Conservation, Preservation and the Noble Savage

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  We’ve all heard it.  How do we miss the mark?  By failing to be in relationship.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been reading a lot on conservation and preservation of the natural world.  I’ve read about the National Park system, started with the landmark Yellowstone National Park, and the varying levels of success this system has seen.  On the one hand, the model has been adopted around the world, prompting governments to set aside tracts of undeveloped, unexploited land for preservation in a natural state.  Considering the clearing of forests, the breaking up of ancient prairie, the draining of wetlands, and the piece-by-piece dismantling of entire mountains, the preservation of natural spaces, thanks to the national park programs, seems a great boon to us – a gift to today’s children who have received the pleasure of visiting unplundered earth.  But this system is not without complications.  With an exercise of power, there is always compromise.

National park systems have, by and large, included removal of the human element as a part of the natural system (Chatty and Colchester), and in the tradition of Cartesian dualism, we suddenly find ourselves both in and out, living a contradiction and straining to be and not be at the same time.  Of course, humans are nature.  We are from the Earth.  We rely on her systems and cannot hope to live without this connection.  Our bodies know this.  As I’ve been exploring in Spirit of the Land, our spirits know this as well.  But our minds – oh our ego-warped minds – separate us from nature, place us above her systems, place us in CONTROL of her systems, where we begin to exercise will – severing relationship in favour of domination.

So what is the danger in setting up protected spaces?  Well, there are 3.

  • First is the effect on the space.
  • Second is the effect on the people of the space.
  • Third is the effect on the philosophy of space in general.

We are from the Earth, and our removal, like the removal of any of the natural elements of an ecosystem, has a profound effect on an area.  The introduction to Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples mentions how periodic clearing of land in Africa would open up areas for larger game to graze, and how forest fires would provide needed nutrients to increase biodiversity.  Sometimes it is not our removal but our intervention that changes these natural systems.  I took an Anthropology class at the University of Alberta in the 90’s with Eric Higgs.  This was my first exposure to the notion of preservation being a problematic intervention in the natural world. Dr. Higgs put up two slides.  One was a valley bottom full of trees.  The other was the same valley bottom sparsely populated by trees and full of grassland.  Which one is from 1910 and which is from 5 years ago?  Fire suppression in the national parks had changed the landscape and grazing animals no longer had access to the spaces opened by natural fire.   Our absence and our protectionist presence is more complicated than it seems.

Second, we have national and international interests intervening in a local ecology and economy, such as in Miguel Montoya’s example in “Negotiating the Tropical Rainforest.”  These spaces become appropriated in service of ideals played out on stages far removed from the life that happens on the ground.  Values and image displaces direct engagement with the land and demonizes those who have lived within a subsistence relationship with a space.  Sometimes, as with Paul Nadasdy’s example of sheep hunting in the Arctic, this pushes individuals to use exploitative measures not typically employed in order to reap the benefits for the community rather than for the service of outsiders who wish to appropriate and manage the wealth.

Perhaps the greatest danger, however, lays in the mentality of those who live outside of these areas.  Who do you know who would dare to litter during their picturesque drive through the Icefields Parkway?  Would those same individuals balk at litter in their own concrete neighbourhood?  Would they ever see the concrete itself as an unnatural object?  When we set aside spaces as “nature” and separate them from the rest of the earth, we create a dual space.  One where nature is valued and exploitation is prohibited, and another where nature is taken for granted, or simply not even acknowledged, and exploitation is commonplace.  It is sometimes difficult to recognize that even in the middle of the concrete jungle, there is nature all around that deserves the same respect and appreciation as other spaces.

Finally, a brief comment on First Nations, #idlenomore and the natural world.  There is so much being said about the path forward in harmony with the Earth.  #idlenomore has brought hope and energy to those who have been looking for a mode to galvanize the environmental movement, and it’s tempting to simply herald First Nations globally as the model for right relationship with the land.  As my fellow student in Anthro 610 and Spirit of the land guest speaker Daniel Bogart-O-Brein state, it is First NationS – not a single nation, and we must be aware of the multiple perspectives on land use and relationship.  We cannot simply lump all indigenous groups into a single culture.  Nor can we romanticize these relationships as inherently conservationist, as argued by Eric Alden Smith and Mark Wishnie.

So, where does that leave us?  Well, I think it comes back to a Land Ethic.  We must feel love before we can act in right relationship.  This comes from having a relationship with the land where we live.  This is the sustaining kind of long-lasting relationship we wish to have with those who are most important to us.  The kind that allows us to see each other with messy hair and morning breath.  We cannot rely on others to create that relationship for us – be that permission from government or First Nations groups.  We should not (and cannot) wait for popular media to galvanize us into an eco-fad.  If we are to create right relationship we must do it individually, mindfully, and continually.  Like any great relationship, it takes time and concerted effort.

Works mentioned (I must apologize for citation formatting, but I just wanted to finally get this post out there!)

Chatty, Dawn and Colchester, Marcus. Eds. Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement, and Sustainable Development. Berghahn: UK. 2008. (Miguel Montoya’s paper is the second chapter of this book).

Smith, Eric Alden and Wishnie, Mark. “Conservation and Subsistence in Small-Scale Societies.” Annual Rev. Anthropol. 29:493-524. 2000.

Nadasdy, Paul. “The Anti-Politics of TEK: The Institutionalization of Co-Management Discourse and practis.” Anthropologica. 47:2, 215-232. 2005.

Higgs, Eric, et. al. Culture, Ecology and Restoration in Jasper National Park. U of A Press: Edmonton. 1999.

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One Response to “Conservation, Preservation and the Noble Savage”

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