Our society has a turbulent relationship with nature, to say the least. Human expansion has historically had extremely negative effects on the environment, at least here in the U.S., and we’ve been attempting to mitigate our own acts for decades. An important distinction in the fight for environmental protection, however, is one that many people are unfamiliar with — the difference between conservation and preservation.
The debate between these two alternatives is one of human intent. In the most basic explanation according to the Department of Agriculture, conservation intends to prevent humans from misusing environmental resources, while preservation seeks to stop us from using them in any way at all. National parks in this country are almost entirely subscribed to the idea of preservation, a system that has worked reasonably well so far, at least in the sense that places like Yellowstone National Park are relatively untouched, with very little development.
Conservation, on the other hand, seems almost underhanded in its ideal, at least at first glance. The popular concept of environmental protection in this country stems from our desire to prevent exploitation of the natural world by human organizations, so what benefits could we gain by only letting them exploit the natural world a little bit? The idea is, of course, far more nuanced than this. The U.S. Forest Service, founded in 1905, currently oversees 193 million acres of land marked for conservation purposes, allowing for sustainable usage of the land without preventing mass deforestation and ecological destruction. Either of these approaches can be more practical than the other, depending on the circumstances.
The heart of the issue we come to is that of public perception. Given the options, what should we as a society do with land not regulated by the federal government? How hard should we push back against environmental deregulation?
Something important to remember is that our civilization is not separate from nature. By building cities, we didn’t conquer nature, and we certainly didn’t remove it — we merely altered the form it took. We are already coexisting with the environment, and we always will be. With that in mind, there are objectively better ways to coexist: planting more trees means less carbon in the atmosphere, less pollution means better quality of life for living things, including us.
My purpose here is to contextualize environmental activism, especially here in a city. For all of us here in Philadelphia, preservation is essentially useless as a concept; The environment that was here three hundred years ago is long gone, and stopping anyone from building anything larger than a newsstand won’t bring it back. Conservation is the only tool we have. In more rural places, the government buying up swaths of land between communities and fencing it off would be just as useless. In advocating for the environment, one can’t be fixated on such a polar concept as preservation, especially in useless attempts to restore an ecosystem that has already been permanently affected by human habitation. The future of humanity will be greatly dependent on how we choose to integrate ourselves with the natural world.