What Does the Future of Conservation Look Like?


SCA Member Jacob Cravens Looks to the Past to Guide Conservation’s Future

“Why should we care? Why not put a stick of dynamite in those American Indian rock carvings and make a larger highway to increase economic development? People are unemployed, families and nations are in debt, and wars are killing people. Why should we care about these carvings?”

As an SCA intern at Capital Reef National Park, I pose this to audiences in front of rock carvings of the Fremont Culture, an American Indian group. The audience needs to tackle the tough questions, because too often we give flashy information with a creative or personal narrative, but leave out the concrete reasons for the conservation of a resource. Why should they care?

As conservationists we need a clear vision of what we want the world to be if we’re going to change mindsets. What is success for the conservation movement? We agree that a conservation crisis is occurring, and that we need to create a culture of conservation by getting people connected with nature, but then what? Are we trying to get more areas protected? How much? Are we trying to change consumption habits? To what? Are conservationists against economic development? How can we hit a mark when we don’t know what we’re aiming at? I see a need in the conservation movement for principles that lead to actionable, quantifiable goals. Vague rhetoric doesn’t produce results. Where are the answers to these questions of identity and direction? Winston Churchill said, “The farther back you look, the farther forward you will see.” The challenges we face, while new in context, are rooted in history. History can help us answer the conservationist question “What do we want?”          

Often in conservation, we say what we don’t want. . We don’t want wasteful consumption. We don’t want a higher world population.  We don’t want pollution.  We want to avoid these things because history has told us of their consequences. Plato’s Dialogues say that if a country desires more luxury, they will have to seek resources beyond their borders to meet their needs. How many wars have been fought for resources because we could not conserve? One theory of the Mayan civilization’s demise is that they used up their resources, causing complete societal collapse. Minamata, Japan showed how environmental pollution can damage our health when a local company dumped mercury in the water and people went insane, fell into comas, and even died. The conservation movement does not want to see this history repeated.

However, a negative statement is not enough, it is reactionary. We need statements outlining what conservationists should do, a proactive approach.  Dating from 20,000 years ago American Indians were able to conserve their environment and prosper.  The Iroquois in every deliberation would consider its implications for 7 future generations.  The American Indian mindset is that the environment is not to be exploited, but lived with in harmony. My interpretative talk notes that the Fremont people lived in a barren desert for a thousand years by sharing water, managing game populations, and carefully using the soil. The Fremont faced environmental challenges that are similar to those we currently face. William Faulkner says, “ The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” and so today we still face problems of water conservation, climate change, and resource use. Terry Tempest says of the Fremont Culture, “They remind us what it is to be human: that it is in our nature to survive, to be resourceful, and to be attentive to the world around us.” This is why we should care. The history of American Indians clearly demonstrates principles that conservationists should strive for.

But these principles, of course, were created in a different context and need to be adapted. Population growth and technology have changed the world. So, how can we apply American Indian conservation principles to contemporary society? Sustainability is the answer.  The United Nations says sustainability, “ meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is the future of conservation. Does this answer every question? No. Will there be years of discussions of what qualifies as a “need”? Yes. But it provides us some direction. Fossil fuels and nuclear power will never truly be sustainable. Renewable energy, such as windmills and solar, is sustainable. Agricultural practices that strip the land cannot continue, while those that recycle nutrients should. Wilderness areas must stay untouched if they’re to be enjoyed in the future like they are today. Consumption patterns have to be altered for future generations to have their fair amount to consume. Economic development and conservation are not mutually exclusive. There can be development just as long as it doesn’t permanently destroy. When an economy destroys its own resources, it destroys its future. Actionable and quantifiable goals still need to be set to measure conservation’s successes, but sustainability is the beginning of a measuring stick and gives us something real to strive for. There’s an American Indian Proverb that seems to apply here: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”