Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Old, new... when it comes to California water, we need it all

For what feels like quite a long time but turns out to only have been a couple of years, there has been an active and contentious conversation about the idea of "new" and "old" conservation. This dicussion is related the idea of the Anthropocene -- the proposed name for a new geological epoch based on human activity -- and is often extended to environmentalism in general. Michelle Nijhous provides an excellent, concise overview and current state-of-the-debate in The New Yorker that I highly recommend reading. In a nutshell: old conservation is often characterized as being about saving species and places from people -- saving nature for "nature's sake" -- while new conservation often integrates ideas about the importance of nature to people, which has led to controversial attempts to reconcile, for example, corporate and environmental needs.

Recently, Jay Lund of the University of California, Davis, wrote a piece on how the idea of "new environmentalism" applies to California water issues. He argues that old environmentalism was about saying no -- to new development, to pollution, etc. -- and that while that led to important gains, the challenges we face today necessitate a shift to a new approach that asks "how better?" instead. He writes: "New environmentalism is about diverse interests working together to create more promising environmental solutions," linking to a recent New York Times article from author Emma Marris and Greg Aplet of The Wilderness Society, and arguing, in essence, that old environmentalism is, well, old.

For those new to this debate or following it somewhat peripherally, what the Marris and Aplet article really calls for is an end to the dichotomy of new and old, and instead argues that all approaches are needed. They write:
"The truth is, despite the disagreements, both groups love nature and want to protect it. These seemingly competing alternatives are really complementary parts of the smartest strategy: We should try everything."
Nijhous' article echoes these sentiments, ending with a quote from the well-known western writer Edward Abbey:
“I am weary of the old and tiresome and banal question ‘Why save the wilderness?' The important and difficult question is ‘How? How save the wilderness?’”
In dealing with California's complex water issues, there need not be a dichotomy between old and new approaches to conservation and the environment. The reason that there has been such a large focus on reconciling the old/new conservation debate recently is because it isn't helping anybody, and can in fact be pretty alienating. We can learn from what many that have been close to that conversation are now concluding: We need all approaches -- new and old and everything in between -- along with the diverse people and partnerships that will help to lead the way.

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