Advocating for the field: A history of the attempts to create a science of biological conservation, with lessons for both ecologists and historians
What does a science of biological conservation look like? Throughout the history of ecology since its codification as an independent subfield of biology in the mid- to late-19th century, scientists have disagreed over how to organize and practice a science of conservation. Examining key moments in the development of conservation-oriented science over the 20th century, this presentation charts the generation of new organizations, professional societies, and subdisciplines via spin-offs and splinterings from the ESA itself. I use these moments to illuminate various central tensions in the field and to underscore that these are not new with ecological conservation in its contemporary forms but have recurred. While a conservation-oriented environmental science was elaborated with increasingly methodological, conceptual and political sophistication over the course of the 20th century, the vision of the field and the language it is articulated in remains strikingly similar. This recurrence, I argue, has two sources. First, it reflects the fairly restricted set of vocabulary we continue to have for talking about the environment and our place in it. Second, it reflects the challenge these scientists faced in trying to solve a genuinely difficult problem that established knowledge practices are conceptually and institutionally ill-equipped to resolve.
This in turn locates contemporary debates over the aims and scope of conservation science in a larger historical conversation about these issues as well as extends the epistemic and ethical moment conservation scientists find themselves in today to one that stretches over multiple academic generations. In doing so, I hope to particularize certain forms of environmental conflict as long-standing and rooted in cyclical forms of development. As well, I show how thinking about a science of environmental protection has been constrained by various factors and that a vocabulary for an integrative, interdisciplinary, and adaptive science of the endangered environment did not appear de novo in the early 1980s with the establishment of conservation as a distinct research field nor even in the late 1960s with the rise of popular environmentalism, but have recurred again and again (with attendant claims to novelty) throughout the 20th century. Contextualizing the idea of an interdisciplinary discipline which not only studies but saves the environment in a history of such ventures emphasizes the importance of considering ecological ideas and institutions as mutually co-constitutive of each other. Finally, this analysis suggests ways that historians can learn as much from ecologists as vice versa.