AN URCHIN IN DANSKINS clambered up the section of beach I had staked out for myself. She was trying not to lose the dozen fresh sand dollars she cradled against her pushed-out stomach. With pigtails and a turned-up nose, she looked to be about 8.

Fifty yards away, in knee-deep water, her mother and older sister were dredging sand dollars with the rapacity of strip miners. They walked back and forth through the colony, systematically scuffing their feet just under the surface of the soft sand, bending over to retrieve each disk as it was dislodged. Their treasure was collected by the 8-year-old, who took them to a nearby sand bar where the family's power boat lay waiting.

It was a quiet summer Saturday on an isolated beach and I was startled by this level of industrial organization. Even the 8-year-old executed her task with square-jawed efficiency. Sensing that the adults were too busy to be bothered, I picked on the child, engaging her as she emerged from the tide pool. I felt indignant, even self-righteous, and plain angry about the sand dollar colony being exploited so methodically. I said, "You know, they're alive."

"We can put 'em in Clorox at home and they'll turn white."

"Do you really need so many?"

"My Momma makes 'em outta things."

If judged by our standards of intelligence and socialization, sand dollars are uncomplex. These flattened, rounded creatures live by scouring the ocean floor. They propel themselves just under the surface of the sand by means of hundreds of tiny sucker feet that tug on as many individual grains of sand. As they travel, the sand dollars pass sand particles through their alimentary canal, digesting the minute bacteria and algae, such as diatoms, that cling to the sand. Through this process, the simple creatures have succeeded in colonizing the sea floor.

I turned to the 8-year-old again. My first reaction had been based on respect for life. When she cited the usefulness of the harvest, I had retreated from my high ground. But I was disturbed by the large and growing pile of sand dollars, so I asked, "How many does she need to make things?"

"We can get a nickel apiece for the extras at the craft store."

Craft stores have bins of sand dollars for sale. Bleached white, they are destined to be jewelry or souvenirs. Some will live again as religious symbols. I've seen sand dollars bleached and broken in cross section, mounted on wood plaques. Parts of the jaw mechanism, which has been given the name "Aristotle's lantern" by biologists, had been removed and mounted separately. The inscription informed me that the sand dollar is also known as the "Holy Ghost Shell." Its markings are said to symbolize the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I read that one can also find on the sand dollar an Easter lily, a Christmas poinsettia, nail holes, and a spear wound. The sand dollar's five teeth represent the star of Bethlehem.

Nevertheless, I prefer my sand dollars in the lagoon and I wished I could say something to make the little girl take fewer of them. But I wasn't sure what to say. Simply by asking whether the sand dollars' usefulness justifies taking them all, I conceded their value as commodities. And if a few are useful, surely more are correspondingly so.

What had begun as a mere outing at the beach had been transformed into an entrepreneurial exercise, a model of capitalism complete with specialization of tasks, child labor and access to the system of distribution. Within that context, the child appealed to a value that could not be denied: No industrial operation can be expected to exercise self-restraint when there are profits to be made. The family was only transforming sand dollars into monetary dollars. I realized then that the discussion would end in an ideological impasse.

I wandered off, muttering to myself, troubled by my inability to state a convincing case. I could have talked about future trips to the beach and how it'd be nice to find sand dollars then, too. But the little girl would have said, "If we don't take 'em, somebody else will." She'd have been right.

So I consoled myself that I am not alone in my quandary. Many environmentalists struggle with just this dilemma. Some have opted for one horn or the other of it. Conservationists see natural ecosystems and other species as resources and are concerned mainly with wise use of them. Finding its philosophical roots in the ideas of Gifford Pinchot, first forester of the United States, this group judges all questions according to the criterion of the greatest good for the members of this faction, who are often trained professionally as resource managers, have usually exerted their influence through control of governmental agencies such as the Forest Service and Park Service.

Opposed to this group is another, often called preservationist, which is composed largely of committed and organized amateurs devoted to protecting large areas of the landscape from human use. This faction derives its spirit and mandate from John Muir, who was the first president of the Sierra Club in 1892. His followers often express their concerns by insisting that nature and wild places have value in their own right, wholly independent of their value to human beings.

Muir and Pinchot quarreled, and their respective followers have maintained, at best, an uneasy coalition. As the two factions compete to set the agenda for environmentalism, many of us, remaining uncommitted, embody both factions. The resulting schizophrenia can paralyze us with indecision and humble us in a debate with an 8-year-old in the sand dollar business.

I resolved to fight the paralysis, and repaired to the shade of a tall clump of sea oats. This time, I would think through what I should have said to the little girl. Like someone who has thought, too late, of just the right retort in witty conversation, I will be prepared for the next 8-year-old. As I tried to figure out what I should have said, I realized how complex a case I had to make.

