What Is An Environmentalist? What Is A Conservationist?

March 19th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” –Albert Einstein

Foliage Illuminated, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California, 2009 by David Leland Hyde. Camera Raw. Photoshop used only for resizing. Nikon D90, hand held.

Without letting our minds complicate or judge these words, here’s a simple definition: an environmentalist is anyone who likes to breathe, drinks water and does not want either one polluted. A Conservationist cares about maintaining the quality of wilderness, the same way everyone else cares about the quality of air and water.

The two words are sometimes used interchangeably, though conservation was the earlier version of environmentalism, with particular emphasis on land preservation. Conservation, as practiced by Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, transformed into modern environmentalism, between 1955 and 1975, when political lobbying, advertising, letter writing, grass roots organizing, book publishing and other modern methods evolved, and when activism broadened from wilderness protection into other issues such as, you guessed it, water and air pollution. Lest you doubt that the meanings are truly this simple, check a good dictionary.

Besides the obvious and logically strong argument that if we don’t protect wilderness, it will continue to disappear, why is it wise for an outdoor enthusiast, landscape photographer or anyone to care about the natural places he or she enjoys? Is there a deeper reason than just wanting to look at beautiful scenes? In future blog posts I will quote Wallace Stegner, Ansel Adams, Philip Hyde, Katie Lee, Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Anne Dillard, John Muir, David Brower, Aldo Leopold, Howard Zahniser and others on why wilderness is important. These people have some ideas. For more on Henry David Thoreau see the blog post, “Ralph Waldo Emerson On Henry David Thoreau.” For more on Edward Abbey read the blog post, “Who Was Edward Abbey?

In the meantime, let us grapple with the idea of ‘environmentalism’ and the ‘environment.’ Is it wise at this time in history, to care about the environment, particularly if you consider yourself an outdoors person, naturalist, nature photographer, or as Ansel Adams called himself and his colleagues, “a photographer of the natural scene”?

If the world is going to end anyway eventually, what does it matter if we keep it from ending sooner? If mankind’s time on this green globe is only one very small fraction of an instant compared to how long the rest of it has been around, and is likely to continue, who are we to think we can destroy or save the natural world? Why not forget about environmentalism and use everything up and trash the planet? After all, isn’t the Gross Domestic Product or GDP more important? Making a profit is what counts, right? If GDP grows a few percent, that is good for everybody, if it drops a few percent, we are all in big trouble, right?

We could also remember that at some time in our childhood, our mothers taught us to pick up after ourselves, share with others, not hoard all the toys, if you spill something, clean it up or ask mom to help you clean it up, do not just leave it, pack back inside everything you take out, and let everyone have a turn. If we just applied sandbox etiquette to the world, we might get along better and live longer.

Was the concept of the environment, as separate from Mankind and the man-made world, the idea of environmentalists? If you are an environmentalist, does it follow that you care about the ‘environment’ and not about people? Those damn environmentalists! They are the cause of our society’s woes, particularly the woes of capitalists just trying to make a living. Are environmentalists against capitalism? Heck, when you get right down to it, are environmentalists un-American? Are environmentalists terrorists? What is an “eco-terrorist”? Is he or she an ecologist-turned-bad?

I thought the term terrorist referred to someone who kills people. Do “eco-terrorists” kill people? Or do they just cause inconvenience for resource-exploiting and habitat-destroying industry? By the way, is the habitat being destroyed only that of small endangered species, or is it yours and mine?

Let’s see, Webster’s says, “Terrorism: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coersion.” OK, then what is terror? Webster’s tells us it is,”To frighten. To cause anxiety or worry.” Under these definitions, the news media are terrorists, as are doctors, nurses, especially hospitals, ads for drugs, commercials, law enforcement, a few but certainly not all museum curators, stock brokers, bankers, credit card companies, insurance companies, airport personnel, lawyers, how could I forget lawyers, power-hungry-instant politicians who support big polluters and other big business, librarians, archivists, sometimes relatives and sometimes even neighbors. The world is full of terrorists and there is a lot to be afraid of…? Are environmentalists the worst of all? That’s what some would have you think. Are they really?

Now let’s check Webster’s again, “Eco-terrorist: sabotage intended to hinder activities that are considered damaging to the environment.” Sign me up. How do I join? OK, wait, what is the definition of ‘environment,’ “Environment: the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded. The complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival.”

OK, so let me get this straight, an eco-terrorist is not interested in hurting other people, he or she is more interested in making sure that other people are not hurtful. An Eco-terrorist sabotages activities that damage the factors that determine his or her survival. I can live with that. Fair enough. And an environmentalist works on the positive side of it, an environmentalist is interested in preserving the factors that determine his or her survival. Just wanted to clear up these various meanings, so people didn’t throw around terms that they think are insulting, but are truly complimentary.

What do you think? Are you an environmentalist? If not, why?

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