This article is about the conservation ethic. For the laws of conservation in the physical sciences, see conservation law.

Conservation is an ethic of resource use, allocation, exploitation, and protection. Its primary focus is upon maintaining the health of the natural world: its forests, fisheries, habitats, and biological diversity. Secondary focus is on materials conservation and energy conservation, which are seen as important to protect the natural world.

Table of contents
1 Goals and values
2 Usage of term
3 History of biological conservation
4 References

Goals and values

To conserve habitat in terrestrial ecoregions and stop deforestation is a goal widely shared by many groups with a wide variety of motivations. These issues and groups are covered in their own articles.

To protect sea life from extinction due to overfishing is another commonly stated goal of conservation - ensuring that "some will be available for our children" to continue a way of life.

The consumer conservation ethic is best expressed by the four R's:

  • Reduce
  • Recycle
  • Reuse
  • Rethink
This social ethic primarily relates to local purchasing, moral purchasing, the sustained and efficient use of renewable resources, the moderation of destructive use of finite resources, and the prevention of harm to common resources such as air and water quality, the natural functions of a living earth, and cultural values in a built environment.

The principal value underlying most expressions of the conservation ethic is that the natural world has intrinsic and intangible worth along with utilitarian value - a view carried forward by the scientific ecology movement and some of the older Romantic schools of conservation.

More Utilitarian schools of conservation seek a proper valuation of local and global impacts of human activity upon nature in their effect upon human well being, now and to our posterity. How such values are assessed and exchanged among people determines the social, political, and personal restraints and imperatives by which conservation is practiced. This is a view common in the modern environmental movement.

These movements have diverged but they have deep and common roots in the conservation movement.

In the United States of America, the year 1864 saw the publication of two books which laid the foundation for Romantic and Utilitarian conservation traditions in America. The posthumous publication of Henry David Thoreau's Maine Woods established the grandeur of unspoiled nature as a citadel to nourish the spirit of man. From George Perkins Marsh a very different book, Man and Nature, later subtitled "The Earth as Modified by Human Nature", cataloged his observations of man exhausting and altering the land from which his sustenance derives.

''here introduce specific concerns like supporting populations, global warming, biodiversity, the value of wilderness, fish and timber harvest, etc,etc.

Usage of term

In common usage, the term refers to the activity of systematically protecting natural resources such as forests, including biological diversity. Carl F. Jordan defines the term in his book Replacing Quantity With Quality As a Goal for Global Management

"biological conservation as being a philosophy of managing the environment in a manner that does not despoil, exhaust or extinguish."

While that usage is not new, the idea of biological conservation has been applied to the principles of ecology, biogeography, anthropology, economy and sociology to maintain biodiversity.

Even the term "conservation" may cover the concepts such as cultural diversity, genetic diversity and the concept of movements environmental conservation, seedbank (preservation of seeds). These are often summarized as the priority to respect diversity, especially by Greens.

Much recent movement in conservation can be considered a resistance to commercialism and globalization. Slow food is a consequence of rejecting these as moral priorities, and embracing a slower and more locally-focused lifestyle.

History of biological conservation

The origins of biological conservation can be traced to philosophical and religious beliefs about Man as a full part of Nature:

Taoist and Shintoist philosophies encourage recognition of special sites, allowing spiritual experiments.
Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism, grant a sacred value to animals. Primitive religions also recognize sacred values to sites such as forests, lakes, mountains. Islam recognizes each species as its own "nation", and an obligation of man to khalifa, or "stewardship" of the Earth. Specific conservation mechanisms such as haram and hima zones, and the origins of the idea of carrying capacity, were a product of Islamic civilization.

There are three main philosophical movements roughly characterized as conservation movements (plural):


Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, in 1880, defend the idea that Nature has a meaning, beyond economic profits. Nature is a temple where the Man can share and communicate with God.
John Muir defends a preservationist ethic, according to which the beauty of Nature stimulates the religious feelings and supports spiritual experiments. He also sees in biological communities, groups of species evolving together and depending ones on the others. These communities, superorganisms, are a prelude to the Gaia hypothesis developed later by James Lovelock (1988) and the Gaia philosophy that began to stem from it.

Resource Conservation

Gifford Pinchot, at the beginning of the 20th century, develops an ethics of resource conservation, which is based on an utilitarian philosophy. According to him, Nature is a set of things defined by their utility or their harmful character. He defends the sharing of resources between all users, current and future (a first approach to sustainable development) by avoiding despoiling. However, he does not take into account the costs of degradation and pollution of the environment nor the erosion of resources. This view is taken by the modern environmental movement and the attempts to assign a value of Earth, value of life and quantify nature's services.


With Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac, 1959), an evolutionary ecology develops, a prospect marked by dynamism rather than by static conservation. In his famous chapter Land Ethics, Leopold states A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

As an extension, Donella Meadows later defined eco-evolution as a prerequisite to the intelligent extension of a system - a theme carried to its limits by Deep Ecology and the later terrist movement.

See also:
diversity, biodiversity, cultural diversity
Conservation ecology
Conservation biology
ex-situ conservation
in-situ conservation
List of Conservation topics and Protected area
Global 200 (200 ecoregions defined by WWF as the most critical regions for conservation)
environmental movement
International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Environmental organisations


  • Conservation: Replacing Quantity With Quality As a Goal for Global Management by Carl F. Jordan-John Wiley & Sons - ISBN 0471595152 - (January 1995)
  • Conservation Biology : an evolutionary ecological perspective (Soulé et Wilcox, 1980)
  • Conservation and evolution (Frankel et Soulé, 1981)
  • Leopold, A. (1966) A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press. New York.