We had already encountered an ideological impasse. Ours wasn't a disagreement about how to collect sand dollars. To the little girl, sand dollars are valuable as a resource and, to be used, they must be killed. For me, sand dollars are valuable because they are alive. No technological breakthrough would resolve our differences; and no simple test could determine who was correct.

The world of commerce had already made its mark on my little friend. As a novitiate in the order of capitalism, she was already acting as if sand dollars were merely commodities. To convince her otherwise, I'd have to show her the noncommercial value of sand dollars.

"I come to the beach to visit sand dollars," I'd say. She'd say I'm teasing, and would call me crazy when I tell her, "They're my relatives, and yours too, you know."

I'd counter her response that sand dollars die in Clorox with facts of my own, telling her how they move through the sand and how they find nourishment. I'd explain that sand dollars share the order Clypeastroides with other disk-urchins, and the class Echinoidea with the familiar, hemispherical, sea urchins. The flatter echinoids, including sand dollars, are adapted to life just below the surface of underwater sand, while the hemispherical ones roll about beneath the waves before coming to rest, mushroomlike, on the sea floor.

We'd pick one up and she'd feel how the little feet knead the skin on her palm, almost imperceptibly; she'd giggle when I asked her if she'd like to have so many feet.

I'd tell the little girl that some of the sucker-feet are used for sensing and show her the larger ones near the edge that are adapted for breathing. I'd say, "Oxygen's in water and it's in air. We have lungs to get oxygen from the air, but sand dollars absorb it through their feet." Then I could show her the little spines, which continuously move, creating a wash of water over the respiratory feet.

I'd show her the pentagonal structure of sand dollars, tell her that sand dollars and other echinoderms share a fondness for counting by fives, divided as they are, like starfish, into five sections (sometimes called "petals") around a central axis. Sand dollars have five sections and five teeth at their center. The functions of respiration, locomotion, etc. are therefore distributed equally among the five sections and are organized and directed by a decentralized nervous system that emanates from a major nerve circling the mouth.

We'd laugh at their waste dispoal problem. I'd show her the toothed mouth at the center of the organism and the anus located toward the rear. Then, I'd explain how the sand dollar has developed a siphon. By this remarkable adaptation, a canal, parallel to the alimentary one, moves water directly to the intestine where it purges the sand without diluting the digestive juices necessary to extract nutrition from the algae. The sand and diatoms are taken in through the center, but the waste is expelled behind, so sand dollars need not sort once again through their own refuse.

We would talk about how the organs of the sand dollar are encased, for protection, in a calcareous crust. Whereas we have our skeleton on the inside, the sand dollar has one just under its skin. At some point along the way, the ancestors of sand dollars invested in protection, rather than mobility. After the organism has died, its skeleton washes ashore. Its green surface bleaches white in the sun, attracting shell collectors.

Then I could explain how sand dollars reproduce enough young so that some can be taken. The little girl could think of the lagoon as a wonderful sand dollar factory. The tiny diatom is the real hero, turning the sun's energy into tissue. The sand dollar turns this tissue into energy and into a shell for protection. Only then do the predators arrive on the scene to initiate a new series of intentionally inspired changes, resulting in jewelry and plaques.

I'd tell the little girl that fish eat sand dollars. She may say "yuck" if I ask her if she'd like to try one, but if she fully understood the value of commodities, maybe she'd see that sand dollars are necessary for fish as well as for the craft store. This would be the conservationists' approach.

But if she stops there, if she still saw the sand dollars as a living resource, I'd have failed. If she thinks that sand dollars are only useful commodities that need only to be "managed," I'd still feel unsatisfied.

Maybe she'd be fascinated to know she and I share with the sand dollar a pentagonal structure. We have two legs for locomotion, two arms for manipulating objects and a head as the main node of a centralized nervous system.

We could speculate about how sand dollars experience their world and how our intelligence and understanding have emerged because our nervous system has gone so much further down the road of specialization. Yet I hope my little friend will hesitate before thinking that our ways are necessarily better ways, as if sand dollars are somehow defective people. I hope she'll be able to see that different species, facing different environmental conditions, have alternative organs and capacities. We should not assume that we're best at everything. I'll tell her that scientists are only now developing a mechanical gill, modeled on that of a fish, that can extract humanly usable oxygen from sea water. Much of our technological progress has been only a copy of nature's contrivances.

The mobility we gain by having an internal skeleton serves us well in most situations. Quicker than the little girl could say, "I'm glad we're better off," though, I'll remind her that medieval warriors had to imitate sand dollars by wearing armor.

