Raymond Dasmann, Pioneer of Environmentalism

Historical Essay

by David Kupfer, 2002

Dasmann by jennifer mcnulty.jpg

Ray Dasmann, late 1990s.

Photo: Jennifer McNulty, courtesy Planet Drum Foundation

Visionary environmentalist Ray Dasmann passed away at the age of 83 in 2002 in Santa Cruz. Dasmann had a remarkable career as an internationally renowned, premier conservation biologist who over the past fifty years made singular contributions to modern conservation science by defining and refining many of the concepts which are today part of the intellectual scaffolding of modern ecology and environmentalism. Early on in his life, he saw the problem of human's impact on the earth and worked to elevate our collective consciousness ever since.

While largely unheralded, he was one of the principle architects of environmental conservation literacy. His work was as important to the conservation movement as Rachel Carson, David Brower, and Jacques Cousteau. His writing helped nurture the cutting edge of the environmental movement. Hundreds of thousands of copies of his textbook "Environmental Conservation" (fifth edition, 1984) were used in college courses for decades.

One of the first advocates for conservation policies that respected the knowledge and circumstances of indigenous people, his early call for a vision of bioregionalism that minimized human impact on the land helped lay the groundwork for the field of environmental ethics. Working as a conservation biologist in the 1950s when the field was just emerging, identifying the major threats of population growth, pollution, habitat loss, and species eradication that would become the focus of international conservation efforts for decades to come.

Dasmann's talent for outstanding scientific research was matched by his desire to change the world. A gifted writer, Dasmann was equally at home in the field, the classroom, and the policy arena. He was able to transfer his passion for nature into a vision of planet preservation a decade before the public began to understand concepts like conservation and overpopulation.

A San Francisco native and UC Berkeley graduate, where he worked closely with A. Starker Leopold, son of renown ecologist Aldo Leopold, he began his career with his groundbreaking work as a field biologist, studying deer populations in California, and later, African wild game. Later, at the Conservation Foundation, in his pioneering work with UNESCO when he inaugurated its Man and the Biosphere Program, at the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and at the World Conservation Union, Dasmann's innovative thinking and writing influenced ecologists, conservation biologists, and governments around the world. His encompassing concept of ecodevelopment and its practices, and his inclusion of indigenous people as integral to the ecological equation are two of his major contributions to contemporary environmentalism.

During his tenure as a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz (1977-89), he promoted the interdisciplinary nature of ecology and environmental studies and inspired a generation of students who have gone on to become agents of change as ecologists, field biologists, and environmental activists.


Dasmann's "Destruction of California," an early appeal to halt the appalling results of so-called development.

He published over a hundred scientific articles and books, which include The Last Horizon (1963), The Destruction of California (1965), A Different Kind of Country (1968), Planet in Peril (1971), The Conservation Alternative (1975).

In the preface to his first book, The Last Horizon, Dasmann wrote that he did "not wish to be a detached observer of the destruction of a world and a way of life which I have grown fond." His subsequent global leadership and life's work verified this noble declaration.

His impact is even evident in our altered semantics: In the early 1960's, Dasmann fought for the title of his influential text, "Environmental Conservation," at a time when the phrase was unknown. As a consequence of his pioneering work on game ranching in Africa, he coined the term and fostered the field of ecodevelopment and helped make ecotourism a household word.

In the Spring of 2001, the Regional History Project of the UCSC Library published an oral history, Raymond Dasmann: A Life in Conservation Biology. In 2001, University of California Press published his autobiography, Last Call for the Wild. Dasmann retained his insightful, laconic wisdom as well as a dry sense of humor up to his final days. Humble, global in outlook, prescient, intelligent, thoughtful, pioneering, heroic, his impact on the Conservation Movement profound. We sat down at his home in Santa Cruz in 2001 to discuss his life's work. . . .

David Kupfer (DK): You'd like to be remembered as someone...?

