How American Environmentalism Failed

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Traditional environmentalism has lacked a meaningful, practical democratic vision, rendering it largely marginal to the day-to-day lives of most Americans.

Historically, U.S. environmentalism has not been an inclusive or democratic social movement. Rather, it’s been shaped by the affluent and professional elites, often more concerned with promoting a romanticized vision of sublime nature than protecting the people and places most at risk from environmental degradation. Finally, after several decades of research, advocacy, and organizing, environmental and climate justice have become priorities among even the most mainstream conservation organizations. John Muir would hardly recognize them; Martin Luther King Jr. would be delighted.


As early as the mid-19th century, George Perkins Marsh and Henry David Thoreau, among others, called for the conservation of nature, despairing, as Marsh did, that “Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.” Thoreau lamented the rapaciousness with which Americans had exploited the land. “For one that comes with a pencil to sketch or sing,” he decried, “a thousand come with an ax or rifle.” Reaction to the widespread settlement and exploitation of the land in the mid-to-late 1800s, exemplified by massive timber harvesting, overgrazing of livestock, land speculation, and boom-and-bust mining, gave rise to the development of two distinct efforts aimed at protecting natural resources: preservation and conservation.

Spearheading the push for preservation was John Muir, the Scottish-born mountaineer who in 1892 founded the Sierra Club. The most vocal advocates for the creation of national parks like Yellowstone in 1872, the nation’s first, and Yosemite in 1890, Muir and his fellow preservationists sought to protect wild nature from the harmful effects of human settlement and consumption. They viewed wilderness as the antidote to the materialism and arrogance of industrial society and supported aggressive government oversight of public lands.

Whereas in the 18th century wilderness was seen as the devil’s playground, a frightful and forsaken place, by the end of the 1800s, environmental historian William Cronon writes in his seminal essay “The Trouble With Wilderness,” wilderness “became a place not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American.” For preservationists, wilderness, and especially the vanishing frontier, was the authentic American landscape, the source of America’s identity and salvation, and the perfect counterpoint to the perceived ugliness and artificiality of 19th-century urban, industrial society.

Although preservationists like Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Horace Albright, Stephen Mather, J. Horace McFarland, and Robert Marshall were overwhelmingly urban bourgeois, they considered modern urban industrial society degenerate. Parks and other undeveloped areas thus became a kind of tonic for them — a refuge from the filth and bustle of urban life to be enjoyed through recreational activities like hiking, climbing, bird-watching, hunting, and fishing. Its cast decidedly antiurban and middle-class, preservation was a thoroughly romantic movement, an aesthetic reaction to the dramatic social and economic changes of the 19th century brutally manifested in the American landscape.

Simultaneous with the emergence of preservation, conservation arose in the 1890s, inspired by the progressive ideals, born of the Enlightenment, of rationality and science. Led by Gifford Pinchot, the country’s first professionally trained forester (who helped found the Yale School of Forestry) and chief of the Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt, conservation responded to the environmental problems brought about by economic growth — specifically, the destruction of forests encouraged by cheap land prices and the overdevelopment of fragile water supplies, especially in the West.

Conservation opened the door to industry, the most powerful agent of environmental harm, establishing a comfortable alliance between environmental protection advocates and capitalists.

Pinchot believed that “the first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.” As chief forester, he opposed the preservation of forest lands, explaining that “the object of our [conservationist] forest policy is not to preserve forests because they are beautiful . . . or because they are refuges for wild creatures . . . but . . . the making of prosperous homes.” “Every other consideration,” he argued, “is secondary.” Much to the chagrin of preservationists like Muir, Pinchot went so far as to try to bring the national parks, a branch of the Interior Department, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in hopes that park resources might also be developed, but to no avail.

Contrary to the goals of preservation, conservation aimed to use natural resources in the service of sustainable economic growth. It gave rise to a new cadre of environmental professionals, armed with specialized degrees in resource management and public policy, and, with the preservation movement, promoted government as the appropriate steward of America’s natural resources. As a decision-making model, conservation was decidedly top-down and professional.

Conservation held that environmental problems should be reduced to business issues and resolved using corporate tactics, such as centralized administration and scientific management institutionalized in expert agencies. During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman and naturalist who, as a student at Harvard had written passionately about the closing of the American frontier, Pinchot’s conservation reached its pinnacle. Pinchot profoundly influenced Roosevelt, who shared Pinchot’s belief that government agencies should oversee the management of natural resources and convened the first Governors’ Conference on Conservation at the White House and later established the National Conservation Commission. Along with Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield, Roosevelt and Pinchot orchestrated the nation’s first conservation policy based on the principles of expertise and efficiency.

But as author and environmental activist Robert Gottlieb explains in his book “Forcing the Spring,” conservation’s emphasis on expertise and rational management was eventually embraced “by the resource-based industries and other industrial interests attracted to the concepts of efficiency, management, and the application of science to industrial organization.” In other words, conservation opened the door to industry, the most powerful agent of environmental harm, establishing a comfortable alliance between environmental protection advocates and capitalists that would come partly to define the movement in later decades. Personified by such figures as Pinchot and Roosevelt, conservation also became associated with wealth and privilege, in line with preservation’s bourgeois heritage, a socioeconomic legacy the two bequeathed to modern environmentalism.

The romantic-progressive thrust of preservation and conservation determined the basic contours of modern environmentalism and delimited its scope in terms of certain key social i
ssues. Despite the efforts of Robert Marshall, a preservationist who cofounded the Wilderness Society and promoted the idea that social equality was central to wilderness protection, justice and democracy were left out of the romantic-progressive agenda. Many Sierra Club chapters, for example, deliberately excluded minorities from membership until the 1960s. In addition, the parks and nature preserves that environmentalists sought to protect were often off-limits to minorities and immigrants.

Many chapters of the Sierra Club deliberately excluded minorities from membership until the 1960s.

Further, the romantic-progressive ideology shunned both urban areas and lower-income communities as appropriate priorities of environmental protection efforts. In fact, as Gottlieb suggests, the “anti-urban attitudes of the preservationists were . . . linked to their attitudes about class.” Cities were viewed by preservationists like Muir as places of squalor, pollution, and degeneration brought about by industrialization. They were also home to immigrants…

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