Is The Conservation Movement a Losing Battle?

Field Blogger Jacob Cravens finds hope in connecting visitors to nature at Capitol Reef National Park

    What good can I do? I’m only one person in my twenties. What can I do when the environmental crisis is so big and the obstacles so large? Multinationals make billions of dollars causing damage to the environment and billions of people use their products. I have $5.25 and my SCA payment card in my wallet. There are other people like me that care about the environment, right? Are they enough? Is this SCA internship going to contribute to something that lasts or is this just a glorified summer camp experience that I write off as  being part of my “formative years” while the environment continues to suffer? These are questions that go through my head as I drive down interstate 70 through the Utah desert in my red Hyundai Elantra with a busted bumper and cracked muffler on my way to Capitol Reef National Park.

   To answer the question “Is the conservation movement a losing battle?” you first have to understand the problem. The  EPA has a budget of $8.1 billion in 2014. The combined total profits of the biggest five oil companies in 2013 was $93 billion. Take into consideration that this is just five companies in a single industry. There are many hundreds of companies in this and other industries that do business in way that negatively impacts the environment. 

Carbon emissions continue to increase, as does our population, and individual consumption rates are high. […] All of this reflects one basic idea: our society, currently and historically, does not put a high value on conservation of its natural resources. We don’t conserve because we don’t want to. This is the problem. How do we change a mindset?

    David Brooks from the New York Times once wrote,” Great and small enterprises have two births: first in purity, and then in maturity.” The conservation movement has purity. The first week of my SCA internship had me meeting and observing everyone at Capitol Reef National Park. These are people that have dedicated their careers to the National Park Service and conservation. From law enforcement to resource protection, maintenance to interpretation, and all the way up the administrative food chain, everyone cares deeply about the environment, and plays a role in protecting it. Within a day or two of arriving I was invited canyoneering with a group of NPS employees when we all had time off. Did I have any experience exploring canyons? No. Did I have any equipment or skills? Nothing. Yet, they believed in community, felt a strong enjoyment and connection with the outdoors, and they wanted to share it. There is your purity!  This small group of people embodied conservation, wilderness protection, and the many ideas inherent therein. To quote Edward Abbey   ” The idea of wilderness needs no defense…”

    Unfortunately the second half of the quote is “… it only needs more defenders.” A small group of isolated people isn’t enough for the conservation movement to triumph. This comes across the great problem of all movements: scale. There are great environmental charter schools in the inner city,  sustainable organic farms, and renewable energy technology across the country, but they have yet to be scaled up to a size that makes a significant impact. This requires David Brooks’ second birth of maturity. For the conservation movement, how do we get enough people to care about conservation so that across all sectors an impact is made? The broader question, is how do you make a person care about anything? The answer: you make them feel. Maya Angelou said, ” People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is the crux that will give meaning to my SCA internship! My job is a park interpreter, which means through facts, experiences, vistas, and anything else I can use, I need to make visitors at Capitol Reef understand and feel connected with the natural world. An NPS employee said to me ” Done are the days of lecturing up in front of people, you’ve got to somehow find a way to make them feel involved.” If I can do that along with the other 75,000 SCA members, perhaps it will be enough to start to turn the tide. If we can make people feel a strong enough connection to the natural world that they change their consumption habits once they’ve returned to their daily lives, everything else will follow. Those who profit most from the status quo will fight using every piece of leverage they have, but eventually they will have to adapt to mass consumer and voter demands. It will not be easy and inertia is strongly against us.

    Yet, no movement has ever been easy. They all start small, and then to use a list of cliches to prove how often this occurs, they snowball, domino, ripple, spark, and from the wind of a butterfly’s wings a storm of change occurs. Remember Thoreau. An individual by himself in the woods scribbles some words on paper and calls it ” Civil Disobedience.” Ghandi uses it to overthrow the British East India Company (one of the world’s first multinational corporations) and liberate his country. Martin Luther King Jr. uses it to achieve sweeping civil rights victories in spite of an embedded history of racism and slavery. To repeat the opening question, ” What good can I do? I’m only one person in my twenties.”  To suggest an answer there is the quote ” You are only one person in the world, but to one person you might be the world.” When we speak about the outdoors and conservation to other people, we might be the only person to really talk to them about these issues, and that matters deeply. To end, I have one final quote from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 Hickman’s Arch photo via NPS