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Flashback 2015: New Yorker mag: ‘Environmentalism’s Racist History’ – From Sierra Club’s founder Muir to Ehrlich

By Jedediah Purdy – August 13, 2015 –  Purdy teaches at Duke University. His most recent book is “After Nature.”


For these conservationists, who prized the expert governance of resources, it was an unsettlingly short step from managing forests to managing the human gene pool. In a 1909 report to Roosevelt’s National Conservation Commission, Yale professor Irving Fisher broke off from a discussion of public health to recommend preventing “paupers” and physically unhealthy people from reproducing, and warned against the “race suicide” that would follow if the country did not replenish itself with Northern European stock. Fisher took the term “race suicide” from Roosevelt, who, in a 1905 speech, had pinned it on women who dodged childbearing. Gifford Pinchot, the country’s foremost theorizer and popularizer of conservation, was a delegate to the first and second International Eugenics Congress, in 1912 and 1921, and a member of the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society, from 1925 to 1935.

Roosevelt put Pinchot in charge of the National Conservation Commission, and made him head of the new Forest Service, but he also cultivated the Romantic naturalist John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892. In the Sierra Club’s early leaders, the environmental movement has some less troubling ancestors. Following Muir, whose bearded face and St. Francis-like persona were as much its icons as Yosemite Valley, the club adopted the gentle literary romanticism of Thoreau, Emerson, and Wordsworth. The point of preserving wild places, for these men—and, unlike in Roosevelt’s circles, some women—was to escape the utilitarian grind of lowland life and, as Muir wrote, to see the face of God in the high country.

But Muir, who felt fraternity with four-legged “animal people” and even plants, was at best ambivalent about human brotherhood. Describing a thousand-mile walk from the Upper Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, he reported the laziness of “Sambos.” Later he lamented the “dirty and irregular life” of Indians in the Merced River valley, near Yosemite. In “Our National Parks,” a 1901 essay collection written to promote parks tourism, he assured readers that, “As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.” This might have been incisive irony, but in the same paragraph Muir was more concerned with human perfidy toward bears (“Poor fellows, they have been poisoned, trapped, and shot at until they have lost confidence in brother man”) than with how Native Americans had been killed and driven from their homes.

What does it mean that they cared more about “animal people” than about some human beings? The time they lived in is part of an explanation, but not an excuse. For each of these environmentalist icons, the meaning of nature and wilderness was constrained, even produced, by an idea of civilization.

Their literary icon, Thoreau, had said in his 1854 speech “Slavery in Massachusetts” that even his beloved ponds did not give him pleasure when he thought of human injustice: “What signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? . . . The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.” But Thoreau also shared Muir’s problem; in some ways, he created it. When he wrote about American nature, Thoreau was arguing about American culture, which, even for most abolitionists, meant the culture of a white nation. In his essay “Walking,” which gave environmentalists the slogan “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau proposed that American greatness arose as “the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.” For both Muir and Thoreau, working, consuming, occupying, and admiring American nature was a way for a certain kind of white person to become symbolically native to the continent.

The nineteen-seventies saw a raft of new environmental laws and the growth of the Sierra Club’s membership from tens to hundreds of thousands. But the decades of advocacy behind this wave of environmental concern shared much with the older, exclusionary politics of nature. In 1948, more than a decade before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (most of which was first published in this magazine), a pair of best-selling works of popular ecology sounded many of Carson’s themes, from the dangers of pesticides to the need to respect nature’s harmonies. William Vogt’s “Road to Survival” embraced eugenics as a response to overpopulation, urging governments to offer cash to the poor for sterilization, which would have “a favorable selective influence” on the species. In “Our Plundered Planet,” Fairfield Osborn, the son of Madison Grant’s friend and ally Henry Fairfield Osborn, forecast that postwar humanitarianism, which allowed more people to survive into adulthood, would prove incompatible with natural limits. While neither man evinced Madison Grant’s racial obsessions, they shared his eagerness to champion an admirable “nature” against a debased humanity that had flourished beyond its proper limits.

This strain of misanthropy seemed to appear again in biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 runaway best-seller “The Population Bomb.” Ehrlich illustrated overpopulation with a scene of a Delhi slum seen through a taxi window: a “mob” with a “hellish aspect,” full of “people eating, people washing, people sleeping. . . . People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating . . . People, people, people, people.” He confessed to being afraid that he and his wife would never reach their hotel, and reported that on that night he came to understand overpopulation “emotionally.” By the evidence, what he had encountered was poverty. Ehrlich was announcing that his environmentalist imperatives were powered by fear and repugnance at slum dwellers leading their lives in public view. At the very least, he assumed that his readers would find those feelings resonant.

Even as environmentalism took on big new problems in the seventies, it also seemed to promise an escape hatch from continuing crises of inequality, social conflict, and, sometimes, certain kinds of people. Time described the environmental crisis as a problem that Americans “might actually solve, unlike the immensely more elusive problems of race prejudice or the war in Vietnam.” In his 1970 State of the Union address, in which he expended less than a hundred words on Vietnam, made no explicit reference to race, and yet launched a new racialized politics with calls for a “war” on crime and attacks on the welfare system, Richard Nixon spent almost a thousand words on the environment, which he called “a cause beyond party and beyond factions.” That meant, of course, that he thought it could be a cause for the white majority.

Environmentalism largely was that. When the Sierra Club polled its members, in 1972, on whether the club should “concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities,” forty per cent of respondents were strongly opposed, and only fifteen per cent were supportive. (The phrasing of the question made the club’s bias clear enough.) Admitting to its race problem took the movement nearly two decades.