Environmentalism in the United States historically has been divided into two camps: conservation and preservation. A pioneer in environmental economics, John Krutilla helped define the field by accounting for the concerns of each side.
- The nineteenth century roots of environmentalism were divided between conservationist (or utilitarian) and preservationist (or spiritual and aesthetic) impulses, represented respectively by Gifford Pinchot and John Muir.
- Pinchot advocated conservation of natural resources to be used for human purposes; Muir advocated protection from humans, for nature’s own sake.
- In the first half of the twentieth century, economics was firmly on Pinchot’s side of that schism. As an environmental ethic evolved, scientists including Aldo Leopold framed the problem as a tension between economics and the environment.
- More than anyone, RFF economist John Krutilla reframed the problem in terms of opportunity costs. Thus, the values of Muir and his followers were just as "economic" as Pinchot's: development came at the cost of preservation.
- Thus, Krutilla redefined the problem of "economics versus the environment," pushing the field toward a new "economics of the environment."