Why Conservation?

This question was posed to me while discussing my classwork with a friend. I was just looking for a grammar check. He posed this question to me rather tongue in cheek ‘why conserve at all?’ The thing is, I didn’t have an answer for him. Instead I talked circles around the question and never actually addressed it (as if I was a pro politician). As someone who has spent the better part of seven years studying science, specially environmental science, the answer to that question is abstract concept. Is one of those things I never gave a second thought to, because of how innate the subject is to me. I accept that conservation is important, just like I accept I should eat food every day or that I should live on the internet (even if I shouldn’t).

When we talk about conservation (on this webpage anyway) we’re talking about environmental conservation (Not to disrespect Newton or the law of conservation of energy). I tend to view this kind of conservation as a science. More of a ‘what you do’ rather than a ‘why you do it’ thing. Environmental conservation is also an ethical discipline. It’s the idea that we must protect the environment, because the environment can’t protect itself. This is not a new idea but it’s an important one. For some its the root between the conflicts of activists and government or business. In many cases its a fight between ‘ownership’ and ‘stewardship’.

If you the sort like me who has taken any kind of conservation, policy, or ethics class you will definitely discuss the works of those who have come before us. Names like Aldo Leopold, Henry David, Thoreau, Rachel Carson…and there are too many names for me to be able to even begin to list. From time to time I might bring up specific examples from one or more individuals.

What does that fight between ‘ownership’ and ‘stewardship’ really entail? Ownership is a strong idea in this country, and it seems like a pretty straight forward concept. Many people in this country (The US) own their own house and the land the house sits upon. Whether that be a small suburban plot or farmland the owners typically have free reign to do what they want with what they own. That seems like a very straight forward idea. Property owners can install many sorts of fences, security systems, and other deterrences to keep unwanted guests out. Against the human population these things work. Maybe they even work on the pesky neighborhood cats. They don’t work on most organisms though. What a property owner does on his property can be harmful to nature. Someone who owns wetlands may wish to fill them in. Wetlands (Wetlands Description) tend to have value beyond the surface level thinking of ‘it’s just wet ground’.

Wetlands are a good example to illustrate conservation principles. The first principle of conservation is realizing that everything is connected. Our political boundaries of country boarders, state lines, county districts, and property lines are meaningless in the grand scheme of the ecosystem. Below is a map of the Everglades in Florida (courtesy of the Everglades Foundation)1. Notice how the Everglades are not contained within any political lines. Major roads go through it, and many counties in South Florida reside within it.

Florida Everglades Map 8.5x11

Which begs the question, what the heck do we do with this? Do we leave it up to individual property owners to decide what they do with the piece of Everglades they may own? What if one property owner decides he is going to dump gallons and gallons of oil into the stream in his backyard? He’d be doing it on his property, so he’d be within his rights to do so right?

Luckily these questions at least have been answered. Generally thanks to a few environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, you cannot dump pollution into water even if it is on your property. Since surface waters (as opposed to ground water) are generally not constrained by any sort of artificial legal lines, no one person or entity could ever have control over them. I live in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed…along with many people in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia. That’s millions of people who affect and rely on the same body of water. I don’t have a lot in common with Joe Miller of Harrisburg, but we do live in the same watershed!

Connectivity becomes another important idea behind conservation. Everything is connected. If you look outside your window, you’ll see an ecosystem. Depending on exactly where you live determines the type of ecosystem you see. That ecosystem is connected to another one, which is connected to another one, and so on and so forth. Conservation is about realizing that nothing is on an island, and that the natural world is everywhere. Because of that it is worthy of our protection.

When I’m asked why do I care about conservation…I don’t have a short answer. I think the natural world has value. Economic value sure, but it also has intrinsic value. I think the natural world deserves protection and needs people to speak for it. It doesn’t have a voice, and that’s why I choose to lend mine. Environmental conservation is important because the environment is responsible for everything that we are, as a species, have become today. From the air we breathe to the water we drink to the food we eat those things have value. But so do the things we share the environment with. Birds, animals, plants, even bugs (yuck) deserve to have a clean and functioning environment to live in. That’s why it’s important that the U.S. sets aside government land for conservation. That States and other local governments protect the natural habitats important to them. Going outside (even if I do so infrequently) is a privilege everyone should get to enjoy.

You can follow me on Twitter @ChrisatGnG

1 – Everglades Foundation

2 – Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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