On Conservationism and Living Close to Nature

Motor News of 1966 was a decidedly conservationist publication.

The title page of a magazine I recently surveyed for my research includes a depiction of what might be a classic environmentalist fable. In it, a group of woodland creatures, including deer, squirrels and chipmunks, a rabbit, and a fox, look on in horror as a procession of logging equipment moves along a half-constructed road towards their forest. The caption for this title page, displayed on the inside front-cover of the magazine explains that: “Ever advancing man causes consternation to the forest folk whose board of directors seem vitally concerned with the inroads to their domain…”

Can you guess what magazine this is? Perhaps a 1970s-era environmental publication, such as Alternatives Journal? OMaybe a more generalist left-wing publication that decided to make an environmentally-themed cover? Or perhaps a children’s magazine, something like National Geographic World, trying to teach kids about the environment using *Fern Gully* style storytelling?

Nope. None of the above. The picture is from the May, 1966 issue of the Michigan edition of Motor News; a publication that the American Automobile Association sent to all their members. I was somewhat surprised to discover that during the 1960s, Motor News was a bona fide environmentalist magazine. In addition to its cover pages, which frequently featured wilderness imagery, the magazine published a monthly “Conservation Corner” column, which talked at length about the natural world in Michigan, and the things that threatened it.

It is a bit weird that Motor News was doing this. After all, at the same time they were eagerly promoting the construction of more and more interstate highways across the United States. But this makes the mistake of seeing Motor News through a present-day lens, where we know the threat that cars pose to the environment. In its historical context, however, an association of conservationism with road-building actually makes a lot of sense. It was environmentalists who lobbied for the construction of a highway through California’s redwoods, on the grounds that if more people could see the trees, then they could pressure the logging industry to stop cutting them down. After all, if you love the wilderness, then you have to get there somehow. Henry Ford himself described his love of birds in his autobiography:

Birds are the best of companions. We need them for their beauty and their companionship, and also we need them for the strictly economic reason that they destroy harmful insects. The only time I ever used the Ford organization to influence legislation was on behalf of the birds, and I think the end justified the means. The Weeks−McLean Bird Bill, providing for bird sanctuaries for our migratory birds, had been hanging in Congress with every likelihood of dying a natural death. Its immediate sponsors could not arouse much interest among the Congressmen. Birds do not vote. We got behind that bill and we asked each of our six thousand dealers to wire to his representative in Congress. It began to become apparent that birds might have votes; the bill went through.

Don’t think that this perspective is extinct, either. Watch a few car commercials, and you’re guaranteed to see at least one family or young couple park in a scenic natural location and eagerly fling open the trunk to pull out some camping, hiking, or mountain-biking equipment.

Have environmentalists matured beyond this? Do we now know better than to embrace ecologically destructive technologies and practices simply because they give us a better view of the nature we want to protect? Maybe. But we should be cautious before we make that assumption. This little case study tells us something very important about the environment: being in nature and protecting nature are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes, in fact, they can be directly opposed. Nature doesn’t always want us around.

This, however, is a fundamental challenge to a lot of environmental movements that are based on the ideal of a direct contact with the natural world. Consider, for example, the eco-village movement, as described by ecovillage.org:

“For millenia, people have lived in communities close to nature, and with supportive social structures. Many of these communities, or “ecovillages”, exist to this day and are struggling for survival. Ecovillages are now being created intentionally, so people can once more live in communities that are connected to the Earth in a way that ensures the well-being of all life-forms into the indefinite future.”

It sounds great. And it would be very hard to argue that the ecovillages’ residents’ hearts are not in the right place. But we need to critically analyze whether “communities close to nature” is not just a modern-day, environmentally-friendly retelling of the narratives that gave birth to suburbia a century ago. Can the eco-village and earthship movements really provide a model that allows everyone to live close to nature without inadvertently crowding nature out? And if not, then what is the benefit of developing a radically sustainable lifestyle that is only sustainable if practiced by a comparatively small group of people?

I’m not saying there aren’t good answers for these questions. I’m not very familiar with the ecovillage or earthship movements, and so I’d be doing them a disservice to assume they haven’t thought of this problem. But any movement that promises to save nature in part by moving more people closer to it, needs to consider the fact that Motor News once had a conservation column, along with all that implies.

Living close to nature inevitably means lower-density living. That means we’re more likely to be dependent on motorized transport, as well as on less efficient food and energy systems. Plus, human existence has a definite spatial footprint that will inevitably have some effect on the nature around it. In order to accommodate the human race in spaces that are both just and sustainable, the environmental movement should be strongly concerned with promoting human land use patterns that are efficient. For most of us, that means multi-story buildings in cities. Our experience of nature will have to be limited to comparatively short, low-impact trips. The sooner we get used to that, the better.

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