The Birth of Conservation

You know of all the great things that America has stood for and all of the great ideas that America has brought to the world and continues to bring to the world, I think we sometimes forget that conservation itself, this whole notion that we could live within the bounds of nature and still have economic progress, that this was also an idea born here in America.

It is also my view that ultimately the world will come to understand that of all the great ideas that this country has been responsible, all the great innovation, that this notion of conservation will stand as the greatest of all, because ultimately the future all this country, the future of all nations, and the future of all peoples depends on whether we are successful in conserving the natural world. We spent 99.99% of our existence as human beings as hunters and gatherers - this is a historic fact. And you know about 10,000 years ago we invented something that we call agriculture. And from that time on, from 10,000 years ago essentially, in the Fertile Crescent where we first began this experiment with growing food so we didn't have to pursue it. Since that time are right up until the latter part of the 19th century, the whole idea was that progress in civilization was based on how far we could distance ourselves from the natural world. How we could distance our dependence on the natural world and make us essentially the masters of our own destiny by no longer having to deal with the elements, by no longer having to go out and bring food back, but to actually grow it, produce it and create these great city-states and cultures and so on and so forth. And then suddenly it dawned on some people in a nation and then began to spread out around the world the idea that if we kept on in the way we were constantly taking the resources of the earth on to ourselves with no thought about their sustainability, with no thought about future generations, that ultimately we would destroy the very foundations of the natural world upon which we ultimately depended. So at a time when here in the United States of America, massive economic forces were driving this young nation to attempt to be calm more, more financially secure, more independent, more wealthy, et cetera, there arose this counter-culture this counter-movement led by giants of American history such as Theodore Roosevelt to say, "no" There has to be a different way.

The elimination, the destruction virtually of the bison, the vast herds have this incredible animal, in such a short period of time helped solidify this notion that a different attitude toward the natural world was necessary and that real progress was not about separating ourselves from the natural world, of making ourselves completely independent of the natural world, but finding a way to live within it and still to prosper. This notion of conservation, which Roosevelt and others termed the "wise use of natural resources", ultimately, you know, almost a hundred years later is now termed things like "sustainable use" or "sustainable development" but the ultimate idea was the same; to wisely use the resources of the natural world. Now in modern times, any nation that wishes to be viewed as progressive has this kind of ethos, this kind of idea as part of its constitution, or as part of its working policies, or part of its laws. But that idea, that idea was born here. The first national parks, the first refuges, the whole notion that sustainable use a wildlife through hunting and angling and other kinds of exercise is a tradition could in fact be the very vehicle by which we would maintain natural resources. To harvest timber in a sustainable way, to make sure that we could harvest fish in a sustainable way, all these notions there now so much taken for granted in modern time these were all born here and born at a time, interestingly enough, when massive economic forces, much like today, in energy for example and so on are pushing up against the very limits of the natural world in a way that must concern us all. I think this birth, this notion of conservation was really what I would term the last act of American genius. America has given much to the world many, many small ideas, but some of the great huge ideas in the world: individual liberty, democracy, freedom of speech, the unleashing of the individual's potential to prosper and grow and do things, to create for themselves, these are all American ideals, but this notion that we would turn a ten thousand year approach to the natural world completely over and define essentially a new means of progress, a new means of civilization, this relationship between humanity and the natural world, I think this was truly, truly an act of genius.