Working group idea: Conservation in History, History in Conservation

A few years ago I began thinking about setting up an interdisciplinary group working on the place of history in conservation. Things in my life moved on without ever getting to set it up. Now however my academic trajectory is bringing me back to focus on the history of conservation. Therefore I’m putting this old idea here, in the spirit of Open History, to see if there is any interest out there. Feel free to use the embededd tab on the right to comment.

The way in which the historical understanding of the natural world influences how conservation is both implemented and studied has always been a complex one. Early on, history and nature were construed as strictly separated. The rhetoric of an ahistorical state of nature was crucial in early conservation efforts. This was then complemented, in certain locations, by the myth of conservation allowing nature to revert the course of anthropogenic changes.

The features of different conservation areas became thus mere initial conditions that, under the rule and control of conservation institutions, would allow scientists to study the natural development of the protected areas, following the widely cited example of the Swiss National Park. Almost paradoxically, these features served thus at the same time as justification for the conservation effort and as reference point for still expected future changes.

Following diverse timelines, this initial takes evolved into an interpretation of history as a set of ecological baselines to use as targets for conservation or restoration projects. Over the past two decades, many conservationists have radically shifted their approach to history, increasingly moving away from ecological baselines. History, many argue, is no longer relevant in a no-analog future of unprecedented environmental change. Conservation’s very own ‘end of history’ is being postulated. The historicity of conservation is often downplayed in the analysis, reduced to mere background, or framed in extremly broad strokes. Accounts about extremely recent developments are favoured in respect to nuanced accounts of the complext developments of conservation institutions.

For historians, all these positions appear as equally problematic. Over the past 150 years, historical thinking, methods, and evidence have played diverse roles in conservation theory and practice, and history has much to contribute as we plan for the future. For once, conservation historiography may help to contextualise different takes on the role of history in conservation, highlighting how they are all constructs that reflect peculiar understanding of the relationship between environment and society. Furthermore, a historically informed analysis of past conservation experiences and population dynamics may offer innovative takes on the interactions between human and non-human actors and factors.

The research group I am thinking of organising aims at bringing together conservation biologists and practitioners with historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and political ecologists from all over the world to discuss the past, present, and future of history in conservation as well as conservation in history. The plan is to convene a small group of scholars that will work on producing jointly new ways of looking at conservation and its history, in particular as regards the usefulness of recovering diverse historiographies of conservation and rethinking conservation in times of radical global change. Beyond this the group will open up to foster a wider debate on such topices within the conservation community.