a person concerned about land and land-based cultures, old political camps are hard to tell apart.

Although he is hardly a man filled with hope, Berry sees signs that a more honest political order is emerging. On one side is a political party that views local communities as valueless and hence dispensable: the party of the global economy, as Berry terms it, the party now plainly in charge. Opposing this party is one that seeks to preserve land and culture,viewing neighborhoods and local communities as "the proper place and frame of reference for responsible work." This is the party of the local community, and it is only now becoming aware of itself, Berry argues. Though it remains weak and widely scattered, its resources are real and its potential is vast.

Berry's observations are good ones for conservationists to weigh as they take stock of where they are and what lies ahead. The world is indeed a place of conflict, one where powerful resistance awaits those who endeavor to save, restore, connect, and heal. What Berry describes as clashing parties others might characterize in less institutional terms: as opposing ideologies, perhaps, or as alternative value schemes. But the conflict, however phrased, is as real as it is grave: those who would stoke the market inferno with anything that burns stand face-to-face with those who are alarmed by the mounting costs of doing so.

Useful as Berry's dichotomy is, however, one wonders whether it cuts to the true root of current conflicts over lands and communities. People may willingly serve the global economy, but how many of them really applaud it as an intrinsic good? How many campaigns are openly fought under its transnational banner? If the global economy were the only foe, conservationists ought to have more to show for their work. Without powerful allies, that is, Berry's party of the global economy should not be enjoying anything like its current success.

If the conservation movement is going to chart a successful path in coming decades, it needs to know clearly what it is up against. Berry is right, no doubt, in putting the community and its fate at the center of things. But the force pressing against communities is not the global economy so much as it is the ideology that undergirds it-the ideology of ardent individualism, the constellation of values that exalts people as individuals and seeks to liberate them from restraint. Sound communities can exist at all levels, from local to global. Indeed, communities need to exist at levels well above the local to confront problems that require action on a larger scale. What corrodes such communities is not global thought per se but rather the ethos of the self-centered individual, the person who insists on the right to grab and consume with little regard for neighbors, future generations, and other forms of life.

A sound conservation ethic is, fundamentally, an ethic of community, based on interconnection and interdependence. What pushes against such an ethic is not a single opponent but rather a suite of cultural opponents. And they are all the more influential because of the friendly faces they commonly present. Each of them has a good side, for each has helped the American nation to flourish. Yet, like all good things, these cultural elements are good only in moderation; they are good when kept in their proper places.

Environmental degradation is a symptom of a flawed culture, as historians such as Donald Worster have told us in some detail. To halt that degradation, conservationists need to confront these underlying cultural flaws. In the case of the United States, ironically, they largely take the form of excesses of virtue. They take the form, that is, of cultural beliefs and practices that honor the individual human and individual rights but do so in ways that threaten the well-being of the collective whole.

In recent decades, the conservation movement seems to have lost sight of its necessary role as cultural critic. Too often it forgets that it is, at root, a champion of the community as such, a defender of nature's interconnected entirety. For the movement to make further progress, it needs to regain its communitarian grounding.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate where conservation now stands is to back up and reconsider the mature thought of the leading conservationist of the past century, Aldo Leopold. Leopold has hardly been conservation's only major intellect, but he remains the dominant one, long after his death in 1948. To identify the main elements of his thought, especially the messages he thought the public most needed to hear, is to gain a useful vantage point for assessing the current situation.

As a lover of the entire land community, Leopold belonged to a minority strand of American culture. As he so famously put it in his Sand County Almanac, he was one of those who preferred to live with and among things "natural, wild, and free," one who viewed "the chance to find a pasque-flower" as inalienable a right as free speech.

Leopold is remembered chiefly for his land ethic, summed up in his essay of that name: "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." So familiar are these sentences that it is easy to overlook the complexity of them and to forget that the land ethic was merely one part, albeit a central one, of Leopold's finely argued, wide-ranging critique of the modern age.

From the ample written legacy Leopold left behind, it is possible to tease out four elements of his thought that are especially useful for conservationists charting the path ahead. As the four elements make clear, conservation for Leopold focused on the totality of nature as an interconnected whole and on the need to counteract the chief forces-market economics and private property above all-that fueled harmful land-use choices.

The land community. Early in his professional career as a forester and wildlife manager, Leopold gained a strong sense of the interconnection of all life. His experiences in the Southwest, where overgrazing caused harms that rippled throughout the landscape, led him to see how managers needed to address land as an integrated system, not as a collection of discrete resources. Reading in philosophy led him down a similar path, toward a sense of the organismic characteristics of natural systems. Soon Leopold's expanding ecological wisdom provided an empirical and theoretical base for this intuitive sentiment. The land was a community, he sensed. Its parts were interrelated in ways that reminded him of complex machines. They were interrelated, too, in ways similar to the organs of a body and the cells within an organ. These analogies were not exact, Leopold knew, just as it was not precisely right to equate the biota and a human community. But metaphors were useful tools in bringing home the basic truths of interconnection and interdependence.

During the final decade of his life this land-as-community idea stood at the center of Leopold's thought. He routinely began with it when he spoke about conservation to general audiences. "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us," Leopold asserted in his Almanac. "When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." An ecological understanding of land was essential if conservation was to succeed. Rural landowners especially needed to embrace this perspective. Only with it could they act with the sensitivity required to use land well.

