The History Of US Nature Preservation Sheds Light On How To Better Promote Clean Technologies

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For many readers, protecting nature is its own reward, but that’s not true for everyone. Some people get into EVs, solar, and such to save some money. Others get into it because they want the United States to be more energy independent. It’s also common for people to use clean technologies to become more resilient to disasters and emergencies. For many people, that instant burst of tire-shredding torque is to blame for that EV in the driveway. More common than any of these reasons is probably some mix of the above.

We have to appeal to people based on where they’re at, and not necessarily where we want them to be if we want to be successful promoting these technologies.

To really understand where people are at, sometimes we have to dig deeper. Things like culture, politics, and many other things definitely play a factor, but if we only look at how things are today, we miss out on lessons we might learn from the question of how we got here. For more understanding on that, we have to delve into history.

The History Of “America’s Best Idea” Has A Lot To Teach Us

I’d love to be able to say that I thought to dig into this question all on my own, but I fell down this rabbit hole looking for an answer to another question. In a previous article, I mentioned this quote, and wondered how the man could be so damned ignorant:

“This region can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but to leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality.”

— Lt. Joseph C. Ives, referring to the Grand Canyon, 1858

When I encountered that quote, I chalked it up to utilitarianism. The guy came from a time when people fought for survival, and simply didn’t have time to appreciate nature like people do today, I thought. Now, we have time for such things instead of trying to scrape up survival from the land at all costs.

But that’s not really a good explanation. There were people before and after Lt. Ives who understood the value of nature, including native Americans and at least some people of European descent. So, this had to be more of a cultural thing than a matter of necessity. In general, Americans who were in the process of achieving Manifest Destiny through war and conquest saw the land as something their race could use to get rich and achieve global prestige, perhaps even beating out Europe on both of those goals.

This left the question of how we went from that imperial attitude to one in which many Americans protect the land for its own sake and have even decided to care about nature for its own sake. A YouTube video ended up giving me the answer: Monumentalism.

In short, Americans were still very much interested in exploiting the land relentlessly, and many still think that way today to varying degrees. What allowed some parts of nature to be protected wasn’t their value to nature as much as providing Americans with a way to compete with Europe’s man-made wonders and long history.

Instead of being able to point to long-standing places like the Colosseum, and later builds like Big Ben, the Arc de Triomphe, and Brandenburg Gate, Americans needed something impressive to make up for the lack of deep cultural and imperial history. So, to show off the relatively recently-conquered lands (America’s greatest achievement at the time in many ways), natural monuments that were taken in the conquest were chosen instead. The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Redwoods, and many other early parks and monuments were designated for protection.

One notable thing about these early national parks and monuments is that only things that were economically worthless were protected. For example, the Grand Tetons were protected, but the valley below them originally was left for economic uses. Yosemite’s cliff faces were grand, but nobody could build a farm on them. Even then, when hydroelectric power technology emerged, part of Yosemite (the Hetch Hetchy Valley) ended up being flooded behind a dam. So even parks weren’t safe from economic exploitation if someone could make the case for it.

This idea of monumentalism still pervades public thinking today. Many people complain online about the “lesser” parks that don’t have grand monuments and viewpoints to celebrate, not knowing the cultural history behind that thinking. Seemingly endless debates over the size and scope of national monuments continue to this day, with conservatives often wanting to shrink the monuments and leave room for economic activity and progressives wanting to expand them to protect more nature, even if it means less ranching, logging, and drilling.

There’s a much more complicated story than I’m telling here, with things like democracy, railroads, and the invention of the automobile all playing their part in this shift from pure monumentalism to the protection of nature and general access to it. If you want to learn more about that, I’d recommend reading this online book.

What We Can Learn From This In The Clean Tech World

In many ways, the idea of national parks, and then state and even local parks, provided important common ground that the economic interests and nature protection interests could meet on. You don’t have to be a treehugger to appreciate the Grand Canyon at sunset, and you don’t have to be a staunch capitalist to appreciate the hotels and restaurants a few feet behind you (assuming you’re enjoying the view in the Village or at the North Rim Lodge).

In many ways, EVs and solar panels are starting to become a similar common ground. For the economic interests, cost savings are key. For people looking to show off (and present a monument to their spending power to the world), EVs are often a great way to do that. For others, reducing contribution to climate change is the goal. But, we’re all sitting on top of batteries to do that.

The more we can focus on common ground instead of bickering over the different motivations, the better things can be.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1984 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba