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Finding Common Ground
By Ben A. Minteer, Robert E. Manning
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2003 Island Press
All rights reserved.
Conservation: From Deconstruction to Reconstruction
Ben A. Minteer and Robert E. Manning
The idea for the present volume was born in discussions with our colleagues about the changes rippling through the academic environmental community at that time, the mid- and late 1990s. Of these, perhaps the most significant was the appearance of a set of high-profile critiques questioning the very foundations of environmental thought and practice from the vantage point of the end of the twentieth century. Led by William Cronon and his now well-known debunking of the American wilderness idea, these arguments had generated more than a few sparks across a wide range of scholarly and professional fields. Indeed, Cronon's and others' work seemed to issue an indirect yet provocative challenge to scholars and practitioners engaged in the study and management of human–environment relationships. As academics with an interest in the integrity and contemporary vitality of the American conservation tradition, we can say that these deconstructive arguments certainly got our attention.
Although the revisionist papers appearing in Cronon's oft-cited collection, Uncommon Ground, were focused more on coming to terms with the consequences of the cultural mediation of our knowledge of nature and models of ecological change in postwar environmentalism, Cronon's own dismantling of the meanings and images associated with the American wilderness idea suggested that the earlier conservation movement was also implicated in the broader critique. In particular, Cronon singled out the nature romanticism of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir and the primitivism of Frederick Jackson Turner as examples of how American thinking about wilderness had been saddled with utopian myths that represented a flight from lived human history and an escape from the hard problems presented by modern urban and industrial life. If Cronon was right, it meant that our thinking about wilderness had been at best intellectually lazy in its acquiescence to these wrongheaded ideas about our place in the world. At worst, it had been morally irresponsible, especially in its neglect of urban and rural conditions and the men and women who toiled in the fields and in the factories, away from an idyllic and imaginary "pristine" nature.
Cronon's criticism of the wilderness concept and, more generally, the deconstructivist assessment of the commitments and strategies of late-twentieth-century environmentalism are now part of the environmental studies canon. They have been joined by a growing and broadly sympathetic literature, including further interdisciplinary critiques of the wilderness idea, attempts to demystify significant contemporary conservation concepts such as that of biodiversity, and projects exploring the historically neglected dimensions of class, culture, and authority in the management of parks and wildlife. For the most part, we believe this critical turn has provided a useful service. It has, for example, exposed the previously unreflective presuppositions of contemporary environmentalism, holding traditional and widely accepted interpretations of concepts such as wilderness and biodiversity to the fire of critical scrutiny. Even though the academic and popular environmental community's response to Cronon and his followers has been at times overly defensive and less constructive than we might have liked, these critiques have nonetheless stimulated an important and potentially transformative debate about the conceptual foundations of environmentalism as we move into the first decades of the twenty-first century.
Yet, as we said before, it is also true that these penetrating criticisms of modern American environmentalism have issued an undeniable challenge to those who would defend the "classical" conservation tradition — the period running roughly from George Perkins Marsh to Aldo Leopold (and perhaps to the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring) — as practically viable and intellectually relevant in the new "deconstructivist era." After all, the mostly unquestioned realism about nature during this time and the nascent "modernist" ecological understandings of the era's principal thinkers would seem to make the tradition a prime candidate for systematic debunking and demythologizing. Nevertheless, we believed that there was still much of value in the tradition, even if we also conceded its very real philosophical and scientific limitations as a template to guide current and future thought and practice. How, we wondered, should we go about reading the conservation tradition in this new, highly charged, and seriously self-conscious academic environment?
To answer this question, we decided to do what most academics do when faced with an intellectual crisis of epic proportions: we held a seminar. In this we were also following the model established by Cronon and his colleagues, given that the papers appearing in his Uncommon Ground began their lives in a seminar held at the University of California, Irvine, in the early 1990s. For our project, we wanted to create an appropriate forum in which both the scholarly and practitioner communities could come together and attempt to fill the deconstructionist void. We believed it was important to bring these two groups into an open dialogue with each other, and we hoped that the opportunity for increased traffic between the theory and practice of conservation would help achieve a balance of "intelligent practice" and "practical intelligence" at the seminar.
Our primary task was an ambitious one: to assess the meaning and relevance of our conservation inheritance in the twenty-first century and to chart a course for revising the conventional narratives and accounts of the tradition so that a "usable past" might be uncovered that could inform present and future conservation efforts. In the fall of 2001, then, we organized and held an invited, interdisciplinary seminar in Vermont focused on the challenges of "reconstructing" conservation thought and practice in the wake of the earlier deconstructive efforts. The seminar participants were a select group of leading academics and professionals nationally and internationally known for their work in conservation scholarship or the practice of conservation in local communities and on the landscape. They approached our project's goals with great intellectual seriousness and creativity, and their energy held steady over the nearly five full days of plenaries, panels, and roundtable discussions. This enthusiastic response suggested to us that we had managed to start a conversation not only compelling in its conceptual scope and orientation but also timely in its asking of hard questions of the conservation tradition regarding its role as a guide for a new age's relationship with its environment.
