All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1970

A Conservationist Looks at Freedom

The term “conservationist” is generally applied to those who con­cern themselves about our ecologi­cal situation and look to govern­ment to do the conserving. We who do not look upon government as the Great Conservator are gener­ally regarded as not interested in conservation.

Despite this confusion of terms I, too, am a conservationist!

Advanced students of the free­dom philosophy readily recognize that mail delivery should be taken out of governmental operation and turned over to the free market, that is, to men in voluntary, pri­vate, competitive, cooperative ac­tion. And they will make the same case for nonintervention in hous­ing, welfare, and a host of other creative activities—even educa­tion and religion.

But there is one troubled situa­tion which few approach with faith in freedom: conservation of natu­ral resources and wild life. Leave the blessings of nature to free men? Perish the thought! Why, men left to their own devices are so profit hungry—avaricious—that in no time at all the forests would be denuded, natural recrea­tional areas and wild life but a memory of bygone days! Most people abandon freedom as a means of conservation, which is to say, they turn the problem over to society’s coercive arm: govern­ment.

Searching the Unknown

The case for freedom as related to conservation is difficult because it requires exploratory thinking about experiences that have gone pretty much unnoticed. We must assess the unheard, the unseen, the unknown. No wonder we stand confounded as would have Adam Smith or Frederic Bastiat had they been asked if freedom could be trusted to deliver the human voice at the speed of light! Un­thinkable! Extracting meaning from the unthinkable is no easy matter.

But I am convinced that conser­vation can be far more safely en­trusted to men in freedom than to the verboten techniques—figura­tively, “keep off the grass”—which seem to feature and set the limits to governmental achievement.¹

The reasons for my deep-seated conviction derive in part from glimpses of free market achieve­ments and of governmental fail­ures, but even more from my faith in the miraculous results that can be obtained by men when free to try and an utter lack of faith in the possibility of any creative ac­complishment by coercive devices. Conservation is clearly in the crea­tive realm!

Conservation vs. Preservation

But first, what really is conser­vation and how is it distinguished from preservation? “Melville Bell Grosvenor has artfully defined the difference between preservation and conservation. Preservation is retention undisturbed and in a natural condition, much as a mu­seum. Conservation is the wise use of our environmental resources for the best interests of man. Of nec­essity, it involves a sense of stew­ardship and responsibility in the use of those resources. We un­doubtedly need some preservation. But it cannot be the answer to the control of man’s environment, for we are an ecological part of that environment, and to preserve it makes us a museum-piece as well.”_ (Italics added.)

Had mankind been around throughout the ages and succeeded in preservation—”retention un­disturbed”—dinosaurs would still be with us. As it is, we have only reconstructed skeletons of these reptiles in museums. These admit­tedly have their value: they permit us to gain some knowledge of the Mesozoic Era. Assuredly, however, the existence today of prehistoric animals would not be considered as “the wise use of our environmental resources for the best interests of man,” which is to say that their preservation would not qualify as conservation.

Back to the Cave

Can we not make a similar ob­servation about all natural re­sources? Trees, for instance? No question about it, the Giant Se­quoias are a feast to the eye. And who among us does not yearn for their preservation? But had the preservation of trees—”retention undisturbed”—been the rule, would that have been “the wise use of our environmental resources for the best interests of man”? Hardly! We’d still live in nothing better than adobe huts!

Apparently the preservationists would have all of us in our present state of affluence being able to tour the forests in their pristine glory. What they fail to realize is that a strict preservationist policy ap­plied to all natural resources would reduce “all of us” to the popula­tion of a foraging economy. How many would that be? The number of Indians who lived in this land—less than one-half of one per cent of today’s population! A con­servation policy, on the other hand, counsels the use of trees for homes; indeed, timber now has not less than 5,000 uses. “Retention undisturbed” would hold our num­bers at a few hundred thousand and condemn us to huts and tepees.

Freedom Is the Effective Method of Conservation

Let me sketch here a few glimpses and thoughts which have turned my mind toward freedom as the effective means to conser­vation.

Bearing in mind that man, too, is part of the ecology, observe how governmental preservation schemes work on human beings, American Indians on the reserva­tion being a case in point. Pre­served they are indeed—and as museum pieces.3 Now note that the Indians who have escaped this preservation and have entered into society and competition are among our finest citizens—conservation in its best sense.4 Arbitrary and artificial preservations scarcely suffice for the survival of a species—human or other.

