Conservation and industrialization in the 21st century

Tom Bonan, Opinions Editor

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The idea of conservation is nothing new; former President Theodore Roosevelt began to designate national parks and forests over 100 years ago, and many of his ideas and goals precede him by decades. A common theme throughout this early conservation movement was the idea of preserving areas that were uniquely American: large cliff faces in northern California, high alpine valleys and mountains of the western slope of Colorado, and trees that predated the Roman and Egyptian empires by millennia.

From the 1990s to the present day, large areas of land along the southern tip of Argentina and Chile–an area of remote wilderness known as Patagonia–were being bought up by a wealthy American businessman named Douglas Tompkins, best known as the founder of the outdoor companies Esprit and The North Face. His mission was simple: to protect the wilderness of southern South America, arguably one of the greatest and most vulnerable wilderness areas in the world.

Tompkins’ recent forays into the region have yielded significant amounts of land. He now owns an area approximately equivalent to the size of two Rhode Islands and plans on turning them into national parks by allowing the governments of Argentina and Chile to maintain and control them in the coming years.

Given his recent actions, Tompkins has received strong criticism from locals, including many gauchos who have worked the vast grasslands of Argentina for centuries. Many don’t have a strong sense for what he is hoping to accomplish, and some believe he is syphoning off the last great freshwater source for millionaires back in the United States or that he is hoping to create a second homeland for Jews in South America.

The heart of the issue is conservation. For almost all of human history, the environment was a place to be tamed and conquered, if not feared and avoided. Man thought he was put on Earth to settle the West and exploit its resources for the greater benefit of America. Transcendental writers in America like Aldo Leopold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, along with many romantics who idealized nature, saw its destruction as part of the larger destruction of the roots of mankind and the severing of a tie with our primal and psychological well-being. Within a few decades, the idea of conserving land and protecting wilderness areas as one would protect one’s individual identity entered mainstream political discourse, and became one of the lasting accomplishments of the 20th century.

Despite this effort, the United States still ravaged the environment throughout the continent. The entire history of the modern environmental movement has been defined by the utilitarian need for natural resources and human development versus the desire to preserve finite areas of untouched wilderness. Conservation, then, seems like a uniquely post-industrial construct. Our country was given free reign on what was ethically permissible and sustainably practical. Policy in the United States is notoriously reactive, and it wasn’t until well after several significant environmental disasters that conservation became an element of our domestic agenda.

The attempt to impose a similar movement in Patagonia is not taking hold because it isn’t naturally rising. By the end of the 19th century, it was clear that our hold on the environment wasn’t as sustainable as most thought, and it was only after the hindsight that industrialization brought us when writers like Thoreau and John Muir came to have the influence they did. Argentina and Chile have experienced radically different circumstances, and do not see protection of land as a significant issue.

Progress has been synonymous with some sort of economic development and growth. Tompkins’ plans in Patagonia provide a different context for progress–one afforded to us through the reflection of the harm done on the global environment with increasing amounts of people, consumerism, and industry. His view of progress presents us with a glimpse into a sustainable world where both human and non-human organisms thrive and can mutually benefit one another.

The issues brought forth in Patagonia are only a small subset of a much broader question: what does it mean to industrialize in a post-industrial era? China, Argentina, and Brazil are all following the path of the United States, Germany, Japan, and others, but the strain on global resources has made it painfully clear that their trajectories will have to change in the near future. The 19th and 20th centuries’ idea of pure economic progress is no longer feasible, yet takes hold in a business-as-usual mentality in developing countries.

This is a pretty far abstraction for people in developing countries living off of a few dollars a day without access to drinking water and basic medical supplies. One of the core tenants of post-industrial man is finding our place in the world, including within the environment. What is lost, however, is where everyone else fits in.

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