Land health. One of Leopold's chief complaints was the fragmentation that characterized the conservation movement of his day. The conservation workers were many, but they often pushed in different directions. Conservation was a "house divided," Leopold protested; it lacked a philosophy and would not get far without one. The result, too often, was that conservationists worked at cross-purposes-some promoting productive forests, others soil conservation, others the efficient use of waterways, still others the protection of wildlife habitat-in the process employing tools that could and did clash. Leopold illustrated the danger: "I cite in evidence the C.C.C. [Civilian Conservation Corps] crew which chopped down one of the few remaining eagle's nests in northern Wisconsin, in the name of 'timber stand improvement.' To be sure, the tree was dead, and according to the rules, constituted a fire risk." Conflict in the field had secondary effects as well, for so long as conservationists promoted competing agendas, public action could stall.

Leopold's worries about conflicts within conservation soon merged with his ideas about land as community. To coordinate efforts, conservation needed an overall goal, a common target at which all conservationists could aim. Given that land worked as an integrated system, the logical aim was one linked to the ability of the system as such to function over time. For Leopold, there was "only one soil, one flora, one fauna, and one people," which was to say "only one conservation problem." A single problem called for a single resolution, however diverse the means to achieve it.

In an important essay in 1935 Leopold explored the principal signs of a land community beset with disease. Soon he would assemble those signs into affirmative if vague statements about what it meant for land to possess health. The land was a community, Leopold realized, and communities could be more or less healthy. Conservation was properly aimed at promoting that health. Land health, then, was the much-needed conservation goal.

"Land health," Leopold wrote in 1944, "is the capacity for self-renewal in the soils, waters, plants, and animals that collectively comprise the land." "Health expresses the cooperation of the interdependent parts: soil, water, plants, animals, and people," he had written two years earlier. "It implies collective self-renewal and collective self-maintenance." Central to Leopold's understanding of land health was the ability of land to retain its font of fertility-its soil. Fertility was preserved only when sufficient types and numbers of species were present to keep basic nutrients cycling through the system efficiently. Land is healthy "when its food chains are so organized as to be able to circulate the same food an indefinite number of times." Only under such circumstances would the soil-"the repository of food between its successive trips through the chains"-retain its fertility and produce abundant, nutritious yields.

In August of 1946, Leopold was asked by leaders of a new political party to draft its platform on conservation. In his brief response, Leopold made no mention of the specific challenges about which he knew so much-wildlife, forestry, wilderness, soil conservation. Instead, he pointed toward the polestar: "[T]he health of the land as a whole, rather than the supply of its constituent 'resources,' is what needs conserving. Land, like other things, has the capacity for self-renewal (i.e. for permanent productivity) only when its natural parts are present, and functional. It is a dangerous fallacy to assume that we are free to discard or change any part of the land we do not find 'useful' (such as flood plains, marshes, and wild floras and faunas). Too violent modification of the natural order has repeatedly disorganized the land's capacity for self-renewal."

Leopold described healthy land as "stable," not to suggest that natural systems were static but in the more specific sense of land that retained its ability to cycle nutrients effectively and thus maintain its soil fertility. In order to do that, the land needed to have integrity, by which Leopold meant the biotic parts necessary for this nutrient cycling to take place. Leopold used "stability" and "integrity" in tandem as a shorthand expression for land health, most famously when summing up his land ethic, his ardent call to promote the land's stability (its ability to cycle nutrients), its integrity (the diversity of parts needed to sustain stability), and its beauty. It was the land ethic that transformed the goal of overall health into an individual but shared duty: "A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land."

Conservation economics. A third element of Leopold's conservation thought regarded the economic realities of conserving land, particularly private land. How private owners used their land materially affected the surrounding land community. Because of that, and because communities endured far beyond any single owner's life span, the public had a weighty interest in how a landowner behaved.

As Leopold assessed the economics of sound land use, he was quick to see that conservation paid dividends, yet the dividends were largely ones that landowners acting alone could not capture. The benefits spread to the entire community, of which the landowner was only a small part. When all landowners conserved, each of them might gain. But conservation by an isolated owner rarely made financial sense.

For Leopold, these economic realities posed a challenge worthy of careful research. Repeatedly he would propose it as a topic: "the formulation of mechanisms for protecting the public interest in private land." Existing institutions simply did not attend to the matter: "The present legal and economic structure, having been evolved on a more resistant terrain (Europe) and before the machine age, contains no suitable ready-made mechanisms for protecting the public interest in private land. It evolved at a time when the public had no interest in land except to help tame it."

Leopold devoted himself to the challenge of advancing conservation interests in the face of conflicting financial benefits, identifying the tools available and assessing the merits of each. Economic incentives, education, legal restraints, boycotts, social ostracism, community-based conservation measures-Leopold considered them all, only to conclude that none would do the trick. "How can private landowners be induced to use their land conservatively?" Leopold repeatedly asked himself. "This question heretofore determined only the choice of method for executing a conservation program (for example, the choice between education, subsidy, compulsion, or public ownership). Now, it seems to me, it takes rank with technological unemployment as one of the critical tests of 'The American Way.'"

Images of ownership. For Leopold, the leading conservation challenge of his day was starkly posed by the individual landowner living on and using a single tract of land. For the land to become healthy, this owner had to act well. Achieving good land use was difficult because economic factors were so unfavorable. Added to the dismal economics was the whole matter of what it meant to own land, legally and culturally. So long as ownership gave a person the right to ignore the common good, true conservation was doomed.

Leopold was no legal scholar and knew little about private property's history as an institution. Had he known more, particularly about the many forms private ownership has taken in different times and places, he might have called even louder for institutional change. Yet his instincts were sound and he was prepared to act on them. Private ownership as commonly understood was itself a conservation problem, Leopold decided. Ownership gave landowners too much freedom to degrade the landscape to further personal interests. Ownership was a matter of individual rights, and hardly at all about limits and duties.


Excerpted from Why Conservation Is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground by ERIC T. FREYFOGLE Copyright © 2006 by Eric T. Freyfogle. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Eric T. Freyfogle is Max L. Rowe Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law.

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