Doubtless the world’s outstand­ing example of animal preserva­tion is to be found in India—per­haps more than 200,000,000 sacred cows. Are they put to a wise use in the interests of man? These ani­mals largely destroy rather than conserve scarce natural resources.

In contrast, note the program of animal conservation in the United States. Aberdeen Angus, Here­ford, and other breeds of cattle—109,000,000 head—have largely displaced the bison that roamed the western plains. Under these circumstances, one might expect the bison to go the way of the dinosaurs, but conservationists have come to the rescue. Whether for novelty or profit or fun or whatever, there are now thousands of bison under private ownership—far from extinct.

Russian Forestry

Those who look to government as the Great Conservator should reflect on its “achievements,” for example, in forestry. Russia is the ultimate in this respect, for there is no private ownership of land. The whole Soviet area—8.6 million square miles—is owned “lock, stock and barrel” by government. And what do we find? The Com­missar charged by the Kremlin planners with achieving lumber and pulp quotas, and with a mini­mum labor force assigned to him to do the job, finds it necessary to harvest lumber along the river banks and highways. Talk about denuding the landscape! This is precisely the opposite of what most preservationists have in mind.

Or reflect on the U.S.A.—3.6 million square miles—39 per cent of which is governmentally owned and controlled, and the percentage increases. As the shadow of gov­ernment has lengthened, the plea for more government ownership and control—”keep off the grass”—has also increased. Back in 1920 the voices of preservationists were barely audible. Today, their loud speakers reach us everywhere. The more control we relinquish to gov­ernment, the more control is de­manded of it. Why? Simply be­cause the right way—freedom—is thereby displaced and thus ob­scured. The merits of freedom grow ever less imaginable to those who are abandoning it in theory and in practice.

Private Timberland Practices

Most people, because they won’t even take a look, are blind to what private ownership and control is accomplishing in this field.

Private timberland owners—at least 5,000 of them—are on a sustained yield basis, that is, they are planting and growing more than is being harvested. The first tree farm was established in 1941. At that time 20 per cent more trees were being harvested than grown. Today, 61 per cent more wood is being grown than is har­vested and lost to fire, insects, and disease.

But more: most major forest corporations and many small op­erators are engaged in intensive high yield forestry. This includes intensive soils site classification, researching for genetically supe­rior seed, optimum spacing, fer­tilization, thinning, and timber utilization—not a wasted chip! And investments are being made today with an eye on yields a cen­tury hence. Could anything like this be expected in Russia, or of any governmental operation, here or elsewhere? Not remotely! Gov­ernments can and often do enforce preservation, but only men in free­dom can achieve conservation.

Recreational Areas?

But what about parks and play­grounds and other recreational areas? Leave these to free men? Are you crazy?

Again, my mind is turned toward freedom, not by searching through infinite details but, rather, by what is glimpsed in passing. I note, for instance, that 63,000,000 acres of privately owned forests are open to the public for recrea­tion, including hunting and fish­ing.

Among the lands most valuable per acre on earth are two govern­ment properties: London’s Hyde Park and New York City’s Central Park. I have driven through the latter and past the former many times and on each occasion I have tried to relate public use to public expense. I have viewed the beau­tiful trees, the lawns, and clear ponds of each place—empty spaces, often with no human be­ings in evidence. True, the passing motorist has an aesthetic appre­ciation of Hyde Park as does the tourist who looks down on Central Park from the Empire State Building. But is it properly a func­tion of government to thus limit these valuable properties?

Yellowstone National Park—larger than Rhode Island and Dela­ware combined—last year had slightly over 2,000,000 visitors.

In contrast, consider three pri­vate operations in California—conservation in manifestation. If we would but look, every state af­fords somewhat similar examples.

There’s Disneyland—about 160 acres—now accommodating some 10,000,000 individuals annually, a recreational delight.

Knott’s Berry Farm, of no more than 150 acres, with its perfect replica of Independence Hall, has 4,500,000 visitors each year.

The 22 acres bordering San Francisco Bay—Fisherman’s Wharf, The Cannery, and Ghirar­delli’s Square—give pleasure to 3,700,000 people annually.

These private operations, occu­pying but a tiny fraction of one per cent as much space as Yellow­stone National Park, give enjoy­ment to 9 times as many people! Acreage-wise and recreation-wise, these would seem to be overwhelm­ing odds in favor of freedom, that is, on the side of conservation as distinguished from preservation. Such facts persuade me that we should not rely on government as the conservator of our resources.

