Reconstructing Conservation: Finding Common Ground. Ben A. Minteer and Robert E. Manning, eds. Island Press, Washington, DC, 2003. 417 pp. $27.50 (ISBN 1559633557 paper).
Most biologists are little aware of the rejuvenating but often acrimonious debates waged among academics from the fields of environmental history and philosophy. Those debates are central to Reconstructing Conservation: Finding Common Ground, a beautifully written book that attempts to build bridges between the scholarly practitioner and the conservation community. As a conservation and population biologist, I am perhaps just outside the intended audience for the volume, which I judge to be environmental philosophers and historians. Nevertheless, it is evident that the editors, Ben Minteer and Robert Manning (assistant research professor at Arizona State University and professor of natural resources at the University of Vermont, respectively), have brought together rigorous scholarship from some of the most influential writers in those fields.
Minteer and Manning argue that a book edited by William Cronon and published by W. W. Norton in 1996 (Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature) debunked the idea of an “American wilderness” and raised fundamental questions about the roots and future direction of the conservation movement. Reconstructing Conservation is an attempt to sift through the rubble left after Cronon (and many others) collapsed long-cherished utopian ideals. The book examines the bad, the outdated, and even some of the useful conservation ideas that existed before the “deconstruction.” More important, it points the way toward the “reconstruction” of conservation.
The past decade has witnessed a sea change in the way conservation biologists go about trying to save Earth's biodiversity. One of the most significant trends is the greater consideration now given to human needs and local culture in conservation planning. The principal theme of Reconstructing Conservation will therefore not be new to anyone involved in international or even national conservation efforts: For long-term conservation initiatives to succeed, the human dimension must be considered and humans must be recognized as a part of nature, rather than separate from it. The book shines most in its discussion of how negotiating the coexistence of Homo sapiens and wild nature is fostered by democratic discussion, by an increased sense of community, by recognition of the importance of social justice, and by a willingness to sever the link between conservation issues and political ideology.
The emphasis on community is especially strong. Several chapters could be summarized as follows: If you encourage people to decide what conservation goals they want to achieve in their communities, they become more significant as stakeholders and so are more likely to facilitate the achievement of those goals. The conservation effort, in turn, builds a stronger sense of community by bringing people together in the decisionmaking process. The constructive feedback between conservation ideals and social networks is a recurrent theme of the book.
Reconstructing Conservation also furthers thought on a wider set of conservation themes by providing insights into the relationship between nature and culture. It offers novel views of some well-known conservation figures (such as Aldo Leopold) as well as some not-so-well-known figures (such as Scott Nearing). The book also offers worthwhile observations on the nature of the rural-agrarian landscape. The last chapter, written by the editors, summarizes the major concepts of the previous chapters and synthesizes them into 12 general principles for “reconstructing conservation thought and practice.”
I would disagree with the authors' claim that conservation has undergone a recent and definitive “deconstruction.” I have heard biologists questioning aspects of the wilderness paradigm and calling for greater collaboration with social scientists ever since I began pursuing my PhD in 1993. From a biologist's point of view, any paradigm shift has been gradual, not sudden. In fact, as Stephen C. Trombulak notes in chapter 16, the designation of wilderness is still considered useful in many contexts. Yes, the consideration given to human culture and the economy in conservation efforts is now firmly established as indispensable, but I would say the change has been more of an evolution than a revolution. Old ideas have been discarded by something akin to natural selection as their utility declined with changing social conditions. The old ideas have been supplanted by more useful ones, and Reconstructing Conservation represents another step in the evolution of conservation thought.
I thought the strongest chapters were those by J. Baird Callicott (“The Implication of Shifting Paradigms in Ecology for Paradigm Shifts in the Philosophy of Conservation”), Curt Meine (“Conservation and the Progressive Movement: Growing from the Radical Center”), Ben A. Minteer (“Regional Planning as Pragmatic Conservationism: Refounding Environmental Philosophy”), Bryan Norton (“Conservation: Moral Crusade or Environmental Public Policy?”), and Stephen C. Trombulak (“An Integrative Model for Landscape-Scale Conservation in the Twenty-First Century”). I was, however, disappointed by the book's lack of discussion of international aspects of conservation, even though many of the ideas discussed cross cultural lines.
Most people want to protect Earth's ecosystems and biodiversity. Reconstructing Conservation succeeds because it suggests ways of accomplishing conservation objectives by tying them to other populist social agendas, such as promoting democracy, making the world a better place for future generations, and preserving indigenous culture. I have already found some of its ideas informing my classroom lectures. It represents a vital contribution to conservation scholarship.