The Curious History of Conservation

By Jon Christensen

Conservation has a curious and troubled relationship with history. One might think it straightforward. Conservation, after all, has conservative roots. It seeks to conserve.

What does it seek to conserve? Some version of the world bequeathed by history. But which history? Ah, there’s the rub.

Unfortunately, in practice, that’s about as far as the conversation between conservation and history usually goes. At that point conservationists throw up their hands and roll their eyes at such academic questions — because, on the ground, conservation tends to follow the Bob Dylan philosophy: Don’t Look Back.

Lately, however, there has been a spate of ambitious projects in historical ecology that have ignored this advice. The most advanced and exciting involve collaborations between ecologists and historians in the Census of Marine Life.

Inspired by the notion of “shifting base-lines” — the idea that the world we grow up in is the one we think is normal — the census has put together teams to try to reconstruct historical marine animal populations to get a sense of the world as it once was and might be again.

They’ve done wonderful work together, such as going through musty ships’ logs in New England to reconstruct cod landings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the problem with inviting historians to the table is that they want to “historicize” everything. That’s what they do. They put things, people, and ideas into historical context. That’s why they need to be involved in historical ecology.

But that’s also what has gotten them into trouble, according to Lance van Sittert, a South African historian, who was until recently the project leader for one of twelve teams working on the history of marine ecosystems worldwide.

In an essay in Environmental History, van Sittert says the project’s focus on quantification and building a database for an ecological model of large marine ecosystems turned historians into “data serfs” whose only job was verifying historical time series for the scientist “model lords.”

Now, you might think that this sounds just like whining on the part of a historian stuck doing scut work in the archives. But there is something much more important going on here.

Van Sittert has spent his career studying the history of fisheries in South Africa. And like other historians who have studied fisheries, he questions the models that ecologists are now building on the basis of the data that they seek the help of historians to document. Van Sittert says the “unquestioning acceptance” of the assumption that perfecting our ecological models will solve our problems is the Achilles’ heel of many such large-scale scientific management projects. As he points out, the current crisis in the world’s oceans has accelerated precisely during the period in which abstract models of nature have reigned supreme.

The problem is that conservation isn’t comfortable with critical questions about its own history. But until we are willing to face the history of failed grandiose schemes for scientific management of ecosystems and the resistance they face from communities and industries in fisheries as in other fields, we will continue to wonder in vain why our ever-more-powerful models don’t solve our conservation problems in the real world.

1. Van Sittert, L. 2005. The other seven tenths. Environmental History 10(1).

Jon Christensen is a research fellow in the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University.

The Uneasy Chair is named in honor of Bernard DeVoto, who, from 1935 to 1955 wrote “The Editor’s Easy Chair” column for Harper’s magazine-a perch from which he often sallied forth in defense of conservation. Wallace Stegner’s biography of DeVoto was more aptly titled The Uneasy Chair (Doubleday, 1974), from which this column takes its name and its challenge.

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