Yes, goes the rebuttal, but I have other preferences; Disney’s playground, Knott’s Americana theme, and the gastronomy and views at Fisherman’s Wharf hold no lure for me; I relish the great open spaces or the mountains or the seashore or the forests in their natural state. And all I say to this is, “Fine and dandy. But why not encourage the proper means to these ends: freedom!”

Myths that Blind

There are countless myths and fallacies which blind people to the miracles that can be wrought only in the practice of freedom.

I suppose the ranking myth has to do with profit. It is generally as­sumed that profit seekers, in aim­ing for their own gain, will not serve others aesthetically or cul­turally or spiritually. The fact is that he who peacefully seeks his own gain can succeed only as he serves others. This is lesson num­ber one in economics, and applies as rigidly to the clergyman or teacher as it does to the baker of bread or the builder of Disney­land.

We must keep in mind that there are two kinds of profit: monetary and psychic, the latter, in many in­stances, more strongly motivating human action than the former.6

There are several reasons why we fail to see how these two forms of profit work their wonders. Foremost is governmental pre­emption. When government takes over parks and recreational areas, profit-seeking men simply turn elsewhere. Incentive is at zero. It’s precisely the same as when gov­ernment assumes the responsibility for the welfare of your neighbor—you feel no responsibility for helping him in time of need.

Also, we are inclined to look upon present-day profit seekers as representative of free and self-responsible men. For, so it is human resources. Who can justifiably gained, we are a free people! Far from it! We are living in a highly rigged and interventionist society. Instead of the rectitude expected of those whose profit depends on efficient service to willing custom­ers, we find men grasping for spe­cial political privilege. Interven­tionism lowers the moral standard.7

Rely on the Profit Motive

Abandon the myth of govern­ment as the Great Conservator; confine this power structure to in­suring against fraud, violence, predation, misrepresentation, and other destructive actions, and watch the profit seekers go to work in the interest of everyone!8 If we may judge by performance where profit seekers have been allowed open opportunities, their accom­plishments will far exceed any­thing we can imagine.

Seekers of monetary profit will supply whatever the demand war­rants and do so with the least pos­sible waste of either natural or human resources.

But here is where the psychic profit seekers will come to the res­cue, and extravagantly! They’ll build parks, playgrounds, bird and other sanctuaries, and recreational areas of every conceivable kind and all over the place, just as to­day they give billions to educa­tional and religious institutions, art galleries, museums, monu­ments, civic centers, libraries, and what have you. There are thous­ands of individuals who would gladly turn their fortunes to something of this nature. That’s psychic profit! And no more is re­quired to put this remarkable profit process into action than to stop governmental pre-emption. It’s that simple, and far more promising than anyone can pos­sibly portray.

Conservation is the wise use of our environmental resources for the best interests of man. Who is to determine “wise use” and “best interests”? Free men, that is, men in voluntary action with no re­straints against the release of their creative energies. These are the only true conservationists!



¹ This is not to preclude a reliance on the courts and other governmental pro­cedures to stop the upstream polluter or nearby smoking chimney or slaughter house that clearly damages or threatens the property or lives of others. See “The Pollution Problem” in my Let Freedom Reign (Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1969), pp. 1-8.

2 Extracted from “Young Forests Aid Global Oxygen Supply” by Dr. John Rediske. See Weyerhaeuser World, April 1970. Melville Bell Grosvenor is Editor-in-Chief and Board Chairman of National Geographic Magazine.

3 See “Wards of the Government” by Dean Russell, and “The Guaranteed Life” by Maxwell Anderson. (Single copies on request)

4 For a clear analysis of human re­sources as related to conservation, see “The Greatest Waste” by Paul L. Poirot. THE FREEMAN, March, 1964.

5 See “Exploring the National Parks” by John C. Sparks. THE FREEMAN, De­cember, 1964.

7 For a further explanation of this point, see “Why Freedom Is Not Trusted,” Notes from FEE, March, 1970.

8 The price system is among the greatest and most powerful conserva­tors. As a resource—renewable or irre­placeable—becomes scarce, its price rises, cutting down less important uses and encouraging more discoveries and equally good or even better substitutes. If an in­dividual insists upon a vast park for his own enjoyment, let him provide it at his own expense. 

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”