Conservation Education

SUBHEAD: Molding the agents of positive change and then offering them economic bondage.

 By Nathan Dunn on 5 June 2012 for Nature Bats Last -  

Image above: Christopher McCandless (the subject of movie 'Into the Wild") takes his final self portrait before dieing in the wilderness of Alaska. He holds a note that reads; "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!" From (
It is hard to know where to begin, as there have been so many fits, stops, and starts. In keeping with the tradition here, I will offer several biographical notes. My first summer after high school was spent with an organization called the Student Conservation Association (SCA). After spending five weeks in the wilderness with a pick and a shovel, I hope that the place made a greater impact upon me than I did on it. I suspect that the place really does not miss me at all.

After several weeks, a man was sent out to check on us. He found us to be seventeen and sitting around a campfire supper talking about the city. He suggested that rather than our practice of building an ever-greater fire to entertain ourselves that we might turn our backs to only enough of a fire to keep warm. That way we could take the opportunity to look out upon the wilderness. We were still close enough to converse. 
“The fire constantly changes, but not in any meaningful way. It is the same any place that you go. Is such a simple, destructive thing really so interesting as to be the center of attention here?”
I met another gentleman a few weeks ago and related that experience to him. He works for a Presbyterian youth group and shared with me that his goals are to have a similar impact upon youth at just the right time in their lives.
“In fact we have a sister group in another, um, less timid church that uses the motto: Ruined for Life!”
The SCA experience established a distinct marker in the course of my life. At that signpost I was ruined for empire. I did not really know it then and neither did anyone else around me. My parents signed the waivers and such things that were necessary, but they had no idea. I returned to them skinny and they could see that, but they had no idea how hungry I was.

My mattress was strangely peculiar, so I slept on my camping pad beside the bed. The grocery store seemed shiny and surreal. I could not imagine what compelled the decadence of more than 120 varieties of cereal. Oatmeal is great and there is simply no other water that tastes like fresh glacier. Ruined.

There are these snarky voices everywhere in the city though. They do not sound like old growth forests. Surely you have heard the sounds. “Well, but how will you make money then? We are concerned about your future, son. What do you mean you won’t own a car?” Everything that I found myself doing was in direct contradiction to protecting what had replaced most of the feelings I found associated with the word home. “Why are you so negative? Your sister didn’t have a problem finding a job! We must attack Iraq.”

I bowed to societal convention. If formal learning was virtuous and college meant success in life, then Sallie Mae was right there ready to help me. I stared at the catalog and the course offerings. I took the personality tests. I went to the college and career center. I just had to write down all of the things that I was good at, and suddenly I would have this resume thing to give to people. I would be off and running, making money. All I needed was an apartment and a steady supply of bad food that also came in boxes. So began the accrual of interest on my account.

I can still remember the picture in the career manual under the heading the computer labeled me. Forestry Technician. There was a black woman cutting a tree down while wearing a hard hat. (Oh, we have come a long way, and yes we can!) … Associate’s Degree Required, $19,000/yr. “Hmm, so I cut trees down and they pay me $19,000? Surely there must be some boss in the picture.”

I spent at least a week, maybe a month, reading those books. The woman at the center couldn’t help me to figure out how to make enough money to have a family, even while being the boss of the lady that cut trees down, especially since I wanted the lady to not cut the trees down. She did not look forward to any more questions, but assured me that I NEEDED to go to college. I just had to figure out some classes I could pass, and then I could list them as accomplishments on the resume.

Somebody would give me a job. I would help people and nobody would yell at me. Lucky for her, I caught on. I suspect that the place really does not miss me at all.

It was pretty obvious that I was never going to be the boss in the picture, at least not because I was good at chemistry or genetics. Looking at what I could do, and what equaled a degree, there was this thing called Conservation Biology. The classes even looked exciting. I could imagine the work it would be, but I was going to make a difference, I was going to do something about it. The feeling was tremendous, like finally knowing that I had found my way to a trail that was going to lead to the parking lot. I could drink the last of the water in my canteen and know I would not die. I was going to finally be sustainable. A man with a job has spring in his step.

