Environmentalism vs. Conservationism

Modern environmentalism, like early twentieth-century conservationism, is a movement of the educated, urban, predominately white, middle-class. It shares important aspects of its philosophy with conservationism. Gender and race historians have pointed to the years following the Second World War as dramatically changing how woman, men, black, white, brown, etc were conceived by society, yet environmental historians seem hesitant to make similar assertions about environmentalism. Instead they look backwards to make the movement seem older, when it is just as innovative as second-wave feminism was to the suffrage movement. The nature of environmental concern that takes shape in the 1960s and develops through to the present is about so much more than the anti-modern idealization of wilderness that drove the conservation movement. It is a reaction to the slow realization that nature is not confined to those wild spaces conservationists fought to protect. Nature exists in cities, on the farm, in the grocery store, in the wild, in the mine, and on the fishing boat. It is in our homes, our food, our clothing. Nature is inescapable – even in the city – and the effects of abuse of the environment outside the city can be felt within the concrete and glass of the downtown core and the carefully manicured lawns of suburbia. Society was starting to realize this in the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would not have made the impact it did if this were not the case.
The other important distinction between conservationism and modern environmentalism is the place of sciences in the debate. Sciences shape environmental activism and advocacy but are also questioned in a way it had not been previously. The scientific literacy of western societies as only increased since 1945 giving the demographic that dominates the environmental movement (educated, urban, middle-class) a base level of understanding that allows them to participate in scientific debate. This works for and against environmentalism, but the place of science as a fluid part of an evolving debate rather than an unquestioned authority is another important diversion from the conservationist approach.
Modern environmentalism is the creation of a specific historic moment and the sooner we embrace this and stop trying to make it seem older the sooner the field can move on to questions of what the post-modern and post-post-modern (alter-modern maybe) periods contribute to our understanding and interaction with the various environments humans create. As I continue to read and research and think these ideas will become more refined – and better articulated. For the moment I am simply trying to figure out how to define modern environmentalism and this represents the first attempt.


About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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