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Remembering history (Comment to Tim Murray and Tom Butler)

It is worthwhile to recall history as we ponder Tim Murray’s proposition that we direct our “energy into stopping economic growth” rather than saving “the environment piecemeal” through conservation efforts. It’s enlightening to go back to Thomas Jefferson just to gain some perspective on what happened when the market economy was fertilized with the industrial revolution. Thomas Jefferson, writing in preindustrial America, thought one of the attributes of our nation that would enable us to “become happy and prosperous people” was the fact that we possessed “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation.” Do the math, because it gives you some perspective on Jefferson’s world. Apparently Jefferson thought we had a big enough unsettled country for agricultural expansion to take place for 20,000 years. Clearly, Jefferson didn’t anticipate what was coming. The pace and reach of economic expansion were beyond anything he could have imagined as he looked westward from Monticello at the turn of the 19th century. Yet little more than a century after Jefferson wrote these words the country had become an industrial giant and most of the land had been given over to private ownership.

It was this pace of economic expansion coupled with a mostly wild country that gave rise to the conservation movement in the United States. It quickly became abundantly clear that in the wake of our great economic experiment, nothing would be sacred and there was much to lose. In the United States, the conservation movement literally grew out of the rapacious speed and reach of 19th and 20th century capitalism and in this sense was very organic. The preservation arm of the conservation movement became manifest in a wilderness ethos. The wilderness ethos spoke to something foreboding about our so- called economic progress, the fact that we clearly had the capacity to put an end to the magic and pulse of a mostly untrammeled country in no short order. The conservation movement, especially the preservation branch of that movement, helped us to think more critically about the meaning of progress and the place of humans on the earth. Preservation was a cultural response to the most egregious impulses of capitalism. It was a cultural meditation and institutional grappling with what a healthy human ecology should look like and when it was necessary to stop so-called economic progress for the sake of something more important. It led John Collier to comment:

The profit-motive finds no use in Wilderness; and Wilderness can perish utterly in its remote silences, without bringing the profit-seeking temple down in ruin on men’s heads. Wilderness therefore, as a symbol of all in the human aspiration and caring which holds itself out from the profit-pursuing imperative, can safely be crushed down. One after another of the absolutism of profit-pursuit has been somewhat tamed, somewhat restrained, during the century behind us. There remains Wilderness, as a fact and an aspiration: Wilderness, which by its very definition says to the money-profit motive: You shall not enter here.

We might ask ourselves whether we would have the same impulse to stop economic growth were it not for all the preservation and conservation that has heretofore taken place.

I don’t think there’s any question that the form the preservation movement has taken has been historically conditioned. Preservation has functioned on the basis of setting aside wild places and otherwise leaving the economic engine of capitalism in place. No one would disagree with the fact that we’ve reached a different historical moment where those involved in preservation and conservation need to be more vocal about ending an economic arrangement based on growth. In fact, the limits to this historically specific preservation strategy have been understood for quite some time. In the mid 20th century Aldo Leopold makes a “plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.” Clearly he understood the limitations of this approach. Yet it is one thing to acknowledge this and another to claim, as Murray does, that if our energy “to save the environment piecemeal had been put into lobbying for a steady state economy, development pressure everywhere would have ceased, and habitat would be safe everywhere.” Tom Butler is right, “there is no way to prove or disprove this opinion,” but I would offer that history tells us that preservation has made a remarkable difference, not only in the integrity of that which has been preserved, but also in extending a cultural ‘habit of thought’ and cultivating a wilderness ethos.

Tim Murray is correct in his sense that if we can’t stop the growth machine we are going to lose the war. But as Tom Butler points out, what we preserve can at least provide “the seedbed of recovery for wildness to begin the long dance of evolutionary flowering again after this dark episode of human-caused extinction.” And ending our efforts to preserve and conserve would be, as Butler also tells us, “an ethical breach with our fellow members of the biotic community.” We stand a much better chance of winning the war by our preservation and conservation efforts, by retaining something of the pulse of the wild places on earth. In the shadow of these places we continue to cultivate an awareness of limits and can at least measure the extent of our loss. In a world where the when-to- stop rule is vague, these are not insignificant contributions to changing our path.

I would also add that we seem to have made little headway in our economic discourse on the issue of ending growth. I doubt very seriously this has had anything to do with the time and energy spent on conservation and preservation. In fact, it’s likely that the efforts at preservation and conservation have had a more profound influence on our thinking about the limits to economic expansion than anything else has. Rather than target our frustration about the lack of movement on the no-growth front at the conservation movement, we might do better to analyze why so little progress has distilled from our no-growth rhetoric.

I have no doubt the historical moment has arrived where the preservation movement needs to speak out more explicitly about the problem of economic growth in an effort to save what is wild. But it is equally important that those who speak out against economic growth bring the loss of the wild and the need for a healthy human ecology to a central and pivotal focus in their discussions of scale. No-growth discussions about optimal scale don’t elaborate on how much of what is wild should remain wild, instead, these discussions deal in the vague world of costs and benefits and promoting development without growth. These discussions evaluate whether we’ve gone beyond an optimal scale when “the cost to all of us of displacing the Earth’s ecosystems begin to exceed the value of the extra wealth produced” or when the benefits of growth are overshadowed by the costs. Without greater clarity on the true meaning of development and optimal scale we no-growth advocates might succeed in orchestrating a perfectly domesticated steady-state world, where we are all half crazy for want of a diverse and magical external world to resonate with our genome and our psyche.

Lisi Krall is a professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland, a member of CASSE’s executive board, and the author of Proving Up: Domesticating Land in U.S. History.

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