Raymond Dasmann (RD): Yes! (laughs). Someone who worked mostly as an interpreter of other people's field work. I did a lot of writing. I pulled together other's information and ideas gathered in the process of doing applied work....

DK: From where do you get your sense of hope?

RD: Probably from the sense of satisfaction seeing my direst of predictions come through....It is like 'I told you all about 20 years ago! Why didn't you listen to me??' Actually, I get a very real sense of satisfaction from seeing people doing the right thing like you are doing out on the organic farm where you live, doing the right thing on a bare piece of land. You are seeing the organic concept widely accepted now, across the heartland even, where chemical farming has been so prevalent. It is what I had hoped for, but I did not expect it so soon. It has been frustrating seeing conservation and environmental issues so early on and not having people pay attention. If you don't expect much, you won't be disappointed. Actually some things have been quite successful. The organic farming movement is not going away. In fact, it has been practiced for centuries. We know very well how to do it.

DK: It must be terribly frustrating to have witnessed the war being waged on the planet for all these years.

RD: It puzzles me all the time. We know the way, yet we go the wrong way.I..You do this on a highway and you won't last long. You do it in broad economic terms, you seem to get by for awhile. Yes, we know how to solve these problems, without any doubt. It is maddening. You can't think of it too seriously, otherwise you start to weep.

DK: So the way out of this dilemma is?

RD: To begin with, I believe we must restore the sense of individual responsibility and involvement, and get away from the idea that conservation is the responsibility of somebody else—the federal government, the state, the corporations, the rich. We must each face up to the need of developing an ecologically sustainable way of living; we need to look at our patterns of consumption and behavior and shed those practices that contribute to the continuing destruction of nature. This is easy to say, but incredibly difficult to do in a society which is oriented toward consumption, ever growing material enrichment, and waste. I certainly have not succeeded in abandoning all my bad habits, but it is more difficult for people who have grown up in my generation as habits are more deeply ingrained. But without that total involvement, words become meaningless. Part of the individual change that is essential is the need to stop thinking of living beings as things to be exploited or manipulated and recognize that they are partners in a community of fellow beings. We must start trying to develop that "reverence for life" that Albert Schweitzer called for long ago. When dealing with nature we need to lose some of our much-vaunted objectivity (Which is useful only for certain purposes) and develop a greater subjectivity, empathy, feeling. This does not mean we stop using plants or animals for food, but it does change the approach that we have to the process and begins to prevent gross excess. A third step for those who are in a position to do it, and not everybody is, is to find like-minded people and start developing ecologically sustainable communities that can gradually become unhooked from the waste-and-pollution-producing systems that prevail in the society at large. In such communities one must use the tools and technology that are now available to develop alternate technologies offering greater for survival.

These are only beginnings, but they are essential beginnings. While they are going on, other things must be happening also. Obviously government, the corporations, industries, and the consumer society are still there. They have to be influenced and changed so that the whole system begins to be turned around in ecologically sustainable directions. Throughout the nation what is needed is an increasing degree of local and regional self-sufficiency leading to self sufficiency for the nation as a whole. I am using the term self-sufficiency in a relative sense. Total self sufficiency would probably be pointless. There is no need to give up trade and commerce, or to cease consumption of things that are produced elsewhere, but there is a need to get out of a state of dependence on the exploitation of other people, places, and living communities.

DK: Why do restoration? Why not accept the world as it is?

RD: When an environment has become unbalanced, polluted, or devastated to the point where it is no longer healthy or able to sustain life, restoration becomes necessary. People may choose to do ecological restoration in order to regain a healthy environment or to upgrade the quality of life in their region. Then you must ask, what is it you are trying to restore? What conditions in what time period are you trying to regain? A long time ago? Last week? Earlier today??? What do you want and why do you want it? You get a lot of disagreement on this. Sometimes restoration means creating a new web of relationships with different species than were present in the past. There's no choice in this matter really. Either we restore the damage to ecosystems or continue down to the bottom of the hill, and at the bottom of the hill there may be some environmental condition which humans cannot survive under. If we are to occupy the planet, we need to take care of it, otherwise it will be uninhabitable.

