On Bears and Beards
When you think of someone who’s a conservationist, who do you think of?
I think of the Burt’s Bees guy; gray beard, weather-worn flannel shirt tucked into belted slacks, yodeling through the woods without a care in the world.
Spiritually, that’s not far from the truth.
Paraphrasing a passage from John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra:
July 21st, 1869, John Muir is in Yosemite helping take sheep to pasture for the summer. Out on a hike, his dog, Carlo, alerts him to an animal nearby, which Muir judges to be a brown bear.
Intrigued, Muir seeks out the brown bear and finds it in a flowery, sun-dappled forest meadow and watches it from behind a boulder.
Deciding he’d like to see the bear in running form, Muir decides to run AT THE BEAR.
The bear turns towards Muir, lowers its head, and looks directly at Muir, taking a few steps towards him.
Muir decides to “be like the bear.” He stares into his adversary’s eyes and holds his ground until his inexplicably placated foe saunters away.
From Lakes to Legislatures
That’s one story among many within the pantheon of American conservationists. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold paved the way for the modern environmentalist movement.
Conservation was a movement from the 1850s to the 1920s that focused on managing and protecting resources for future use by humans – think sustainable logging or managing a large natural area to allow camping and canoeing.
The modern environmental movement emerged from conservation around the 1950s with legislation to control air and water pollution. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring also played a critical role during this period, spurring legislation limiting the biologically cataclysmic effect of heavy pesticide use.
Environmentalism emerged as an all-encompassing movement to include the political, economic, and social aspects of protecting nature.
Thus, the United States expanded from focusing on protecting the environment from direct harm, like logging and grazing, to protecting the environment from dispersed harm, like DDT use in agriculture.
However, as society expands, so too do environmental threats.
We are currently in the midst of a paradigm shift in response to greenhouse gas emissions.
The conservationist and environmentalist movements were responses to the specific threats of their time. We started by conserving a specific ecosystem then progressed to protecting a larger swath of the interconnected environment.
Now, we’re working to protect the global environment from the existential threat of climate change, namely the development of technologies to address greenhouse gas pollution.
In popular vernacular, these technologies are known as cleantech.
Connecting Cleantech Back to Conservation
Engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists are responding to the existential threat of climate change by working on the technologies that will help our society reach circular economy milestones– like removing CO₂ out of the atmosphere and using microbes to extract resources out of waste.
While the value of cleantech can often be obscured in buzzwords and financial metrics, ultimately, the technologies cleantech is pioneering connect intimately to the land, forests, rivers, and mountains.
Cleantech is in pursuit of the same environmental goals that conservationists were pursuing some 172 years ago, albeit on a much larger scale.
Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are modern-day Muirs working for the betterment of the global environment, a new breed of conservationists.
..Minus the huge beards and close proximity to bears.
The New Conservation
Thus, I’d like to be the first to propose a novel definition of the phrase, The New Conservation.
The New Conservation is the collective development and implementation of technologies that will mitigate climate change and the disruption of the global environment.
This idea is highly valuable because it connects technology to the land, rather than siloing cleantech and conservation into two separate buckets.
If we implement tech to reduce atmospheric CO₂, wildfire severity will decrease, preserving our forests. If we get our raw materials from waste, we don’t have to destroy the environment to mine for natural resources.
Cleantech as conservation is a connection we cannot lose sight of as we enter the most critical years of the climate fight.
About The Author
NNSA Fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
John currently works at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as an Engineering Analyst Fellow. He has his master’s in Biotechnology, Sustainability, and Entrepreneurship from Northwestern University and has conducted research on microbial wastewater mitigation, soil batteries, and biomass chemical conversion and valorization. His goal is to help the world develop, understand, and embrace solutions to the climate crises. In his spare time he enjoys trail running, cycling, rock climbing, reading books, and playing the banjo.