The Moment the Environmental Movement Changed

As a kid, I was very interested in the environment (still am). In the summer between third and fourth grade, I attended a day camp at a “nature center” in our Chicago suburb–a large park with a lagoon, a hiking trail, and several fire pits. 

The theme of the camp was learning about the wilderness–which meant, in essence, learning how to tame it. We went fishing and canoeing, put up tents, practiced archery, and–most fun of all–prepared firewood using a variety of tools, from pocketknives to hatchets to two-man saws. I spent the better part of one memorable day swinging a heavy axe at some bigger logs, preparing wood for three groups of campers.

I attended the same camp the year after that, and the year after that as well. By the third year, there had been some radical changes. The axes and hatchets were taken away. The fishing was rare. The bows and arrows were all that was left of the old fun. Instead of taming nature, we were taught to respect it, moving slowly through the now-overgrown prairie grasses of the park. 

It was rather contrived, and boring. But it mirrored a cultural change in how Americans–particularly those in or near cities–think about the environment. It was a shift from the old ethic of conservation, which still implies the use of nature, to preservation, which stresses study and contemplation but discourages use.

When you consider the folly of much of our environmental policy today, much of it has to do with that shift–with placing nature off limits, which is quite a radical concept, at odds with both history and necessity.


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