Studies about the need for environmental protection reflect two broad interpretations of “protection”: one interprets such protection as achieving sustainable development of natural resources; the other views the conservation of nature of primary importance. This difference is demonstrated in one of the US’s first environmental conflicts—that between Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946) and John Muir (1838–1914). Pinchot and Muir disagreed about natural resources: Pinchot believed these resources should be used in ways that benefit the most people; Muir argued that nature must be preserved as is. In 1913, their disagreement came to a head in a dispute surrounding the proposed construction of a dam on the Tuolumne River inside Yosemite National Park, a dam that would flood the park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley to create a reservoir. This dispute is nicely illuminated in two valuable books: Char Miller’s Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. In describing this dispute, these books provide a telling picture of early, conflicting concerns about the environment. Pinchot argued that the dam would allow San Francisco to derive electric power and water from the resulting reservoir, thus benefitting the most people. Muir argued that the dam would destroy the interconnected relations of water, rocks, land, plants, and animals for which Yosemite was known. Pinchot eventually prevailed, and today the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct delivers water from the Sierra Nevadas to the Bay Area and beyond.
These two approaches were to become known as shallow ecology (Pinchot’s position) and deep ecology (Muir’s), terminology coined by Arne Naess in his article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement” (published in the journal Inquiry). Deep ecology takes into consideration all organisms in a field of mutually essential relations. Shallow ecology, known today as “sustainable development,” seeks to reduce pollution and limit the depletion of resources. In 2013, Clive Spash published an essay in Ecological Economics titled “The Shallow or the Deep Ecological Economics Movement?” in which he shows that so-called shallow ecology had overtaken the field of ecological economics to the extent that advocates ignored the need to transform mainstream economic activity in ways that would preserve nature.