Connecting History

Connecting History logo


Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Conservation — An American, and Republican, Tradition

by D. Keith Naylor on Jul 31, 2001

When Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking to reporters last spring, dismissed conservation as “a sign of personal virtue, but not a sufficient basis for a sound comprehensive energy policy,” he turned his back on a major American tradition initiated by Republicans. 

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the conservation of natural resources has figured significantly in federal policy and has been embraced by the public. Although the Bush administration has since backtracked on Cheney’s statement, it has shown little understanding of conservation as a historic national project that involves more than just turning off unnecessary lights. 

While Cheney seems to reduce conservation to mere tactic, many Americans embrace conservation as an ethic, a set of values favoring the protection, preservation and wise use of natural resources. This larger conception of conservation is invaluable in making local, state, and federal policy amid the pressures of competing social and economic interests. 

Cheney’s characterization of conservation as a personal virtue discounts the significant role of the conservation ethic in the nation’s history. Although long present in the attitudes and activities of Native Americans and some settler groups, conservation first gained national political significance in the fall of 1901. Gifford Pinchot, then Chief Forester of the United States, persuaded Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to lobby for forest reserves, increased irrigation and land reclamation in his first address to Congress. 

Pinchot and Roosevelt linked these concerns together and launched a national campaign to conserve America’s forests, rivers, soils, minerals, wildlife and scenic areas. Roosevelt made conservation a major domestic policy of his presidency, stirring the public’s imagination by championing conservation not as a personal virtue but as a matter of public good that concerned the growth, development and character of the nation. 

If Cheney sees conservation as a quaint idea, outmoded in the high technology-big business climate in which he operates, he might reconsider conservation’s history. Conservation emerged a hundred years ago in an era of belief in expertise and efficiency, when people began to think that technology could “manage” nature as successfully as Cheney now claims technology can prevent oil-drilling spills in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So Cheney shares with the early conservationists an optimism about a future well-managed through technology. 

But the profound part of conservation that Cheney and the administration seem to overlook is its critique of Americans’ past environmental conduct. Conservationists abhorred the wanton waste and exploitation of nature and challenged the long-standing idea that the natural resources of the continent were so vast and varied as to be inexhaustible. 

Conservationists deflated what one historian has called “the myth of superabundance” and advanced a new ethic of regard and restraint concerning nature. The early conservationists, many of them Republican Progressives who promoted an activist federal government on behalf of a “square deal,” saw nature primarily as a resource for human use, and they claimed economic well-being as an outcome of conservation policies. But their utilitarian approach was weighted with a deep sense of moral responsibility for the future, for posterity. They struggled to leave us a legacy of open spaces, protected natural wonders and sustainable use of natural resources. 

The conservation movement represented then a third way, a departure from both the previous century’s unrestrained exploitation of nature and the romantic sacred-space perspective of heroic preservationists such as the Sierra Club’s founder, John Muir. 

Conservation has developed over the century as the measured ethical response of a maturing nation to its place in the natural and social world. 

Recent news reports of unprecedented levels of electricity conservation by California citizens this summer suggest that the conservation ethic can still motivate people to question and adjust their ways of living on the land. 

Ultimately, conservation remains a compelling issue for the nation, not because it involves personal habits or virtue, but because it spotlights the relationship of society to the natural world. It poses the crucial question of society’s obligations toward the natural world and government’s role in meeting those obligations. The conservation ethic challenges our patterns of consumption that have increasingly detrimental effects on other humans and on the earth itself. 

While conservation activities and policies can take many forms, conservation’s greatest value is in serving as an ethic, a reference point from which to question and grapple with the enduring issue of how we live on the land. One hopes that the Bush administration will yet be convinced that such an ethic is not only “sufficient,” but indispensable.

D. Keith Naylor is an associate professor of religious studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a writer for the History News Service.