Do we as humans have a moral duty to conserve natural systems? Do species have a right to exist? Should we conserve biodiversity and natural resources for future generations? These are some of the ethical questions entrenched in conservation biology.
There are differing viewpoints about humans' place in nature that can be traced back to philosophers and land managers in the early days of conservation. These are:
John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, was the main voice behind the preservationist ethic. The idea was that natural areas have spiritual value and should be preserved, as is, rather than have resources extracted from them. Muir thought that all people, no matter what their place in society, could benefit from experiencing wilderness.
This type of thinking is still common today—outdoor education programs are mandatory for school kids in California, and many other summer camps, rehabilitation programs and retreats emphasize the role of nature in leading a fulfilling life.
The resource conservation ethic was put forth by Gifford Pinchot, who had a really awesome name and was the first leader of the US Forest Service. Lucky guy. He thought that natural areas should be managed so that resources could be extracted and the land can be used in a way that will allow "the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time."
The resource conservation ethic suggests we should use our natural areas for all the ways we want to, as long as future generations can use them too. Sounds a little tricky, but it means managing timber and extraction of other resources so we can use them now and still have forests left in the future. Pinchot thought the government should safeguard a nation's natural resources.
The resource conservation ethic is related to the idea of sustainability—using natural resources at a rate that allows the resource to be replenished naturally.