Only the human species could mourn another creature’s extinction or work to protect earth’s ecosystems. It is our unique contribution to conservation. The conservation of energy and matter for the sake of survival are common behaviors throughout the plant and animal kingdoms, but not the conservation of otherness, of wholeness and balance, of endangered communities of life. Those require the evolution of what we might call the higher altruism, an intentional selflessness that may have an element of self-interest but expands to find moral purpose in the act of preservation. Aldo Leopold called it a “land ethic,” but we can also call it a more thoughtful and ambitious preservation of diversity, ecological integrity, and wildness on the planet.
America reached a high point of ecological altruism in 1964 with the passage of the Wilderness Act. Like most moral visions, this one was layered over with vestigial language from the past: wilderness as a “resource,” wilderness as a place to “use and enjoy,” wilderness as an opportunity for “solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Those well-worn justifications were the result of more than sixty revisions needed to gain the approval of two houses of Congress, as well as various conservationist groups, who often were still thinking in anthropocentric and utilitarian terms. But unmistakably the act changed the focus of conservation, away from human needs and material demands to the needs of the other than human world.
|Signs in Kalmiopsis Wilderness (Rene Casteran, wilderness.net,|
reproduced on front cover of Environmental History)
The moral cause of preservation remained politically strong until the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who led a backlash that tried to brand preservation as a kind of selfishness that would prevent the majority of Americans from improving their standard of living. True, Reagan signed bills adding nearly 11 million acres of protected wilderness. At the same time, however, he appointed to office people who worked relentlessly to open all public lands to oil, gas, and coal development, to tree cutting, mineral extraction, road building, and motorized recreation, who were determined to block the change in moral perspective that wild lands preservation signified. The subsequent rise of neoconservatism in American society has tended to accept conservation for narrow economic purposes while rejecting conservation for more altruistic ends. The Reagan legacy has often forced preservationists to reemphasize more human-centered goals (e.g., wilderness protection for its tourist potential) and to pursue their more radical goals on private instead of public lands.
More surprisingly, the moral vision of the preservation movement, its commitment to saving and freeing the earth’s community of life, has recently come under fire by critics on the left, who make strange bedfellows with the neoconservatives. Preservationists, we are now told by a growing number in the “save the humans” party, lack a sense of social justice. They want to protect nature from exploitation not only by capitalist ranchers, oil companies, and real estate developers but also by those who are relatively weaker in terms of power or money, whether they are American Indians or peasant farmers in Africa. Anyone who pursues a preservationist vision stands accused of indifference toward the economic needs of the world’s poor. Protecting wilderness and wildlife has become, by this reasoning, an act of aggression against vulnerable people who want and need to exploit the oil, wood, or game that nature offers. To exclude people from any part of the natural world, it is argued, is to deny those people’s rights and to collude in their mistreatment.
Evolutionary biologists have a lot to say about how and why altruism has appeared among humans and other species. They talk about its evolution in purely instinctual terms—a mother giving her life for her child, a single ant dying for the good of its colony. The higher altruism, in contrast, is less clearly instinctual genetic development; it seems more clearly a cultural invention, requiring conscious intention based on a growing knowledge of conditions on earth. But like older, more biological forms of altruism, it requires the sacrifice of self- or group-interest for the good of some greater unit. When we preserve a mountain forest, a lake or ocean, a grassland or wetland, we impose costs on ourselves and on the human community. When a nation acts in this way, as Americans did in 1964, those costs are, or should be, distributed to all citizens. When the international community agrees on preservationist goals, it imposes costs that should be shared across national borders. Who should pay them? Probably no preservationist would argue that those costs should be paid by the poorest and weakest, but rather by those who can most easily bear them—rich people and rich nations.
A careful calculation and distribution of costs across the social ranks and geographic borders of humanity has not always been practiced in the past, whether for the preservation of wildlife, parks, or wilderness. Sometimes only a few have borne the costs by sacrificing their basic livelihood. That is not right. Yet it must also be said that it is not always easy to decide how compensation should be calculated. Have the Blackfeet of Montana, for example, been unfairly compensated over the past century for their loss of lands incorporated into Glacier National Park? Have villagers in India been unfairly compensated for yielding their land claims to save the tiger? Have farmers everywhere been unfairly saddled with the costs of preserving habitat for migrating birds? Have mining companies been poorly compensated for giving up legitimate claims to minerals in order to save an endangered ecosystem? These are not easy matters to determine. Unless we do so, the cause of preservation will be resisted. Perhaps we need to establish a better, fairer way to make such determinations—say, an international court charged with distributing fairly the costs of preserving the world’s wild places and threatened habitats.
Such a court would have a lot to do, for there is still, even on this rapidly shrinking planet, plenty of nature’s autonomy left to preserve. Most of the untrammeled lands and waters lie in the higher latitudes and elevations, in Antarctica or Greenland or Central Asia, and protecting such places would do relatively little toward protecting the world’s community of life. It is in the tropics and temperate zones where wild areas become more and more scarce each year and where preservation is especially needed. The challenge of preserving wildness in any of those places, whether life is scarce or abundant there, and fairly distributing the costs among humans would keep an international court busy for at least another century.