In hindsight, we think the physical settings of the talks had more than a little to do with what we (naturally) think of as the success of the seminar. The symbolism of our chosen locations for the events in Vermont was hard for the participants to ignore. The first half of the seminar took place in the majestic John Dewey Lounge in the University of Vermont's historic Old Mill building, underneath a portrait of the great American philosopher (and the university's most famous graduate). Dewey's influential 1920 book Reconstruction in Philosophy not only inspired the title of the present volume; it also served as a model for our desired mix of judicious criticism of the conservation tradition with the development of a positive, forward-looking vision for conservation thought and practice in the twenty-first century.
The second half of the seminar was held in the small historic village of Woodstock, Vermont. Woodstock was the home of George Perkins Marsh, whose 1864 book Man and Nature was, as Lewis Mumford memorably put it, "the fountainhead of the conservation movement." It was here, in the hills and valleys of Vermont, that Marsh made his initial observations of human effects on the environment and began formulating his original ideas about the proper course of the human–nature relationship. Woodstock is also the site of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, the first unit of the National Park System devoted to studying and interpreting conservation for the public. The park houses the National Park Service's Conservation Study Institute, which conducts a program of research, education, and practice on conservation as applied to national parks, public lands, and beyond.
In the drive south from Burlington to Woodstock, then, our seminar participants were, in a very real sense, bringing their meditations on the American conservation tradition back to the birthplace of the national conservation impulse. Laurance S. Rockefeller, who with his wife, Mary French Rockefeller, gifted the lands constituting the park in Woodstock to the nation, had passionately stated his hope at the park's dedication that the park and its affiliated programs would carry on the tradition of sending "the message and vision of conservation across the nation from the hills of Vermont." In our view, there was no better place to discuss the prospects of reconstructing conservation than at the University of Vermont and in Woodstock.
Given the unusually high caliber of the participants, it should not have been surprising that the presentations and discussions at the seminar surpassed our expectations. Moreover, the conversations took on a compelling life of their own over the course of the agenda in Burlington and Woodstock. Although the deconstructivist critique had catalyzed our decision to bring the project participants together in Vermont, the panel presentations and ensuing discussions went much further than these initial beginnings. It was obvious to us, in fact, that in many cases our contributors had already moved beyond the confines of this tendentious debate about the cultural foundations of environmentalism set down in the mid- and late 1990s. We believed this was a healthy development. While remaining sensitive to the changed atmosphere of conservation in light of these critical projects, the seminar participants were clearly less interested in providing partisan defenses of the deconstructive enterprise or knee-jerk rejoinders to it than they were in looking forward, probing the structure and substance of a reconstructed and revised conservationism for the future.
By taking part in this project, the seminar participants were not only stepping into the breach with regard to the tensions that have marked the deconstructivist debate over wilderness and environmentalism; they were also entering a larger and, we think, ultimately more important discussion about the proper course of future conservation scholarship and action. This larger discussion, however, has also been marked by considerable academic and professional debate and divisiveness in recent years. Any careful survey of the scholarly and popular literature in conservation, for example, will reveal a host of conceptual and methodological polarizations that have worked to divide individuals and "camps" within the diverse fields of conservation thought and practice. A representative list of these oppositional elements might include the following:
Conservation versus preservation
Conservationism versus environmentalism
Anthropocentrism versus biocentrism/ecocentrism
Instrumental value versus intrinsic value
Utility versus aesthetics
Efficiency versus equity
Nature as construct versus nature as essence
Moral pluralism versus moral monism
Urban/rural environmentalism versus wilderness environmentalism
Eastern (U.S.) versus western (U.S.) perspectives
Regional focus versus national focus
Working/cultural landscapes versus pristine nature
Stewardship versus hands-off management policies
Grassroots action versus centralized approaches
Citizen environmentalism versus expert/bureaucratic environmentalism
Models of ecological disturbance versus models of ecological order
Conservation theory versus conservation practice
Some of these tensions are captured in the aforementioned deconstructivist critique, though many speak to additional commitments and goals that are debated in academic and professional conservation circles. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. We also do not wish to suggest that a subscription to one or more of the commitments on the left or the right entails an endorsement of all the claims and tenets on that side of the aisle. But we do believe this list captures some of the major philosophical and strategic disagreements within conservationism, both past and present. And though some of these divisions seem to be slowly disappearing, or at least moving toward some degree of conceptual compatibility (e.g., the debate over equilibrium-based and disturbance-based ecological models), others remain firmly in place and even appear to have deepened in recent years (e.g., anthropocentrism versus biocentrism/ecocentrism, the constructivist–essentialist debate).
