Thursday, March 20, 2008

Conservation: A Misused Word

Today's blog post is an excerpt from a 1965 Journal of Soil and Water Conservation article by Lauren K. Soth:

The word “conservation” is saturated with goodness. Like patriotism, democracy, the family and motherhood, it is suffused with an aura of virtue. Sometimes this aura gets in the way of rational discussion. As a political label, conservation can cover a multitude of activities which may or may not be true conservation but which are regarded automatically as wise and valuable. …

There is a difference in practice, obviously, between conservation of a renewable resource and of one that is exhaustible. Conservation of tin is not the same procedure as conservation of timber. Conservation may be the extension of the time of se of an exhaustible resource—or the withholding of all use until a later time. Or conservation may be the planned use and renewal of renewable resources so as to maintain a desired level of supply of a product. This kind of conservation is the kind we are talking about most often in agriculture.

The definition of conservation also varies with the state of the arts and of knowledge. A farm practice which at one time was truly called conservation, because current knowledge indicated that this practice conserved the soil, may at a later time be judged not to be conservation.
Advances in technology of land use in recent years have shortened the renewability time of depleted crop land. Our thinking about what constitutes “destruction” of land for crop production has had to be revised. Even the disappearance of the top soil no longer can be regarded as the end of the chain of resource use. New top soil can be built; and in some instances crops can be economically grown on properly treated land which has eroded to the subsoil. Wise use of land may sometimes consist of cropping it to a low state of fertility and even to the loss of several inches of top soil. …

The point here is that there are no absolute values in conservation of soil. There is no absolute virtue in the word or in the practices followed in its name. Public policy in this field should be based on facts, knowledge, experience—not on emotion. …

If the “conservation” funds used to stimulate better farm methods were labeled as such (or as subsidies to farmers), the public might still prefer to continue them in full. But at least the people ought to know what these funds are accomplishing and not be misled into thinking they are for true conservation.

When public funds are used for retiring land from crop production for a long period, or for converting it to a less intensive use, that is genuine conservation.

By Lauren K. Soth
Excerpted with permission from the May/June 1965 issue (Vol. 20, No. 3) of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

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