CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Environmentalism in the U.S. - Preservation or Conservation? by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

When President Bush recently presented his new climate-change policy, he argued that economic growth is the key to environmental progress. Economic growth, he suggested, provides us the means to develop and invest in cleaner technologies. Mr. Bush's father once referred to Ronald Reagan's trickle-down economics as voodoo economics. I would assert that growth-induced conservation is a case of voodoo environmentalism.
William G. Moseley in the Feb. 27, 2002 edition of the Christian Science Monitor

The fundamental idea of forestry is the perpetuation of forests by use. Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend on them.
President Theodore Roosevelt, 1901 in 'Thumbnail History of Environmentalism'

Is a preservationist more or less of an environmentalist than a conservationist? Is making nature off-limits to all development the best choice for a sustainable future? Is it better to let nature adapt to us or should we adapt to nature? Before we can answer any of these questions, I suppose we should come to some conclusion about what environmentalism is. Though 8 out of 10 Americans call themselves 'environmentalists', they probably all have a different idea about what it means to be an environmentalist and about what environmentalism is.

The environmental movement in the United States started in the early 1800s with the likes of George Catlin, who proposed the idea of creating a national park system and with George Perkins Marsh, a congressman from Vermont and later ambassador to Turkey, who concluded in his book "Man and Nature" that Americans, in their zeal to expand the West at all costs, were heading toward disaster in terms of ecosystem loss and resource decline. It is undoubtedly though, John Muir, the father of American wilderness preservation, who at the time had done more than anyone else to bring favorable attention to wilderness protection.

John Muir was both a preservationist (i.e. someone who wanted to preserve nature for all to enjoy) and a naturalist and he played an integral part in the early environmental movement of the United States. As the first president of the Sierra Club, Muir fought many battles with the politicians of the day, helping U.S. President Grover Cleveland to shape early environmental policy. Preservationist policy generally put the interests of wildlife and wilderness ahead of the interests of humans. After Cleveland's defeat by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s, preservationist policy was replaced by 'conservationist' policy, policy that called for the 'wise use' of federal lands, but usually meant putting the interests of humans ahead of the interests of wildlife and wilderness. The battle between preservationists and conservationists continues to this day.

The modern environmental movement in the United States started with the publication of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" in 1962 and with it 'environmentalism', with ecology as its science, moved into the American mainstream and began to steer the national agenda in government, science and industry. Born out of the activism of the 1960s, the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, brought environmentalism to the masses and demonstrated that people believed better environmental quality to be a fundamental right of all humans. Subsequently, people flocked toward environmental organizations saving everything from trees to whales. But, industry fought back by launching its own campaign, calling on experts in the field to show that environmental problems weren't as bad as environmental groups would have had people believe and that the public had always been willing to assume a certain level of public health risk if it meant economic prosperity. To a degree, the campaign was successful as public and political support for the environment leveled-off.

The antienvironmentalist movement got a strong boost from the 1980 election of U.S. President Ronald Reagan when he appointed James Watt as his Secretary of the Interior. Watt openly denounced wilderness protection and environmental controls in favor of economic expansion. Policies of the Reagan administration were continued by the administration of his successor, President George H. W. Bush. Then the environmentalist pendulum swung back the other way with the election of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and twelve years of Reagan/Bush policy slowly began to be changed during the next eight years. But as fate would have it, the election of President George W. Bush in 2000 pushed the pendulum back once again toward the conservationist side.

Anyone who has played with a pendulum and started it swinging knows that eventually it comes to rest in the middle. And as it oscillates back and forth, those deviations from center are smaller and smaller. So too in the debate between preservationists and conservationists, there will eventually be some middle ground established. Environmentalism probably isn't dead in this country, though it has certainly changed much since the early 1800s. So, is it better to be a preservationist or a conservationist? There is probably room for both views, but only if each side is willing to live with the other.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. Questions
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Voodoo environmentalism by William G. Moseley in the Christian Science Monitor
    This brief article appeared on the Opinion page of the Christian Science Monitor's website in February of 2002. William Moseley is an assistant professor of Environmental Geography at Northern Illinois University.
  • Thumbnail History of Environmentalism by Michael D. Swords
    Dr. Michael D. Swords is Professor of Environmental Studies, Emeriti at Western Michigan University. He gives a thorough review of the environmental movement in the United States, including such notables as John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold.
  • The History of Environmentalism
    Written by George Schindler, Jr. of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, this article outlines U.S. environmentalism from the 1940s forward; brief, but from a slightly different perspective than the previous article.
  • The Sierra Club
    Here's where it all started; the official site of the Sierra Club. Though they are at their roots, preservationists, they do lean a little toward responsible use. The mission statement on their website proclaims that their mission is to: Explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; Practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; Educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and Use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.
  • The Alliance for America
    From their website: The Alliance for America is a coalition of grassroot organizations concerned with protecting the constitution, property rights, humans, and the environment. Conservationists involved in preserving natural resources and the natural beauty of the environment without destroying the lives of the people closest to it.
  • Questioning Official Environmentalism
    Brian Tokar wrote this article for Z-Magazine, which is an online monthly magazine featuring "analysis, commentary and humor on politics, economics, culture, foreign policy and day-to-day life".
  • Who's To Blame On Global Issues?
    In his article for the Boston Globe, Derrick Jackson exclaims, "Except for some howling environmentalists, there still is no major sign that the average American is seriously offended by [President] Bush's rampage of environmental reversals." It is an interesting position he takes and unfortunately it is probably true.
  • A New Environmentalism?
    This is the official website of New Environmentalism sponsored by the Reason Public Policy Institute of Los Angeles, CA. The basic premise of New Environmentalism is that the environmental problems of today are complex and require "a flexible, results-oriented approach" to solving them.
  • Environmentalism on the Wane
    Rob Gordon, in this article on the "Junk Science" website, outlines how popular culture has led to a decrease in environmental activism.
  • Against Environmentalism
    This article is on the "Objectivism" Homepage of sponsored by the Ayn Rand Institute. In it, author Michael S. Berliner says, "There is a grave danger facing mankind. The danger is not from acid rain, global warming, smog, or the logging of rain forests, as environmentalists would have us believe. The danger to mankind is from environmentalism."
  • FAQs about Free-Market Environmentalism
    The Thoreau Institute sponsors this site on Free-Market Environmentalism. Here is a list of frequently asked questions addressing topics such as "How can markets protect endangered species?" This is a very complete website.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003