Friday, 18 November 2011

Conservation culture: shaping your feelings towards environmentalism?

What determines how people feel about important conservation issues such as the role and importance of wilderness areas, anthropogenic development, and the use of natural resources? According to conservationist Rebecca Hardin (University of Michigan School of Environment and Natural Resources), writing in Conservation Biology's recent 25th anniversary edition, it is the "conservation culture" to which we have been exposed, and to which we currently belong. She defines "conservation culture" as "a series of distinct aesthetic, technical, and ideological positions." Hardin argues that an awareness of the symbols and meanings in own conservation culture, as well as the others that surround us, is essential for developing practical conservation plans in the future.

If this sounds a bit more philosophical than the standard conservation plan, that's probably because Hardin is not just a conservationist, but also an anthropologist, a political scientist, and, most importantly, an introspective person. In her Conservation Biology essay, Hardin describes a series of contrasts and conflicts that have marked her experiences with nature throughout her life. As a girl in suburban Tennessee, she spent her weekdays in human-modified environments but then escaped into the idyllic Great Smoky Mountains National Park during weekends. "As an adolescent," she writes, "I was vaguely conscious of ways of life that had been displaced in favor of the settlements that matured into today's suburban riverbanks." Impacted groups included rural agrarians and, dating from an even earlier time, Native American tribes. Later, she became more interested in these and other "rural" and "primitive" cultures, but found that preliminary attempts by academics to capture "traditional" people in writing only ended up advancing the stereotype that "suburbia" and "wilderness" are completely distinct entities and attitudes. Hardin felt, however, that these were two extremes on a continuum, and that somewhere in the middle there must be some way for humans to exist in balance--utilizing resources in a sustainable way that preserved some amount of natural habitat.

(The Great Smoky Mountains, as viewed from Mount Le Conte)

The stereotypes that Hardin encountered in these academic texts also permeate popular culture. As examples, Hardin lists Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Erin Brokovitch, and Gasland, in which the villains destroy or poison the wilderness, while the heroes try to preserve and defend it. Likewise, she writes, conservationists also often portray their work in black and white, suggesting that there is no way for humans to coexist with nature without either destroying it or completely leaving it alone. Unfortunately, this leaves little room for reality--the need to farm for food and build structures for homes, or the desire to have access to wilderness areas for recreational purposes. Hardin calls this a "contradictory culture of conservation"--when our ideals pull us in different directions at the same time.

But where do these ideals come from in the first place? Hardin argues that some develop as a result of our own experiences, while others are influenced by social forces--education and religion, for instance. Different messages may come from different sectors, thus causing ideological conflict. Hardin reports feeling this conflict in her own life; she has done extensive conservation work in the field in remote locations, but then admits to thoroughly enjoying the luxuries of the city once she returns from the wild. She posits that many, if not most, people have probably felt similar personal conflicts at one time or another, and that these same conflicts are writ large within conservation institutions. This has been particularly true over the last couple decades, during which the field of conservation has shifted and expanded to make room for a variety of interests, people, techniques, and foci.

(Treebeard, from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hardin points out that many modern stories feature villains like Saruman the White, who, in Tolkien's story, cuts down trees in order to promote industrial growth; he serves as a symbol of technology and development. He is thwarted by the ents, who, led by Treebeard and accompanied by Pippin and Merry, serve as hero-conservationists by flooding Saruman's domain and allowing nature to reclaim the land.)

One of the difficulties of conservation, Hardin writes, is that it is not about individual heroes--or even, much of the time, about individual villains (though of course, as the Deepwater Horizon scandal has shown, you can occasionally pinpoint a single guilty person or entity). Rather, it is a complex and widespread process that requires compromises between many individuals and organizations, and engagement of all those who are impacted by particular management techniques. Many join the field because of an interest in going outdoors and getting "muddy boots," but are ultimately forced to "[ascend] the administrative ladder from the field to the metropolis" in order to be most effective. This does not necessarily indicate shifting ideals or "selling out," but making personal sacrifices in order to achieve important goals.

Success will also stem from "[having] the intercultural tools to identify competing conservation cultures" in distinct places, yet also "consider links between them." Hardin's description of her native Tennessee provide good examples of these scenarios. Her parents were part of a movement to protect a historical tree at the cost of a historical building; in the ensuing battle between those for and against the project, natural history was pitted against human history. But it is not always the case that different groups of people lobby for different outcomes; right down the road, Appalachians of both European and Cherokee descent--nominally from two different worlds--share the same interest of gaining access to preserved land that they feel is an important part of their heritages. Conservationists will need to be able to evaluate circumstances like these and identify and understand the ways that nature can link disparate peoples, as well as pinpoint instances when wilderness preservation--or lack thereof--can drive a wedge between individuals or groups with uperficially similar goals and interests.

It sounds like a tough challenge, but Hardin suggests that we can start by looking within. There is, she says, a need to "actively [examine] our own desires, beliefs, and consumption practices" in order to "[avoid] outwardly focused cynicism about the organizations around us and [encourage] alternative formulations of future environmental politics." This advice is somewhat of a cross between two time-honored pieces of wisdom: "An unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates) and "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (The King James Bible, John 8:2-11). Hardin points out that self-examination has not traditionally played an important role in mainstream conservation. However, since "grounded reflexivity considers how our own memories, sensations, and cultural symbols structure our actions and preclude some actions," being more in tune with both our own motivations and those of the people around us may eventually lead to greater innovations, improved outreach, and, ultimately, more valuable and effective conservation efforts.

Hardin, Rebecca. 2011. Competing cultures of conservation. Conservation Biology 25(6):1098-1102.

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Caitlin, many thanks for this thoughtful engagement with my essay...despite the risks of such public intellectual engagement! the graphics you chose conjure both the physical beauty of the congo, and of the smokies, and of the various ways the human mind brings to life elements of the natural world over time. sorry it took me so long to get to this note...the academic year leaves me way too little time for the blogosphere!

    1. Great piece!! I'm going I look up this article- we need this new approach before it's too late.