Taking the conservation movement to task

by Michelle Nijhuis

Tired of discussing the alleged death of environmentalism? Fear not: Why Conservation is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground is no dirge, but a complex and cogent analysis of the American environmental movement.

University of Illinois law professor Eric Freyfogle claims that “The conservation cause … is stymied less because of its disciplined opponents than because it lacks good overall direction.” In a series of linked essays, Freyfogle takes a critical look at the movement’s intellectual and ethical underpinnings.

Too often, he says, environmental activists forsake the potential moral power of their cause, instead favoring strategies that mislead or alienate possible allies. Freyfogle bemoans the focus on what he calls “tract-by-tract” conservation, for instance, because of its implication that responsible caretaking of private land is an optional activity deserving compensation. Equally problematic, he says, is a purist mindset that ignores or discredits human uses of land, casting people in immovable opposition to nature.

For Freyfogle, the beginnings of a more effective approach lie with conservationist Aldo Leopold. He argues that Leopold’s view of nature as a biotic community, one that includes both humans and their private lands, could inform a new goal of “land health.” A well-articulated conservation mission, Freyfogle says, could “encourage Americans to do what we have done so well in the past: to serve as a model for the rest of the world, a model not of extravagant living … but of justice and morality.”

Not all will agree with Freyfogle’s critique, or his conclusions, but his appeal for greater clarity is convincing, and his analysis is provocative. His culminating speech on conservation — devised for a theoretical American leader — is music for sore ears, and his bibliographic essay is a syllabus for environmental citizenship.

 

Why Conservation is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground
Eric T. Freyfogle
320 pages,
hardcover: $35.
Yale University Press, 2006.

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