DK: Why try to go back to some point in time?

RD: Ecosystems are always changing, whether you are looking at them or not, whether you are doing anything or not. The thing is, what direction are they going in and why? These basic questions have to be kept in mind from the start. Most restoration aims regain the condition existing when the Indians inhabited this land prior to the Euro-Caucasians. The question is, is restoration to that point in time what you want? Native Americans also changed things over what it was like when they arrived and deliberately managed the environment. One of the big things with the restoration community is getting rid of invasive species, e.g. fight the takeover of grasslands by invasive species. You may be restoring balance to the system rather than putting things back the way they were.

DK: How do you create long term care of an ecosystem, pieces of landscape, watersheds?

RD: I think long-term care of a place means you have to look not just at what goes into maintaining, protecting, and conserving, but also what it is used for, who the users are. Long-term care needs to involve people, how they think it should be protected, not just in the immediate area but the surrounding region where people are using the land for different purposes. This is true in the city as much as in the salt marsh. But you have to get the people involved who are the users or inhabitants of that particular ecosystem. A lot of safeguards have to be in place and supported by the community or it will break down in the long run or the short run.

DK: What do you think about the changes in the view that local restoration is vital when we now have such a world climate crisis?

RD: We are at the point where we have to think global. There is no option—the tide is rising and the world is coming to your front door. It used to seem rather simple. Just create a National Park or National Monument but that is only the beginning. If you want to keep that, think of the long-term, get people involved, not just local people, but people interested in the place.

DK: In light of all the damage you have seen to the environment, how have you been able to live without being in total despair? How do you maintain a positive outlook?

RD: You develop a hard shell and you cry a lot. (laughs) There's no avoiding it. We keep winning little battles but losing big wars. It is disturbing. But what is the choice? Either you work and fight or give up. If the thing is important to you, you won't give up.

DK: Do you see any possibility in reestablishing old ecosystems in California?

RD: Yes, I see an opportunity for restoring the land to the condition which the Euro-Americans inherited from the Native-Americans. But we must consider how we want to restore the land. I believe the biggest ecosystem challenge will be in restoring the nearshore marine ecosystems. This is one area which is receiving considerable damage. If you are looking for biodiversity, that is where you will find it. Marine systems are far more diverse than terrestrial in that there is a tremendous amount of life we are affecting and a lot of it we cannot even see. And of course climate change is hitting the oceans particularly hard. So we can sit around and watch Manhattan gradually sink into the water or we can do something about it. If you are living on a Pacific Island, that's no joke.

DK: When you started work in conservation biology and the environment, did you and your colleagues have any inkling that there would be such a broad based environmental movement developing?

RD: That was a hope, but not something we could realistically count on. Seeing the consciousness changing was very encouraging, it meant we didn't have to go back to square one by trying to reinterpret everything. Now it is heartening that environmental issues are generally accepted by the public as important.

DK: Describe ecodevelopment and its derivation in your work.

RD: It is based on three premises: It must meet the basic needs of people, and in particular, the poorest people, before attending to the wants of the well-to-do. It must encourage self reliance and a degree of self sufficiency in essentials, based on the knowledge, traditions and skills of the people concerned. It must be based on a symbiosis between people and nature, to maintain the diversity of the natural world and to provide for the diversity in the social world. Through this it can guarantee the sustainability of all essential activities. It derived from my overseas experience working in conditions there, working with different agencies and points of view. You keep talking about it and finally they accept it.

DK: What have you contributed to the field of conservation biology?

RD: I have no idea. . .(laughs). Looking at the whole picture, all tied together, rather than only part of it.. You can't throw things away because there is no away. A few basic definitions like that.

DK: Didn't you coin the first law of the environment?

RD: Yes (laughs)...'No matter how bad you think things are, the reality is much worse.'