I'd hope she'd see that what's a defect in nature depends on the situation. Adaptation to conditions is the first rule of nature. The sand dollar's ancestors adapted creatively and effectively to the abundance of predators in the shallow waters of lagoons.

Once my young friend understands the fascinating physiological structure of sand dollars and that we, like them, probably originated in lagoons, she will see that her remark, "My Momma makes 'em outta things," is not just a grammatical slip, but a profound truth. Our mother earth does indeed make all urchins, whether of the disk or Danskin variety, out of things. She will see how we emerged from the same ancient evolutionary lines as sand dollars, but that a different set of environmental problems beset us as we crawled ashore, and we diverged from them in structure and function.

There would still be more to say. We could talk about the tiny diatoms, microscopic plants that cling to the sand particles and how they, too, live in a complete environment, in miniature.

I might explain how, when the sand dollar digests the diatom, it exerts an evolutionary force in that small world. Its choice of particles to ingest is not random and the probabilities governing those choices create the selectional environment in which the diatom holds a niche. Likewise, our choices affect sand dollars.

I'd hope the little girl would see herself as an actor in the real-life and real-death drama on the beach. In her world of the near future there will be rapid technological change, making it harder to perceive dependencies on nature. Our interactions with the natural world are more remote than were those of our parents. As this trend continues, we will derive fewer and fewer products directly from nature.

In modern urban life, limitations appear more bureaucratic than natural. Our ancestors knew they had a waste disposal problem when it invaded their eyes, ears and noses, as when Londoners experienced the Thames turned into a cesspool. Now, we hold hearings regarding the "proper siting" of toxic waste dumps. Our ancestors experienced a wood shortage when they cut down trees more quickly than the forest could replenish them. Cause abutted effect. Now, "scheduled brown-outs" seem only administrative decisions, when in fact they're just less direct examples of overtaxing a resource base.

These differences of perception are important because they have a profound, though seldom noticed, effect on the modern psyche. My little friend may well grow up in a world where she never personally bumps up against nature's limits. I fear she will come to believe that all of nature is malleable in the face of human technology and that she need only pull the correct political levers to get her way.

I hope she will never live in a world devoid of living beaches because, if she does, she will also live in a world where species have ceased to struggle to exist and ceased their negotiations for a niche within the complex web of life. Domestication ends the great creative processes from which we must gain our inspiration. When we gain control of a natural ecosystem, we begin to manage it for our own ends. If a virgin forest is cut and replaced with a single species of lumber-producing tree in carefully measured and tilled rows, the fittest to survive no longer have an advantage. Instead, a conscious goal of production for human consumption rules the game of survival.

A river, channelized and walled, no longer creates its own path. A species, domesticated and cultivated, no longer creates its own destiny. An ecosystem, managed and controlled, is no longer a table where species negotiate to survive on their own terms.

I hope I can finally get the little girl to see the most important analogy of all -- a society, brainwashed and manipulated, is not free. Other species, which struggle to survive in living, unmanaged ecosystems, are our most powerful symbols of human freedom. They face constraints as we do, but they react creatively in a stubborn struggle to forge their own destiny. This always involves a compromise, but it is their compromise.

I hope my little friend will get a glimpse into a world where all of nature is managed as a resource and manipulated by technology. I hope she'll even be a little frightened when she realizes that she is a part of nature. Must she, then, be manipulated as well? The world of commerce will try to reduce my little friend to a mere consumer, as it tries to reduce the sand dollar to a mere commodity.

When the little girl grows up, she will no doubt choose the world of commerce, where her cohorts will act as if nature has value only as a commodity. Technological marvels will tempt her to believe that all things are possible through ingenuity. But if she never forgets her visit with sand dollars, she'll be a more valuable member of that world, because she'll know its limitations. She'll see why it matters that sand dollars are alive and wild. And if she feels a sense of kinship with sand dollars, she may also think of them as allies that can teach her children, as they've taught her, what it means to be free. Though she'll undoubtedly choose to live and work within the world of commerce, she'll be bothered by its assumptions. She'll be concerned for protecting our resource base, like a good conservationist. But she'll not stop there. She'll act with respect for living things and for living systems, even when she finds it necessary to exploit them. She'll prefer living symbols to lacquered ones.

At the end of our visit with sand dollars and our long talk, I'll only have instilled in the little girl my own quandary. But I hope she sees, someday, that the paradox puzzling environmentalists is really the paradox of the modern world of commerce and technology. I won't have resolved it, either for me or for her. We are consumers. That will not change. As conservationists we must manage nature wisely, but as we manipulate and control natural processes, we strike at our own freedom, symbolically and actually. As conservationists, we know that nature is valuable for its resources, but as preservationists, we must try to save sand dollars, because little girls need sand dollars as much as they need nickels.