George Walford: The Progress of Conservation

One major ideology develops out of another, and it does so because the previous one falls short; along with some of the desired results it produces others both unintended and unwanted. As warnings of the precarious condition of the giant panda brought these animals into the news, so destruction of them increased, more being captured for zoos and greater numbers poached for their skins.

As the activity devoted to conservation increases it needs more money, and fund-raising tends to grow in importance until it becomes the primary aim; ‘accountability’ comes to mean accuracy of book-keeping, rather than responsibility for the animals. Organisations, and government departments too, develop interests and purposes of their own, quite apart from the welfare of wildlife, and field biologists who speak out too freely about what is happening to the animals risk deportation, loss of employment, and even death. [1]

These frustrations encountered by the conservation movement find a parallel in those met by attempts to bring help to human victims of war and natural disaster. The appeals which bring in money most effectively (pictures of starving children above all) tend to create further problems by dehumanising their subjects. Those who suffer are not always photogenic, and not always helpless victims; they are people, displaying the full human range of pride and courage, of fear, independence and cruelty. [2]

Each particular problem has its particular causes, yet the consistency with which such problems recur suggests a structural origin. They arise when an all-too-easily-resistible force tackles a virtually immovable object. The current condition of social affairs, taken as a whole, results from all that has gone before; as a whole it is heavily determined, the outcome of many long and complex chains of causation and correspondingly hard to shift. Almost invariably, however, there is a fluctuating fringe of things which could (almost) just as well be other than they are, and the ease with which this can be affected misleads the reformers into thinking they can continue adding one minor change to another till they reach their major objective. They find, however, that as they approach the more substantial features of the condition so resistance strengthens. Thus an individual can often get higher wages; all the employees of a firm, even of an industry, can sometimes do so. As the attempted change becomes more general, however, as it comes to affect society rather than individual units, so resistance builds up; pass a law imposing minimum wages and employers cut their staffs; also, workers needing jobs start to undercut the official rates. Officials have responded to the ‘freedom of information’ laws recently passed in the United States by not putting sensitive information on record. Arthur Schlesinger commented on the ‘Buddha-like’ silence of Dean Rusk at meetings they both attended, and Rusk later revealed that this was because he knew Schlesinger intended to write about the meetings. [3]

Reforms, whether in the treatment of animals or of human beings, readily affect the soft margins of the social structure but do little to change its central core, and recognition of this brings a resort to more radical methods. Those working for animal rights start to bomb furriers and vivisectionists. Persistent failure to achieve much greater equality brings a demand for abolition of private property. The limited success of reformism preovokes the emergence of revolutionism.

It is a continuing process, some members of each generation of reformers being driven to reject reformism. Knowledge of the limited success achievable by reform is what justifies the greater expenditure of effort required by attempts at revolution, and although this knowledge can to some extent be acquired by precept, yet precept becomes less effective as it relates less directly to experience. Maintenance of revolutionary effort needs continuing demonstration of the limits on what reforms can achieve. Revolutionism, while opposing and criticising reformism, also depends upon it.

[1] Based on a review of George B. Schaller’s book The Last Panda by Thomas Struhsaker, TLS Dec 31.
[2] Benthall J. 1993, Disasters, Relief and the Media.
[3] TLS Sept 24,14.

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IC has more than once drawn attention to the twosidedness of reality. Nearly everything has more than two sides, but nothing real has less; NIAT carries the corollary that nothing is absolutely either this or that but always (in some sense, to some extent) both. We have found freedom to be also limitation, and socialism arises as a feature of capitalism. Now John Tyler Bonner shows how, in biological studies, concentration of attention upon the parts brings increased understanding of the whole. Reductionism illuminates holism.

In evolutionary theorising the focus of interest has moved from species through individual organisms to genes, and this concentration upon increasingly small units has furthered understanding of the whole which they constitute: ‘By reducing things to biological microunits we can reach important and encompassing generalizations; in this way biological reductionism seems to be slowly sneaking up to produce a new holism.’ (John Tyler Bonner, ‘From Darwin to DNA, changes and achievements in sixty years of biology.’ TLS January 14)

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‘ACCORDING to Oakeshott’ (Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher) ‘only the half-educated felt the need for ideologies, rather as only the stupid depended on a crib. Properly educated people had the good sense to allow habit, custom, hunch, or in a word tradition, to guide them in the right political direction… (Peregrine Worsthorne, Tricks of Memory)

It would be hard to find a neater short account of the Conservative political ideology.

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.