Conservation biology theory and Native Americans

I tasked the students this week with describing their thoughts on whether Native Americans should be depicted as the original conservationists and whether that is a good or bad thing. I will offer an anthropological view of conservation biology theory, which states that conservation must be an intentional, altruistic act. As such, small scale societies that simply exist in a sustainable state do not count. This view asserts that all people, at all times and in all places, will overexploit and pollute their environment if given the opportunity. From an anthropological standpoint, there are two problems with this theory. First, it marginalizes small-scale societies. Because they are not “advanced” enough to destroy their environment, they are not altruistic enough to then feel bad about that destruction. Conservation is thus a hallmark of “civilization”. It has a bit of a unilineal evolution ring to it. It’s more complex than that, but it veers very close to that line. When Native Americans are involved, it has the potential to further the Noble Savage Myth and depiction of them as underdeveloped or uncivilized. Second, the theory removes agency from small-scale societies and does not consider their reproductive and demographic strategies. What if they consciously maintained lower population sizes as we see in a number of small scale societies either through birth spacing or taboos? Is that conservation? It gives agency to modern state-level societies and little to none to small-scale societies.

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