Professor’s Book Takes New Look at Conservation

After a long period of scrutiny through deconstruction – the relentless questioning of assumptions, values, language, discourses and power – Bob Manning, professor of natural resources, thought the conservation movement was in need of some reconstruction as a new century began.

His recently published book Reconstructing Conservation (Island Press), which he edited with Ben Minteer, a former UVM graduate student now at Arizona State University, is a collection of papers rethinking the theory and practice of conservation in the light of often harsh critiques.

“It’s been useful to ask ourselves fundamental questions and examine our underlying values, but haven’t we answered some of those questions now?” Manning says. “Isn’t it time to make a more positive statement about what conservation means as we move into this new century?”

The book’s 19 papers, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by the authors, grew out of a symposium that took place on campus and in Woodstock, and included academics as well as conservation practitioners. Many of the authors have UVM connections, as does the modern conservation movement itself – George Perkins Marsh, the 19th century lawyer and writer whose ideas are still important within the ecological conservation movement, left his library to the university.

Beyond that, Manning says, Vermont itself is rich in examples for scholars looking for healthy directions for the conservation movement to follow. The book’s key argument is that humans and nature need to coexist, and that negotiating that coexistence is a task ideally suited to democratic discussion, debate and decisions.

“People deciding on what constitutes conservation in their areas is good for the land, because when people decide on something together then they’ve really bought into it, but it’s good for people as well, because the process builds social capital by bringing people together,” Manning says.

These solutions will differ wildly from place to place, based on the particular circumstances and history of a given location, a diversity that Manning embraces. From nation to nation, conservation should incorporate a strong sense of social justice, recognition that the developed world should not dictate policy to its poorer neighbors. And, though the book is intended as an affirmative statement, the vision of conservation it presents incorporates skepticism – a questioning of traditional movement ideals like wilderness, a notion that is sometimes romantic, impractical and counterproductive today.

“Conservation needs to bring people and nature together, not set them apart. That’s one of the criticisms of wilderness, that the idea divides people from the land,” Manning says.

The book’s overriding tone, Manning says, is of hope. As he and his authors survey the landscape of conservation theory and practice, both here and worldwide, they find a lot to like – community land trusts, more inclusive theories, a thriving grassroots. And, while they take stock of the occasionally harsh criticism the movement has received, they find it is still sound in its fundamentals.

“Conservation doesn’t have to be, as so many issues are, a partisan political issue,” Manning says. “We hope that everybody can subscribe to this notion that it’s important to protect the ecological realities that underlie contemporary society. We depend on a healthy environment.”