Traditionalist or Modernist?

There has been another upswell of a theoretical critique of environmentalism that I find both fascinating and frustrating. The relatively new eco-pragmatist / modernist critics say, “conservation is losing the war to protect nature despite winning one of its hardest fought battles — the fight to create parks, game preserves, and wilderness areas.” Instead of preserving the increasingly rare pristine landscapes, the pragmatists say we need to work with what’s left — working with development, not against it, focusing on sustainability in a changing world. The pragmatists promote a sort of glorified global gardening as a better way forward.

As someone who has been involved with the environmental movement in several states, covering a wide range of environmental issues, usually in close proximity to genuine grassroots, I’d generally concur with critics of the critique, captured by a twitter post characterizing the pro-pragmatist position as “all wooly thinking, strawman arguments, gross simplifications.” Indeed, to broadly characterize such a large and diverse “traditionalist” movement as strictly preservation-based, seems to neglect to acknowledge a number of different strains of traditional environmentalism. Moreover, to call preservation-based approaches ineffective, the pragmatist-theorists diminish what has indeed been preserved.

Nevertheless,  I’d also agree that in some instances, a more pragmatic approach could be worthwhile.  As I start a new position in a new organization, I expect the tension between traditional and modernist approaches will be in the forefront of my work. Coastal conservation in a time of climate change and rising sea levels, must necessarily be a mix of preservation, mitigation, restoration, and adaptation.  Hardening a coastline against future storm surges, for example, may actually be most efficiently accomplished through softer preservation of wetlands, dunes, and buffers.  Traditional environmental approaches may actually be the most pragmatic. On the other hand, coastal conservation needs to be especially pragmatic as coastlines are redrawn while climate change goes essentially unaddressed.

Having been on the job for only a day or two, I’ve obviously got a lot to learn. But I expect that I’ll have a lot more to say about all of this in the coming months.