Thursday, May 31, 2012

Conservationist vs. Environmentalist: Real or Imagined?

I wrote this article for the Summer 2012 International Wolf magazineAfter a couple of conversations this week, I thought it might be of interest.  It is a bit longer than most of our posts, but hopefully you find it worth the read.  Please respond with your thoughts or ideas on the topic.

Are you an environmentalist? Are you a conservationist? Is there a difference? If there is, what does it matter for the long-term survival of wolves?

First, why is this topic important for wolves? As wolves enter a new stage in their history in the United States, the work of ensuring their long-term survival might look different from the work of the last three decades. Fighting for protection of the animals, their reintroduction and social acceptance as they spread throughout some of their historical range might require a very different approach than stabilizing habitat or ensuring sufficient prey. Understanding what conservation and environmentalism mean in our social contexts and possibly working to change common perceptions of these terms are important for sustaining viable wolf populations.

Conservation and environmentalism have very similar definitions in the dictionary. Both promote an ethic of stewardship of the natural world, and without the connotations many of us have come to understand, the terms might be considered synonymous.

But to most people who fall into one category or the other, they seem not to be. Upon being asked, most people who consider themselves conservationists or environmentalists see a clear distinction between the two labels, though the distinctions people draw are often different. Interestingly, among the people I spoke with for this article, the label environmentalist often has an edge of negative connotation—sometimes even among people who label themselves as one.

According to my very informal gathering of opinions, a general consensus develops regarding the characteristics of conservationists: People agree that conservationists are much more interested in preserving and managing a resource for future use, with “use” being the operative word. There is some sense among the people I spoke with that conservationists are much more willing to accept human impact on a resource as long as it will be there for future generations. There also seems to be agreement that
conservationists are willing to fund and participate in direct service to preserve and manage the particular resource in which they are interested.

People also gather around general characteristics of an environmentalist. Most people I spoke with believe that environmentalists want to minimize or reverse the impact humans have on the natural world, and they take a holistic approach to environmental issues. People I spoke with also believe that environmentalists are often more comfortable advocating for public policy changes and using the legal system to achieve their goals.

Amy Ellwein, geologist and science education researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, described a key tenet of environmentalism this way: “What people decide to do about known problems is tied up in our values. I don’t think it is easy to deny that most environmental problems are caused by human consumption patterns and by human overpopulation.”

In nearly every discussion I had on the topic, there was a moment that became charged, loaded with importance on the true weight of the topic. The “real” differences were divulged:

“Conservationists are more rural, and environmentalists almost all live in the city.”

“Environmentalists are more pessimistic, and conservationists are more optimistic.”

“Conservationists just want to preserve animals, so that they’ll have something to shoot in the future.”

“An environmentalist, from what I can see, is afraid to enjoy anything, because every human action destroys the Earth in some way.”

“I think of conservation as what happened during an earlier time, like Roosevelt setting aside national parks.”

That last comment sparks an alternative view of conservation. Jason Booth, vice president of development and communications at the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, draws attention to the fact that what many people see as one of the most important
conservation acts of the 20th century, benefitted directly from displacement of native people from their homelands.

“It’s important that people understand the history of the conservation movement in America, in its full context,” said Booth.

So, why is all of this important? Scott Yaich, Ph.D., director of conservation operations at Ducks Unlimited, answered the question this way: All of the people who truly care about the environment combined are a small segment of the overall population, and the artificial distinction between conservationists and environmentalists negatively impacts important work.

“This division has long bothered me, and it terribly weakens our ability to achieve goals that we share more closely and passionately with each other than we do with other segments of society,” said Yaich. “Yes, there are some things that we are going to
have to agree to disagree about along the way, but there is so much more in which we share a common interest.”

So how would you label yourself? Is it necessary to label at all? Moving forward, can those of us who care deeply about wolves specifically and the environment as a whole find common ground with those who share a love of the natural world but enjoy
it differently?