To What Extent Did the Nineteenth Century Conservation Discourse Differ from That of Today

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Plants, trees, forests, soil, animals. These are some common words that people hear when the environment is mentioned. The existence of these trees, plants, and animals adds to biodiversity and serves many important roles such as attracting visitors, generating revenue, and contributing to slow climate change. Over the years, many trees are felled and forest areas are disappearing at a fast rate. According to Earth Day Network, deforestation has been reported to be the second cause of global warming and it produces about a quarter of the global greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions (“Deforestation and Climate Change”, n.d.). In view of this, countries have been putting efforts into conserving the environment and forests. This essay will talk about environmental conservation both in the nineteenth century and the past, and how the discourse differs.

There are, undeniably, similarities between the nineteenth-century conservation discourse and how people thought of the environment and that of today. In the nineteenth century and today, people perceive that forests act as an important economic role for some countries. In the past, many people depended on hunting and selling products for a living. Forests provided great sources of raw materials such as fuelwood for cooking and timber which were sold to make furniture or construct houses etc., generating revenue and income, especially for people living in rural areas. An example would be India where a large number of trees in the forests were chopped off to meet the demand for timber and raw materials needed to build the railways during the Madras Presidency in the nineteenth century (Saravanan, 2008). In Singapore, the rate of deforestation was shocking as around 90% of forests had been destroyed by 1900 (Yee, Corlett, Liew & Tan, 2011). This indicates the enormous number of trees that have been chopped down to fulfill various economic purposes. Similarly, in the United States as well, it was estimated that 20-25% of annual timber was used in building railways (Pisani, 1985). Furthermore, the author mentioned that expenses were much lower compared to the revenue, implying that forests were used to generate revenue which threatened sustainability as it affected the forest area. Scholars who have looked into India’s environmental history found that the conservation of forests was not a priority as officials actually supported deforestation so that there would be enough timber supply to meet the demand (Saravanan, 2008). All this suggests that some countries viewed deforestation as an opportunity for economic gain instead of conserving the forests. Likewise, people still see forests as a useful economic resource today. Many countries including the United States and other industrial countries still consume large amounts of timber which makes it inevitable to chop down trees to meet the demand. The conservation efforts of some countries are also geared towards the sustainable growth of forests so as to ensure a constant supply of resources. As the world grows, there will also be an increase in the trade of forest products for the production of other wood-based items. Furthermore, forest areas serve as potential tourist attractions and draw visitors from different countries to visit. Such examples of forest areas that act as tourist sites include the Black Forest and Amazon Forest (although it is faced with deforestation now). This can boost tourism receipts and improve the country’s Gross Domestic Product, stimulating economic growth in the country if forests are well managed and preserved. As such, the conservation discourse in the nineteenth century and today are similar in terms of the perception that there are economic advantages that can be reaped from forests.

Another similarity is that the forests and trees have been used to meet the changing demands of the population. In the past, countries with high populations depending on agriculture would destroy forests to make space for the cultivation of plants and crops as a means of earning a living. For example, in Singapore, large areas were cleared to plant crops such as gambier, pepper, and rubber. However, these profitable crops caused the land to be infertile which caused further deforestation since farmers need new space to grow the crop after the plants die (Kim, 2018). It has been estimated that less than 10% of the forests remained which resulted in the loss of many varieties of animals and plantations (Chunneng & Lay, 1970). However, as a country continues to attract more immigrants or the population increases, naturally, the demand for more housing would also rise. Thus, due to the influx of immigrants, Singapore had to find ways to meet the growing demand for houses. Hence, people in the past emphasized development more than conserving forests as forests and plantations need to make way for these developments when more space is required to build shelters, shops, and community spaces for these people. As countries continue to develop and move away from agriculture, the land previously for agriculture would also be converted for constructing buildings, such example is Singapore (Chunneng & Lay, 1970). Similarly, today, many countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong face the issue of land scarcity. While having forests may bring economic benefits, the more important and pressing issue is to ensure that people have a place to live in. As such, countries resort to urban development at the expense of clearing forests. However, land use planning adopted by countries can help to ensure sustainable development and make sure that certain portions of green forests are kept intact. In Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has a long-term plan regarding land use. In view of this, many started to realize the impact of deforestation and knew that the forests and plant life were threatened and a change would be needed. Hence, this shows a similarity as it was thought that the conservation of forests was less of a priority and they can make way for developmental needs – demand for agricultural land and housing in the nineteenth century and the demand for housing and industrial space today.

