Some people define conservation as saving the wildness in places. I want to save the wildness in people. I know who's winning this debate these days, and it isn't me. But I'm right and you'll all agree eventually.
To enter this deep subject, consider what motivates conservation. Often it can be feelings of reverence for special places or animals, usually because of memories of special experiences in the past. These feelings often get attributed to "sacred places" and people want to protect such places so others can have a chance for the same transcendant experiences.
This wilderness protection effort goes astray when we focus our protection on only the most special and pristine places, forgetting that special feelings for nature often arise from youthful experiences in barely-wild places.
It's the special feelings for nature that we all need to foster, nurture and protect. If we protect pristine places and forget to nurture special feelings, then we're failing to build a constituency for pristine places.
Justin Van Kleeck is posting on Sensory Flashbacks, Sacred Places, and Environmentalism over at sustainablog, and you ought to read what he has to say, not least because of his reference to Proust and sensory flashbacks. He talks about sacred feelings, and I found his words in a series of posts to be moving and insightful. Especially his personal testament on the healing power that he found in barely-wild nature.
These ideas aren't new, William Cronon has talked about "The Trouble with Wilderness" and argued that wildness lives in US, in the hearts of people, more than in special places.
Does any of this matter in practical conservation work? Yes, I think it matters a lot.
I've sat in debates over "Ocean Wilderness" protection, and argued for a program that emphasizes people's special feelings for oceans, often derived from exposure to nearby oceans, not special pristine locations.
I've mostly lost those debates, and watched programs get designed to focus on protecting the most pristine places remaining in our oceans. Such programs often undermine their own objectives by failing to honor the people we hope to recruit to our cause.
The root cause of this mistake? Failing to notice that it's the wilderness experience we need to protect, and that feeling most often occurs outside of perfectly pristine ocean places.
How can we fix this wilderness mistake? We need to get people exposed to our oceans, get them to experience the wonder and majesty, and then celebrate those feelings. Even if they happen when a person is holding a fishing rod or driving a motorboat.