Teddy Roosevelt

by · · Posted in: musings · wilderness

Jerry Bowyer goes up against the Earth First heathens in the name of Teddy Roosevelt in a piece published at tcsdaily.com as well as crosswalk. I bring this up because it highlights what passes for environmental discourse among many pundits. The formula is to describe some yahoos who don't have values, setup easy and often false dichotomies, and enlist an historical figure through the use of a quote to bring it home. The yahoos in this case are some Earth First supporters. They stomp while Bowyer and his wife walk. The ignore trees, while Bowyer is contemplative, they are noisy, he is quiet and so on. Of course all of this is irrelevant to the argument he is about to make.

The real argument argument begins with false dichotomies.

Earth First v. People First

Neither an earth first nor the people first policy will work in practice, nor makes sense in theory. Both are sound bites, but Bowyer wants to take them on and step up for 'people first.' Commonsense insists that without a healthy environment we can have no people. To argue this distinction from either side is an exercise in vanity. What does it mean to put people first? If a person or a group of people is inconvenienced by a policy designed to protect the environment, do we scrap the environmental policy in the name of people first? Even if it involves critically fragile land or species? What if the policy puts one person or a group of people out of work or costs money? At some point we inevitably need to consider the environmental impact of our actions and this will always present a cost or inconvenience to someone.

Preservation v. Conservation

From Bowyer's article :

Teddy was a conservationist, not a preservationist. Not surprisingly, this meant that he wanted to conserve natural resources, not preserve them.

He enlists Teddy Roosevelt's help here with a quote from the Roosevelt memorial,

Conservation means development as much as it does protection.

This is from the "New Nationalism" speech, Osawatomic, Kansas, August 31, 1910. [Full text]. The problem with using quotes as a form of argument is that they rarely express the nuance of a complicated situation. Of course if your goal is propaganda rather than honest discourse this is not a problem with quotes, it is their greatest asset. We could just as easily look to Roosevelt's 7th Annual Message to Congress and quote:

The only trouble with the movement for the preservation of our forests is that it has not gone nearly far enough, and was not begun soon enough.

Can we now claim the opposite of Bowyer's conclusion and say the Roosevelt was a preservationist. No, the truth is the preservation vs. conservation is again a false dichotomy and his argument is specious. Bowyer's logic seems to go like this: To conserve means to save the land for future use, hence to conserve is to use. So lets start conserving, i.e. using, i.e. consuming natural resources. All under the rubric of conservation! The philosophy and intention may be different, but conservation defined as saving resources for future generations is, in practical terms, the same as preservation, at least until that generation arrives for which we were conserving, at which point they will neither be conserving nor preserving by consuming the resources. Is that generation now? Have the generations since Teddy Roosevelt been conserving these resources for us? Bowyer also misrepresents preservation by comparing it to a museum where nothing changes. This is not true. David Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First, argues convincingly for wilderness as self-willed land—a land that does change but on its own terms and its own time scale. Wilderness is a place where we can watch nature and hone our knowledge and wisdom of the world. These are places where change happens constantly as it has for eons. Perhaps the slowly evolving drama of natural processes is something the Earth First supporters where noticing while they were not 'reading the quotes on the obelisks.'

Bowyer's larger point about Roosevelt, of course, is correct: he was pushing for the efficient use of resources and extraction of national wealth from public land, and his ideas about preservation are considerably different from ours today. But a lot has changed sine 1910. The population of this country has grown from 92 million to over 300 million. We have learned a tremendous amount about the holistic nature of the environment—how relatively small impacts have large and long-lasting consequences that are difficult to predict. While Roosevelt and Pinchot could in good conscience argue that the land is a giant, self-renewing, resource factory, we now possess more knowledge about how easily we impact the land, we now see the precipitous drop in the diversity of life, we now know that a replanted monoculture of trees is not a fair trade for an old growth forest. We have learned that while the 'wise-use' movement has merit, we perpetually overestimate our wisdom. We have a lot to thank Roosevelt for; he saw how quickly we were consuming the lands of the West, saw that unchecked, industry has an ravenous appetite for resources, and he acted quickly and persuasively. However, this cannot be taken as an argument to preserve a 100 year-old policy.

We should also consider that our definition of use has evolved. Mr. Bowyer describes his wife and kids as amateur naturalists who enjoy cataloguing plants and animals on the land adjoining his. Is this not a use of that land? There are many types of use. In the context of his article Mr. Bowyer means consumption when he writes use, but use should also mean recreation, a place for solitude, a natural filter for clean water and air, habitat to preserve the diversity of species—these are all uses, and are all beneficial to mankind. Even the preservation of wilderness is a use—a conscious use that many people feel is beneficial to mankind. To emphatically say that we must use the land without including all use is is to reveal a motive driven by profit or ideology. This is especially true when some uses, like his family's enjoyment of the land, leave the place more or less as they found it ready for someone else to enjoy, and others like mining and clear-cutting leave the land devastated and little use to anyone.

Maybe Teddy would agree:

That farmer is a poor creature who skins the land and leaves it worthless to his children.
—the "New Nationalism" speech