From Conservation to Environmental Governance

I will be teaching environmental philosophy and ethics this fall, and it has gotten me thinking about how I arrived where I am academically. I started off interested in environmental conservation, but these days, I generally tell inquiring minds that I research environmental governance, and particularly the role of science and technology in mediating relationships between people and nature. It is a difficult field to describe, since more properly it is a cluster of fields – political ecology, governance studies, and science and technology studies – which themselves don’t enjoy wide recognition among the public.[i]

Through hard experience, I’ve have found that I can’t quickly explain what I do by approaching it at the level of formal abstraction. There’s a lot of esoteric theory and conceptual material to cover, and while that may be how I myself understand what I do, it has taken me years of study and tens of thousands of pages of reading to take this long path to understanding. As a teacher, I can help students to find and follow that long path, but for the merely curious, I need a short-cut. Stories might be the best short-cuts, and so I present, for your reading enjoyment, a story (of sorts) of my own progression from conservation to environmental governance.

Embracing Conservation

The library at my elementary school used to display a rack of kid’s magazines, with the latest issues on display to entice us into actually sitting down and working on our reading skills. I no longer remember any of the titles except the one which caught my eye, Ranger Rick.[ii] Filled with eye-popping, full-color photographs of wildlife from all over, the magazine helped make a strong case to my impressionable young mind for the intrinsic value of all the life which co-inhabits our world.

Ranger Rick Cover, September 1991.

Ranger Rick Cover, September 1991.

It was in the pages of this children’s magazine that I also discovered the many ways in which all of that beautiful life is threatened by things that people do. Whether in an article about animals killed in collisions with automobiles, driven to extinction by the clearing of tropical rainforests, or choked to death by the old plastic six-pack rings, the message was clear—wildlife (and more broadly, ecosystems) must be protected from people’s destructive practices.

This conservation imperative was driven home as I witnessed first-hand the clearing of local forests, prairies and farmland for housing and commercial development in and around my home town in Illinois (one such instance I describe on the About Me page). Perhaps some photographs of what happened across the street will help convey a sense of how I felt. The first image is a map of showing how the land where I grew up is in use today. I lived on Atlantic Drive, on the left.

A land-use map of the intersection near where I grew up.

A land-use map of the intersection near where I grew up.

As you can see, there is now a large shopping center near the intersection of the two major highways, with a large subdivision of houses just to the south. Take note of the street names which were invented when the subdivision was built, keeping in mind it’s less than a decade old. You see names like White Oak, Hemlock, Laurel, Sweetbay and so on, which are all names of trees and plants that once grew here. Not so much anymore, as this Google streetview image of the intersection of Heritage Woods Dr. and Post Oak Cir. shows.

Heritage Woods Dr and Post Oak Cir

It’s an odd way to celebrate natural heritage by cutting it down and putting up a green and white sign. It speaks to a certain nostalgia for what we used to have, but destroyed in our haste to claim it.

The landscape used to look quite different. I recall a stand of old oaks at this highway intersection, along with a farm field. I couldn’t find a photograph from the 1980s that would do justice to my earliest memories of this land, but you can see the early days of that woodlot in this aerial photograph from 1939.

59 and 64 in 1939

Today, none of that landscape near the southwest corner of the intersection has escaped the bulldozers and earth scrapers. In this photograph I found on a commercial real estate website, you can see what was done to the land as it was prepared for development (the area bounded in red and marked “SITE”). That bare patch of land—from which all the top soil was scraped into a big pile and sold off—is still sitting unused, eroding, and desicating even after ten years have passed. It’s up for sale again, but will anyone want it now?

59 and 64

It’s hard to describe in words the intense emotions brought on by witnessing what I viewed as such needless and blind destruction and waste. It seemed quite clear to me that there must be a better way. Why cut every tree down and scrape away all the topsoil before constructing homes and businesses? Why make plastics that don’t degrade when they are released in the environment, so that they kill marine wildlife in all sorts of horrible ways? Why put a motorway through every wilderness area, inviting animals to collide with cars and trucks, and not even consider a migration tunnel? Why discard perfectly recyclable aluminum cans or perfectly compostable food scraps in the trash, merely to fill up our limited landfills? Why broadcast herbicides wholesale on lawns—risking the health of birds, mammals, and other wildlife not to mention children and pets—just to achieve a uniform green carpet? All these and many other questions plagued me then, and still do.

Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic

I am certainly not the first person to shake my head at people’s frequent tendency to be wasteful because it’s easier, faster, cheaper, or simpler (even when I myself sometimes do the same). Conservationists have recognized wasteful practices in the relation between people and nature for a very long time. Recently, in preparation for teaching, I’ve been reading Aldo Leopold’s famous 1949 work, A Sand County Almanac [iii]. He notes that we treat land like property: our relation to it is “a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong” (237).

The first three-quarters of the book consist of a series of vignettes laying the foundation for this observation. Over and over, Leopold contrasts the richness of connectivity among living beings with the destruction wrought by people speeding toward “progress”. It becomes a litany of cases in which the ecosystems he sees as both beautiful and bountiful are impoverished and wasted. I’ve typed up one such passage at length here to give a sense of the sentiment of his argument. In this short story, he is reflecting on a memory of killing a wolf as a young man and watching the “green fire” go out from her eyes:

“I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn… In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

―Aldo Leopold, A Sand Count Almanac (1949 [1966], 139-140).