We know that many of our participants probably believed they had a stake in one or more of these debates at the seminar, yet we were struck by the degree to which they attempted to move beyond these imposed categories and their entailments. Even when it was apparent that some of the presenters were interested in working along one side of an argument, for example, they sought to develop complementary rather than adversarial projects, or they worked to shore up weaknesses and fill conceptual holes in the conservationist literature. This is not to say that the divisions represented in the foregoing list were somehow magically erased in Vermont, nor to suggest that many of these opposing ideas do not provide a useful way of thinking about some of the real tensions in our understanding of conservation thought and practice. We only point out here that our participants were not beholden to "either-or" logic in the framing of their discussions and proposals for reconstruction. This independence was probably best demonstrated by the numerous pleas for philosophical compatibility and tactical cooperation at the seminar and by the participants' awareness of the need to move beyond rigid ideology and the constraints of historically entrenched positions and arguments in their respective fields.
The specific questions that emerged through the individual presentations and discussions at the seminar formed a crosscutting pattern of historical reflections, philosophical investigations, social scientific studies, and practical considerations of the past, present, and future of conservation initiatives on the landscape. Among the questions raised by these lines of inquiry were the following:
Why and how have the intellectual and social histories of conservationism ignored certain subjects and movements, and how might these accounts be revised to accurately reflect the peoples, places, and ideas left out of these histories?
What is the role of human agency in natural and cultural landscapes, and how do we come to terms with the demands and responsibilities of conservation stewardship?
What are the limitations and lessons of early-twentieth-century Progressive conservationism for conservation in the first part of the twenty-first century?
How should we understand the philosophical and value bases of conservation in light of new histories, new methodologies, and new analytic models in the natural and social sciences?
What, if any, should be the overarching goals of conservation in a contemporary environment characterized by social, ethical, and methodological pluralism?
How do questions of class, identity, and community shape the material prospects of conservation on the ground?
What are the descriptive and normative features of community-based conservationism, and how do these approaches promise to engage citizens more effectively in conservation practices?
These questions and others like them filled our five days in Vermont that fall. And they would continue to engage the participants as they returned to their own places to reflect and write about them for this book.
Excerpted from Reconstructing Conservation by Ben A. Minteer, Robert E. Manning. Copyright © 2003 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Part I. Introduction,
1. Conservation: From Deconstruction to Reconstruction Ben A. Minteer and Robert E. Manning,
Part II. Nature and Culture Reconsidered,
2. Writing Environmental History from East to West Richard W. Judd,
3. The Nature of History Preserved; or, The Trouble with Green Bridges Robert McCullough,
4. Going Native: Second Thoughts on Restoration Jan E. Dizard,
5. Conservation and Culture, Genuine and Spurious Luis A. Vivanco,
Part III. Reweaving the Tradition,
6. Expanding the Conservation Tradition: The Agrarian Vision Paul B. Thompson,
7. Regional Planning as Pragmatic Conservationism Ben A. Minteer,
8. Building Conservation on the Land: Aldo Leopold and the Tensions of Professionalism and Citizenship Susan Flader,
9. Scott Nearing and the American Conservation Tradition Bob Pepperman Taylor,
10. Conservation and the Four Faces of Resistance Eric T. Freyfogle,
11. Conservation and the Progressive Movement: Growing from the Radical Center Curt Meine,
Part IV. New Methods and Models,
12. Conservation: Moral Crusade or Environmental Public Policy? Bryan Norton,
13. Social Climate Change: A Sociology of Environmental Philosophy Robert E. Manning,
14. Reconstructing Conservation in an Age of Limits: An Ecological Economics Perspective David N. Bengston and David C. Iverson,
15. The Implication of the "Shifting Paradigm" in Ecology for Paradigm Shifts in the Philosophy of Conservation J. Baird Callicott,
16. An Integrative Model for Landscape-Scale Conservation in the Twenty-First Century Stephen C. Trombulak,
Part V. Reconstructing Conservation Practice: Community and the Future of Conservation Stewardship,
17. Community Values in Conservation Patricia A. Stokowski,
18. Stewardship and Protected Areas in a Global Context: Coping with Change and Fostering Civil Society Brent Mitchell and Jessica Brown,
19. Reinventing Conservation: A Practitioner's View Rolf Diamant, J. Glenn Eugster, and Nora J. Mitchell,
20. Conservation Stewardship: Legacies from Vermont's Marsh David Lowenthal,
Part VI. Conclusion,
21. Finding Common Ground: Emerging Principles for a Reconstructed Conservation Ben A. Minteer and Robert E. Manning,
About the Contributors,