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In the past, conservation measures were thought to be in the interests of the government while today, the measures and efforts by the government are meant to really conserve the environment and thus, thought to be more desirable. By conserving the forests and biodiversity, the government could reap profits as they sell off the supply of timber and other products. An example would be the Forest Department which was established to conserve the forest environment and biodiversity in India (Saravanan, 2008) but put forests into commercial use by trying to yield a high amount of produces, chopping off large numbers of trees for timber, and selling them for high revenue (Tamil Nadu Forest Department, n.d.). Furthermore, in Singapore, the reserves are also mainly for timber but maintenance was costly and the government was not gaining as much hence, they reduced the support (Kim, 2018). This shows that in the past, some conservation efforts were implemented in the interest of government officials to exploit the forest resources for economic benefits instead of purely wanting to protect the environment. Moreover, the ‘Charter of Indian Forestry’ was issued stating that forests which do not belong to anyone would be state-owned. (Barton, 2001). Hence, this shows that past efforts to conserve the environment were usually controlled by the government and people do not have much say in it, resulting in the government exploiting the resources for their own interests. In contrast, today, many people and governments realize the advantage of having forests and a variety of plants and animals in the environment. Forests have been shown to have a positive impact on temperature as trees absorb carbon dioxide, reducing global warming and there are other benefits such as economic, social, and psychological. There are concrete ways to protect forests such as setting up reserves and establishing protected areas so that there will not have a human impact and the areas would not be converted for other purposes. For example, in 2012, the southern state of Karnataka has about 2600 square kilometers of protected forests (“How India is building Asia's largest secure forest network,” 2014). By doing so, it can maintain the tranquillity of these forest areas, not allowing human destruction. As more trees take over land, it can provide a place for animals to live in and promote reproduction, thereby reducing the probability of certain species of animals becoming extinct. The Indian government has also established schemes to grow back trees, such as the National Afforestation Programmes and National Mission for Green, which aim to increase the number of trees and plantations on previously deforested land (Pandurang, 2017). Other countries like Singapore and Australia have adopted similar approaches. Singapore's government still set aside nature reserves to preserve the trees and plant species to ensure that people have green spaces where they can visit for recreation and spot rare species of animals or plants (Tan, 2016). Australia’s forests protected in nature reserves have increased over the years as well (“Conservation of Australia's Forests”, n.d.). This shows the efforts of countries to keep some of their forest area protected and truly untouched to promote biodiversity and provide space where people can enjoy nature. Thus, there is a difference in the conservation discourse in terms of the purpose of promoting conservation.

Next, conservation was perceived as the government’s responsibility in the nineteenth century given that the power and resources they have to conserve the forests but now, conservation is perceived as a shared responsibility amongst various stakeholders and government efforts are more successful. In the nineteenth century, many conservation efforts were undertaken by the government such as reforestation and setting up of reserves. Furthermore, since most of the time it only involves the government, some concerns regarding land use and forests were being overlooked such as in America (Pisani, 1985). These efforts did not include individuals as they did not have ways to contribute to saving the environment. Hence, this could result in limited effectiveness in promoting conservation. However, recent conservation efforts allow other stakeholders to be responsible for protecting forests and the environment by increasing awareness and involvement. Many countries support the Sustainable Development Goal where goal 15 relates to life on land, tackling deforestation and land degradation, and sets targets to achieve the goals while conducting milestone checks which show international effort in combating deforestation. India also participated in international events such as World Forestry Day to increase people’s awareness of the importance to conserve forests and share ways people could help to ensure sustainable growth (International Day of Forests, n.d.). While there are programs where government support is more crucial such as species recovery programs in Singapore to increase population by protecting species in safe areas and enhancing habitats (Strategies and Actions, 2019), conservation efforts could involve the community and individuals to make it more sustainable. Volunteering programs can invoke passion in people to help protect the environment. For example, in Singapore, volunteers can act as guides for tours in nature reserves, educating young and old on the rare species of plants and flowers, emphasizing the importance of environmental conservation to motivate them to make a difference and protect the precious forests and plants (Strategies and Actions, 2019). Furthermore, Wild Singapore Online! is a website where Singaporeans can learn about nature and provide opportunities for people to create a positive impact on the environment (Strategies and Actions, 2019). Moreover, the efforts are also more effective in recent years. The area of forests present has seen an increase in some countries such as India, where it increased by 6778 square kilometers from 2015 to 2017 as reported by India State of Forest Report (State of Forest Report, n.d.), highlighting that the measures taken by India have paid off. National Parks Board has efforts to conserve forests and make Singapore greener through the Forest Restoration Action Plan (“NParks unveils Forest Restoration Action Plan for nature areas”, 2019) by regenerating forests which gives people more green spaces and at the same time, makes people cherish these green spaces. Of course, the government and stakeholders need to work hand in hand to achieve better results in conservation. Thus, this was different from the past due to the fact that modern conservation efforts involve more stakeholders instead of the government alone and have been more effective as compared to the measures in the past.

Lastly, in the past, conservation was perceived to be done through common methods such as reforestation and setting up reserves but, in recent years, more innovative and interesting methods of conserving forests and the environment has been utilized. In the past, the most common way to preserve forests was to set up reserves and plant back more trees as seen in many countries, or to implement schemes and policies to protect these forests. Today, due to the advancements in technology, countries have adopted technology into their conservation practices. One such example would be in Singapore where there is Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015 where one solution proposed is Skyrise Greenery (“Our Targets”, n.d), blending greenery in our city by planting trees or plants at rooftops or through vertical planting. Furthermore, in a technologically-savvy population, innovative ways such as incorporating the use of technology in raising awareness and love for the nature and environment have been developed. Improving the learning experience for students through the wireless learning trail at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is a unique way to educate students about nature through the scanning of codes and participating in activities. This could promote love for forests and animals, sparking students’ interest in the conservation of the environment so that they can enjoy recreational activities. Furthermore, technology has been used to gather information regarding tree growth and health in countries like Singapore (known as the Ecological Network of Tree Sensors) and Australia which systems such as multispectral imaging (Sin, 2019) so that conservation efforts can be altered to better protect the trees. As such, more innovative and technological ways to conserve forests have been used which are different from that of the past.

In conclusion, the rate of deforestation and the disappearance of animals and plant species are concerns and we can only hope that countries can try to balance the environment and development. In the past and today, countries have always tried to conserve the environment. The conservation in the two time periods is similar in terms of the perception of forests as having an economic role and in meeting the demand of the population but yet, they are also very different in terms of the purpose for conservation, involvement of stakeholders, and change in methods in protecting the environment. Hence, to a larger extent, the nineteenth-century conservation discourse differs from that of today since there are many changes over the years for any country and so it is predictable that many conservation discourses would have changed as well.

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