On Conservation history – some preliminary thoughts

I describe myself as a “writer on environmental, conservation and transport history”, and it seems appropriate to begin to explain what this means, to myself at least. Like many who write about history, I am interested in the current and future worlds, and partly seek to understand these through the study of historical events and developments. History also provides a portal to understand worlds that have largely disappeared, and I am certainly interested in this purpose for history-writing too.

I will begin with “conservation history”. This may be treated as a branch, a specialism, of environmental history, but I will separate it here for the purposes of exposition. “Conservation” is hard to define precisely, but I like the Welsh term cadw: retention or keep. Cadw is the title of the Welsh government’s historic environment service, referring to the retention of structures that are deemed to constitute “heritage” (although that is a much-contested term). The policy of “retention” and “keeping” can refer to all manner of subjects, including landscapes, historic environments, cultures, natural habitats and species, ecosystems, going towards concerns of interest to environmentalists, applied to resources, energy, and materials. Leaving the latter to one side, the historic question arises, as to why such activities and policies arose, in what circumstances, what alternatives were possible, and indeed whether they should have arisen at all. The assumption behind “conservation” is one of retention and keeping against some sort of threat, since much is, in practice, kept and retained without controversy or conscious process. My emphasis rests on conservation as a conscious process, one that is often the subject of elite political developments, sometimes promoted by social movements. Often this is predicated on imperfect or contested knowledge and understanding.

The history of conservation must include, at least as background, aspects of the history of the subject of conservation – knowledge development and analysis. If the subject of conservation activity was, say, a site for nature conservation, this would be a combination of natural and social/institutional history, explaining how the particular area came into being and retained value. This would follow into the decisions, controversial or not, that led to its conscious retention. These could be pressed through government action (as with many EU-designated sites) and/or through pressure by social movements, whether or not these were represented or subsumed by establishment organisations. Pressure could be expressed simply to secure policies like designations, or could involve more direct involvement such as the promotion of ownership, or voluntary assistance with maintenance or management. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust (the earlier in Britain) is one that owes its existence to the need for a formal legal organisation to acquire threatened sites. Part of conservation history’s task is to detail and explain how such actions came about. How conservation was pursued, and why, are subjects that cross from the technical to the cultural.

History also includes the opposition to conservation, which could be outright, in that it might have been seen as unnecessary, or damaging to specific or general economic interests. It could be that what was opposed was expenditure upon activities that would be seen as lower priorities. The overcoming of such opposition (if this took place) needs to be detailed, in the context of one aspect that has not been systematically explored – the development of legitimacy. The retention and enhancement of historic canals in Britain for amenity, leisure or “heritage” (an area which could cross over into transport history) is sometimes viewed as self-evident, but this had to be established through argument and pressure, over ideas and resources.

This leads to a further aspect – the development of movements for conservation, not just through their harnessing and promotion of knowledge and ideas, but through methods of opposition and persuasion. Here, personalities and the interpersonal, ideologies (linked to wider ideologies) and resources need again to be detailed and understood. This links to a final aspect – the place of a particular subject for conservation history in wider environmental history. In some instances no wider application may have been seen by participants – thus birdwatchers may simply favour their activity on particular sites, without any view as to the wider ecologies involved and the potential impacts upon extinctions, biodiversity and sustainability. My impression of birdwatchers is that many have proceeded from a curiosity or interest unrelated to any environmental issues (indeed, some “conservationists” have seen birds as the subject of sport) to much wider concerns that campaign against all manner of threats to world environments in which not only birds, but other species, and especially humans, live. To explain these kind of transitions, and the countervailing forces, should be a further aim of conservation history.

These are just provisional, preliminary thoughts, and I may well amend these in due course. At least, they set down some of the agendas that I feel need to be explored.

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