I was taught things like how to manage deer and ducks for wealthy hunters to shoot, but also deeper theoretical things, like that there is this thing called population dynamics. We read from a book called The Economy of Nature. So, births minus deaths equaled recruitment, and this thing called carrying capacity was the result of environmental resistance. Otherwise, you were dealing with things like bacteria and on the fifth day, or so, of incubation the toxic byproducts and lack of food killed all of the organisms. “So, as you can see class, we are not knee-deep in bacteria.” I wanted to ask questions like, “But why don’t human populations follow these natural laws?”

They had just taught me that the entire field of Conservation Biology was a result of academics like themselves realizing that for all the studying they had done and all of the forestry technicians they had created, nothing was being meaningfully conserved. In fact, they were cataloging the extinctions, and some old British guys knew that was the best they could do before they did.

Malthus was almost right, and this other dead-white-dude, Jevons did not think it was possible to grow more vegetables than you ever thought possible, but that really, the more we conserve, the more we consume. Time and time again that could be demonstrated, so, you know, a revolt was necessary. It would be on the exam. I studied these concepts inside and out, night and day.

The computer label on the personality test must have been changed. I would no longer become a forestry technician boss (Wildlife Biologist), but a Conservation Biologist. The department was first the School of Renewable Natural Resources, then the School of Natural Resources, and finally the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, just during the time it took to earn a degree.

Things were getting done and society was better off for all of their taxpayer-funded tenures. I wanted examples. Proof. I wanted to read the journal articles that explained this and cite them in my writing. That was required by the rules. That was an “A” grade. With insistence that my questions were not getting answered and the ability to speak the language of the institution, it was revealed to me that I am not much fun at parties anymore. I suggested that things do not improve when a mountain lion is shot with a tranquilizer dart and forced to wear a computerized collar.

I was sent places like the Dean of Students for, you know, talking out of turn and stuff. My attitude was a definite problem, not the lack of examples, and I was advised to change my major to find happiness. Recruitment of debt-addled students might have been interrupted or even undermined if business as usual was in fact, business as usual. Lucky for them, I caught on. I suspect that the place really does not miss me at all. Sallie Mae still sends me love letters.

There I was, ready to be the change I wanted to see in the world. I volunteered to be molded into the agent of positive change and offered economic bondage for the opportunity. Though still willing and paying diligently, I do not really care about the cost or what I might earn. $19,000 would be just fine at this point. Any place where I apply for work rejects me for being a big-time college grad, or not having a Master’s. Comedy is tragedy. I serve coffee to professors and administrators. I look for inklings of how to proceed. I frequent Nature Bats Last.

I keep looking for a sign that tells me I am not walking down a dry wash, but a true trail leading to the parking lot. As long as there are glaciers, I will feel at home, but my canteen has run low. There are several parking lots and I haven’t got a car parked in any of them. Here IS home.

I know that people earning the equivalent of $30,000 per year are in the top 1% of earners worldwide. We are the 1%. Even economically impoverished, I am wealthy beyond measure. Aldo Leopold said that the challenge we face is to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.

We seem mindlessly unable to find a way to make do with what we have. If that is not the challenge we face, then tell me what the problem is really. WE do face a life or death matter, and I do not mean to trivialize it, but it is in our minds. No spirit, or science, or administration will intervene. We have to see it for that, a state of mind, and have the will to wake up in the morning, to not commit suicide, to face the wilderness and to make it a wonderful day. Stark honesty does not inhibit happiness.
Perhaps what Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac (1949) should be mentioned:
Conservation is a state of harmony between men (sic) and land. Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail’s pace; progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory. On the back forty we still slip two steps backward for each forward stride
The usual answer to this dilemma is “more conservation education.” No one will debate this, but is it certain that the volume of education needs stepping up? Is something lacking in the content as well?
It is difficult to give a fair summary of its content in brief form, but, as I understand it, the content is substantially this: obey the law, vote right, join some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your own land; the government will do the rest.
Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values. In respect to land-use, it urges only enlightened self-interest. Just how far will such education take us? An example will perhaps yield a partial answer.
No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.

• Nathan Dunn lives for a living in Tucson, Arizona. He is an active member of his community and neighborhood laborer. He enjoys music, sculpture and distance running. Otherwise you might find him at the coffee shop, farmer’s market, or driving his grandmother to the doctor. He is an avid gardener. Some of his best friends are chickens. He still hopes to one day be offered forestry technician work focused upon agricultural and wilderness issues of concern for society.

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