John Muir Could Never Get a Job in Conservation Today

21 01 2010

When did nature conservation change hands from the naturalists to the scientists?

Many consider John Muir to have been the first true “conservationist.”  He worked tirelessly to protect wild places in the Sierra Nevada of California, founded the Sierra Club, and was instrumental in the development of the National Park concept.  He was one of the first to even suggest that natural places needed to be saved.  Few people have committed their lives so completely to conservation.

But he wasn’t out to save “biodiversity.”  That didn’t even exist yet.  The terms “ecosystem services” and “keystone species” were decades in the future.  If you had mentioned a desire to see “hotspots,” he undoubtedly would have assumed you meant “hot springs” and taken you for a warm soak on Mt. Shasta.  He simply tried to save the places that moved him.  Places that made him feel alive, and that he knew would benefit others just by experiencing them.

John Muir could never get a job in a conservation organization today, not even the one that he founded himself.  He was a naturalist, not a scientist.  He held no graduate degree until Harvard University bestowed an honorary M.A. on him in 1896 at the age of 58.  He could not be called a “botanist,” or a “landscape ecologist,” or a “microbiologist.”  But is there anyone on the planet who has ever understood the high country of California in the way that he did?  He knew every plant, tree and bird in the Sierra Nevada, and arguably spent more time “in the field” than any biologist living today.

Read any of his writings and you will see that he was driven by a sense of awe for the places he visited.  The alpine slopes of mountains were holy to him.  The national park system was originally created to protect places that could provide “spiritual renewal” to visitors.  In a letter to Emerson in 1871, he wrote, “I invite you join me in a month’s worship with Nature in the high temples of the great Sierra Crown beyond our holy Yosemite. It will cost you nothing save the time & very little of that for you will be mostly in Eternity.”

Can you imagine something like that being written by Peter Seligmann, CEO of Conservation International?  (I suppose it is a whole entry in itself to delve into what it means to have a “CEO” of a conservation non-profit).  The sad thing is, if anyone in the world of big conservation NGOs (BINGOs) today spoke from the heart, or implied that nature is sentient or (gasp) sacred, they would lose all respect in the field.

Nature is now seen as a machine.  The field of conservation has been broken down into micro-fields.  There seems to be a belief that if you can break a natural system down into its smallest possible components and figure out what each one does, you can find the problem and “fix” it.  It is a bit like auto-shop class.  There is a little bit of a pendulum swing back with each BINGO having its own terminology for “hotspots,” “large landscapes,” “heartlands,” etc.  However, the approach to how to protect these larger areas hasn’t changed much.

Granted, the world is a different place than it was 150 years ago when John Muir was climbing El Capitan.  The threats to our environment are exponentially greater, we have more and more evidence of global-scale climate change, and we are more aware of the numbers of species that are threatened with extinction on land and in the seas.  The challenges are vast, so the approaches need to be proven to be effective.

However, what is being lost in this new approach?

  • The voices of people who are not “scientists” are being lost.  In many cases this includes the voices of indigenous people who are directly affected by conservation efforts (although it must also be noted that Native Americans were removed from both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks when those were set up, so it wasn’t all perfect then, either).  Other voices that are being ignored are those of poets, philosophers and naturalists. People who understand these places deeply, but in ways that are not considered “valid” by conservation scientists.
  • Any place that does not have high biodiversity value.  While biodiversity is obviously critical to our survival, it is not the only thing that makes a place worth saving.   Here in Uganda, it often feels like everyone is focused on the Albertine Rift, which is the primary “biodiversity hotspot” in the country, and every other place has been given up on.  I believe that places get protected in the long-term because people feel connected to them, and people become strongly connected to the natural world through sacred groves, forest sections where their family’s clan animal can be found, and the little pond down the street where you caught frogs as a kid.  We need to save biodiversity, but let’s not forget the other important places along the way.
  • The intrinsic value of nature.  When we look at everything in terms of ecosystem services, or what these places do for us, we forget that the natural world doesn’t exist for us. Once you place a value on one thing as “worth saving,” you suddenly have a lot of places that, by being left out of that equation, are NOT “worth saving.”

To solve all of the world’s problems, here are a few recommendations that I have:

  • Every conservation organization with a headquarters staff of over 30 people should be required to have a poet on staff.  Yes, it is OK to feel deeply about the natural world.  Please – appeal to our higher selves!
  • Every person working in the conservation field should spend at least one week per year recreating in nature, not working, to remember why these places are worth saving.
  • Conservation marketing campaigns should balance their doom-and-gloom, fear-based approach with at least 15% inspirational, positive messages that make us want to be connected to nature.
  • More individuals should step up to contribute money to wildlife conservation.  When the BINGOs get most of their budgets from corporations, particularly in the extraction industries, there is too much pressure on them to cut “deals” that allow destructive practices on the very lands they are supposed to be protecting.  (Read more:  Conservation Refugees, by Mark Dowie)
  • Those of us with kids should get them out into nature.  In the industrialized world, we are creating a generation of kids who will have no connection to the natural world and, therefore, no desire to protect it for their own children in the future. (Read more:  Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv)

There are no easy solutions to any work that is being done on a global scale.  I appreciate what the big conservation organizations have done to raise awareness around the world about the plights of individual species and threatened ecosystems.  I just don’t believe that keeping our hearts and emotions out of the work is the right way to find the solutions.  Nature is not a machine.  We need scientists to gather information for conservation, but we need the poets to help us make sense of all those pieces.

There is a lot more that can be said about this.  Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

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4 responses

4 02 2010
Brad Hershley

Nice looking page!

3 02 2010
Greg Schayes

Well Said. If you should ever need a poet…

2 02 2010
Judith Ebert

Brilliant post. You have earned a new reader. Please keep up the superb writings and I look forward to more of your engrossing writings.

3 02 2010
Mark Jordahl

Thanks! I appreciate the encouragement and look forward to to checking out “Eyebrow Growers Reviews”.

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