Leopold’s response to witnessing the future washing into the sea (a reference to rampant soil erosion) was the idea of a land ethic to govern our relationship to land and the ecological relations irreducibly bound up in land. An ethic, he postulated, was an ecological necessity, “a limitation on [our] freedom of action in the struggle for existence” (238). While individuals have long known that “despoliation of land is not only inexpedient [in the long run] but wrong,” society has trailed behind in realizing—that is, acting upon so as to bring into a reality—that wisdom (239). Society, he thought, needed a set of principles that would return a sense of right and wrong to land use, a framework laying out the proper relationships of people to nature.

Leopold made a basic leap of logic in developing the land ethic. He realized a gulf between an ecological knowledge of land and the way that society acted upon that land. He realized that simply knowing the complexities (and beauty) of ecological relationships, on an individual basis, would not be enough to shift humanity off of the destructive path of “progress” and onto a path toward what he sometimes referred to as “the good life” (163). Leopold proposed his ethic, then, as “a kind of community instinct in-the-making” (239) that could bridge the gulf. While his writings have been influential in the US, but clearly hasn’t solved the basic problem of our society’s tendency toward metabolic rift.

Ethics to Governance

I think that Leopold was on the right track in noting that knowledge and action are not necessarily one and the same, just as a collection of individuals are not necessarily the sum of their parts. While a community ethic is a one step toward dealing with gulfs and rifts in our approach to living well with and within nature, I believe that we need a deeper appreciation of the complexities of turning individual knowledges into collective actions.

At some point, a decision was made to cut down the stand of trees and scrape up the topsoil at the intersection of Route 59 and North Avenue. A decision was made to clear the land all at once, regardless of whether it needed to be cleared right then. Prior to that, a decision was made to develop the land. A land sale was agreed to, permits were applied for and granted, land was surveyed, businesses were courted, the town councilmembers were convinced, and so on. Before any of that, the farmland that had been there was squeezed into economic marginality, hemmed in on all sides by an expanding wave of would-be-suburbanites fleeing inner cities and rural backwaters alike to flock to the promised land of suburbia. The farmer likely already felt the fatigue and debt of running the technological treadmill[iv] that is corn-soy agriculture, and needed to get out. Land prices were likely looking good with the development, and the town probably needed new influxes of land tax revenue to cover all the services (schools, roads, police, etc.) needed by all the new people moving in. And on and on.

The point is that although it is an indisputable fact that the land was cleared and developed into houses and box stores, it is much more difficult to pin down exactly why the development occurred when, where and how it did. In other words, the land was not conserved, but why not? Without knowing why, it is difficult to look at the case and consider how it might have been handled differently. Who should have known better, decided more wisely, or acted otherwise? At what point in the long and complex history of events, circumstances, and decisions leading up to the development does the crux of the matter of conservation lie?

Considering that fundamental question has led me, through a long and circuitous route, from a commitment to conservation to the study of relationships between government, science, environment and economy—what I call environmental governance. Over the next several posts, I will discuss the idea of environmental governance in greater depth, starting next time with a series on common sense, science, and government.



[i] There are many different fields of “social science,” though only a few like economics or sociology are household names. Increasingly, sub-fields and cross-disciplinary fields dominate the academic landscape, and the old distinctions between the traditional fields – political science, sociology, economics, anthropology and so on – are becoming increasingly irrelevant (despite a certain tendency within disciplines to redefine their boundaries and thereby protect their turf). It is during this period of transition that the social sciences and humanities (another blurry distinction which unfortunately is often too sharply drawn) have lost a great deal of their public legitimacy and have come under attack in various ways, usually through funding. At some point I’ll post about that topic in greater depth, but for the time being suffice to say that what are generally referred to as the social sciences are in desperate need of a rebranding and PR campaign. Too many people don’t understand what we do, why we do it, and why we think it’s important—a problem which, in my own way, this blog hopes to address.

[ii] The magazine, a publication of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is still around, I discovered. Although Ranger Rick and his friends have developed a slick 3D dimensionality courtesy of CGI, it looks about the same as I remember.

[iii] Named for a region in central Wisconsin formed of an old lakebed formed by Ice Age glaciers which deposited huge amounts of sand there. I was driving through this area recently, and sand mining is quite common. Leopold, Aldo. 1949 (reprint 1970). A Sand County Almanac: With essays on conservation from Round River. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.

[iv] The “technological treadmill” idea was developed by Willard Cochrane. It basically postulates that farmers are caught in an economic trap of progress that sees the benefits of technological development accrue to the vendors of technology (in the form of high input prices) and the general consumer (in the form of low food prices). High input cost and low output price, of course, mean bankruptcy for farmers, which is one of the primary reasons for the drastic and continuing decline of farming as an occupation in the US. There are other types of treadmill effect associated with agriculture that compound the situation, such as the pesticide treadmill in which increasing application of pesticides merely drives increased pest resistance – in this case, chemical companies and pests benefit, while farmers and the environment lose out. Philip Howard at Michigan State University has a nice graphic of the various treadmill effects: Reference: Cochrane, Willard. The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.


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