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The following is an op-ed piece that appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer on January 3, 2010. It was co-authored by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis and FHS member and professor of environmental history Char Miller.

Getting together for the environment

“In international relations, the great feature of the growth of the last century has been the gradual recognition of the fact that instead of its being normally to the interest of each nation to see another depressed, it is normally to the interest of each nation to see the others elevated.” So argued a Nobel Prize-winning president at an international meeting called to deal with a growing environmental crisis.

After calling upon those gathered to closely cooperate for the common good of all, he concluded: “I believe that the movement that you this day initiate is one of the utmost importance to this hemisphere and may become of the utmost importance to the world at large.”

These words were uttered 100 years before President Barack Obama went to Copenhagen to attend the climate-change meetings. Their source? Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the keynote speaker at the 1909 North American Conservation conference, the first international conference on conservation policy. From the dais, he challenged his audience to think about the global threat posed by the too-rapid consumption of natural resources.

President Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot on the Inland Waterways trip in 1907. The Inland Waterways trip was one of several efforts by the president and Pinchot to generate media attention for the cause of conservation.

This conference succeeded in focusing attention on the need for conserving timber, coal and water resources in North America, and the president was eager to expand this concept to the world, committing the U.S. to supporting a world conservation conference to be held in the Netherlands in September 1909. Thirty nations had already accepted invitations to attend when Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, canceled it.

The driving force behind the White House’s commitment to international cooperation was Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and an enormous influence on the first Roosevelt’s conservation policies. After studying forestry in Europe in the early 1890s, Pinchot briefly served as George Vanderbilt’s forester at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, where he demonstrated how judicious logging could rehabilitate the land at a time when loggers (and tax laws) favored clear-cutting forests and moving on to the next patch of land.

At the same time, Roosevelt was a rising star in New York’s political scene who had witnessed the damage loggers and farmers had done in the Northeast as well as in the Dakota Territory and much of the West. He shared Pinchot’s concern for the future of America’s natural resources.

The two first began working to change the physical as well as the political landscape when Roosevelt became governor of New York in 1898. When Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1901, he immediately embraced Pinchot’s plans for saving the public lands, and together they introduced conservation to the nation.

After the cancellation of the world conference in 1909, for the next 30 years Pinchot carried the idea for a world conservation conference to every president until the second President Roosevelt – Franklin – backed the idea. Pinchot had been talking with FDR about the need for such an international conference when war broke out in Europe in 1939. That’s when Pinchot began arguing that conservation was the only route to a “permanent” peace.

Although war had long been “an instrument of national policy for the safeguarding of natural resources or for securing them from other nations,” Pinchot argued in Nature (1940), this need not be the inevitable fate of human society: “International cooperation in conserving, utilizing, and distributing natural resources to the mutual advantage of all nations might well remove one of the most dangerous of all obstacles to a just and permanent world peace.”

Five years later, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Pinchot – nearly 80 years old – expanded his thinking to consider atomic energy as another natural resource to be included in his peace plan. If he was able to think beyond the immediate ravages of war, what is hindering us – in this much-more peaceful age – from acting to save the world?

Pinchot’s world conference plan eventually resulted in the 1949 U.N. Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources. It was held at the dawn of the Cold War (and three years after Pinchot’s death). Conference attendees focused on how “the earth’s resources and the ingenuity of man can provide an almost unlimited potential for improved living standards for the world’s population” – the critical application of science to the pursuit of global peace. It was what Pinchot had envisioned and what should have been a goal for last month’s conference in Copenhagen – and afterward.

Obama apparently agrees. His acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize echoed Pinchot’s assertion of the pressing need to build a just and lasting peace. Obama declared: “[As a result of climate change], we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement – all of which will fuel more conflict for decades. For this reason, it is not merely scientists and environmental activists who call for swift and forceful action – it’s military leaders in my own country and others who understand our common security hangs in the balance.”

Pinchot was well aware of the precarious balance that conservationists must maintain as they fight to preserve natural resources and the human communities that depend on them. And he would remind us that any resolutions that come from the Copenhagen meetings are but first steps toward a long-delayed discussion about our global responsibilities. As Pinchot wrote in 1940, “The conservation of natural resources and fair access to needed raw materials are steps toward the common good to which all nations must in principle agree.”

Let’s hope that the president and other Copenhagen delegates remain as steadfast in their commitment to meet the common threat that potential climate changes pose for us all.

James G. Lewis is the staff historian at the Forest History Society in Durham. Char Miller is W.M. Keck professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

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