Climate Conscious
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Climate Conscious

Rocky Mountain National Park, near Nymph Lake. Photo by Christian Yonkers

The Problems With Conservation: Scenic Clickbait, External Costs, and Community

The problems with conservation

There’s inherent danger relegating love of nature only to scenic places. As renowned naturalist and author Wendell Berry expounds in “Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community,”

  • The ownership of lands and resources by people who don’t live there.
  • Land and resource use is motivated by profit rather than the health of natural and human communities.
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Consumerism and conservation are dependent on “out of sight, out of mind.”

American consumerism is rooted in the violent extraction of natural resources, culture, and human labor. The ways and means of extractive consumerism must remain as far from the consumer as possible, otherwise risking the upheaval of a populace finding the real cost of production untenable.

Conservation as a tragedy of the commons: public vs. personal solutions

In our current system, external costs are usually not passed down to the consumer at the store. The public eventually pays for them by way of healthcare costs, farm subsidies, and the tragedy of the commons. Likewise, we don’t “pay” to conserve our iconic landmarks directly. But we do pay in the form of taxes, entrance fees, and occasional donations to our favorite environmental charities. The necessary cost of effective conservation is disproportionately redirected to these external, publicly diffused solutions which nearly eliminate personal responsibility.

  1. Practical connection: The person derives direct and traceable benefit from her/his community, including but not limited to local production of food, shelter, materials, transportation, clothing, energy, etc.
  2. Aesthetic connection: Attachment drawn from the visual appeal of surroundings, including natural and artificial landscapes.
  3. Spiritual/moral connection: This whopper includes everything that binds a person to a place apart from the practical and aesthetic (though it can, and often does, draw from them). This can include (not at all exhaustively): Faith/religion, familial ties, tradition/heritage, promises, bequests, etc.

A note on public lands

The National Park system exists solely on compartmentalization: “This place is suitable for exploitation and profits; you can recreate over there.” But that mindset fails to recognize the immeasurable value of belonging to the locale by which we draw inspiration. We work, exploit, and pinch pennies with eager hopes to visit the Grand Canyon next year, see the glaciers before they melt, or buy a retirement home with a life of cloistered, protected scenery. I know when I advocate for or donate to conservation projects, the act is tainted with pessimistic defeatism. As my dollars and efforts are whisked away to help save the Amazon or protect the Tongas National Forest, they’re accompanied by the winds of a faint, disheartened whisper: “Quick! Stay beautiful. Don’t become like the place the rest of us live.”

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What do sustainable communities look like?

Conservation will reach its fullest potential when we value the dynamic health of both the “scenic” and the “unscenic.” The key will be to redeem public diffusion of responsibility back to where it can genuinely make a difference: Responsibility for the communities in which we live, and their means of production and consumption.

  • We must build a strong sense of place by building lovable, livable communities.
  • We must reduce externality costs of production and invest those savings into community and public conservation projects.
  • We must produce as much as we can in our communities through meaningful, space-based work, and strip away the hidden externalities of production and incorporate them locally so the community can see it for what it is.
  • Communities need the power and efficacy to change their production and conservation systems when production costs become too high, thus spurring grassroots sustainability owned by the community.



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Christian Wayne Yonkers

A Michigan-based journalist and photographer creating content for environmental and social change.