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Thumbnail History of Environmentalism by Dr. Michael D. Swords




Dr. Michael D. Swords



Histories are endless. One never knows how far to go in any direction, nor when to stop. They are also, usually, beginningless: what or who really began environmentalism... the Big Bang? So one chooses arbitrarily. This thumbnail history chooses to begin just on the 1800's side of the turn of the century.

Modern environmentalism is peopled by a very mixed group of folks and their motivations. They consider themselves environmentalists due to love of wildlife, fear of civilized life, animal rights, hunting, mysticism, pragmatics, or even religious dogma. Today they are loosely and warily bound together under green banners of various depths of color, but even this loose alliance was once non-existent.

Love of the wilderness and fear of the "side-effect" of technological civilization have been called the Right and Left Hands of Environmentalism. Until those hands were joined, environmentalism was undefined and rarely potent. The hands came together in the 1960's, as did the consciousness-raising perspectives of so many other concerns. But the roots ran deep in time, and in this first section we can briefly explore those early prophets, as we anticipate the explosive developments of the sixties and seventies.



People refer back to writers like Henry David Thoreau (Walden, 1854) and Ralph Waldo Emerson, or to artists like George Catlin and John James Audubon as the progenitors of United States love of the wild and its creatures, and so they may be. Our historical trek will begin with John Muir (1838-1914). Muir came from Scotland to Wisconsin, and thence in travels to California. In 1868, he "settled" in Yosemite Valley, and was one effective agent in getting Yosemite designated as an early national park (1890). The earliest park was Yellowstone (1872), and the first wildlife sanctuary, Lake Merritt, California (1870).

Muir's literary gifts were used to prod the national government to adapt policies, which would protect the great scenic wonders of the country, and especially the forested wilderness. A debate immediately focused on what the goal of these policies should be. Wilderness lovers, such as the upper and upper middleclass hikers, which founded the Sierra Club in 1892, wanted large tracts of public lands left essentially alone. Economic interests, especially timber companies and many growth-oriented politicians, wanted large tracts of reserved, exploitable land. Thus arose the battleline between the preservationists and the conservationists, which still exists today.

Muir recognized the need for natural resources and that some forests would have to be sacrificed for their timber, but he was at heart a preservationist. Nature was a church and the deep forests her sanctuaries. Here were the places where humans more intimately met the Divine, the spiritual. Any loss of wilderness meant a loss in the spirit of the world and of humanity.

Muir's worldview is both "biocentric" and "anthropocentric"; biocentric because the wilderness and its species have a sort of sacredness that insists upon their being valued in their own right, and anthropocentric because it is in wilderness that humans truly find "recreation": the re-creating, re-grounding, and re-spiritualizing of themselves. The more pragmatic anthropocentrism of utilitarian reserves of wood Muir understood but did not honor.

In the 1890's, the Sierra Club was formed with John Muir as its first president, and Yosemite was declared a national park, but with the philosophy that it was to be considered as "reserved forest lands". Right in Muir's backyard the battle had begun. President Grover Cleveland wished to designate 13 national forests to be preserved from exploitation, but business and congressional forces were opposed. Two articles by Muir in 1897 helped Cleveland win the day.

The tide turned against Muir and the preservationists early in the next century, however, with the rise of Theodore Roosevelt. While the new president was a hunter and an outdoorsman, he was a classic utilitarian conservationist.

"The fundamental idea of forestry is the perpetuation of forests by use. Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend upon them." (1901)

These exact words can be heard echoing through congress and our Forest Service even today. Roosevelt's main natural resources confidant (and head of the new Forest Service) was pragmatic conservationist, Gifford Pinchot. Muir tried to work with Pinchot, despite their philosophical difficulties, and even had a somewhat successful "camping trip" with Roosevelt in Yosemite in 1903. But in the end these people were inhabiting different worlds.

The inevitable head-to-head collision came right in Muir's beloved Yosemite. Pinchot, speaking a language of "wise use" of natural resources still prominent today, and Roosevelt cast lots on the side of a project which would dam a canyon (Hetch-Hetchy) in Yosemite to aid in the provision of water to San Francisco. This, of course, inflamed Muir and Sierra. Muir compared the act to barbaric sacrilege.

"Dam Hetch-Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people's cathedrals and churches."

Muir lost. Hetch-Hetchy dam destroyed part of Nature's Temple, and San Francisco got its water. It was the first nationally fought battle (re: public awareness in the popular literature) of the preservationist/wise use war which would have innumerable battles to come. Pinchot solidified the conservationist and wise use doctrines as the political norm at a Governor's Conference on Conservation in 1908. He specifically excluded John Muir from attending. In the same year, demonstrating the national schizophrenia, a congressman and his wife donated 500 acres of virgin Redwood forest as a national monument. The name of the monument? Muir Woods, in honor of "St. John."

John Muir had a lot of welcome help in those days from what is today, unfortunately, a historically unknown force -- women conservationists. One of these activists played a primary role in "purifying" of the nation's earliest (1905) and most active conservation societies, Audubon. Rosalie Edge noted that even though the organization was in majority female, and preservation-oriented, the administration was entirely male, and led by a "sportsman" (translation: bird hunter-shooter) which caused the society to be schizophrenic and hesitant on crucial issues. She ultimately ousted the reigning leadership and became known as the keeper of the Audubon Conscience.

Leaders in Women's Clubs often became outspoken arch-proponents of preservation. The president of the California Federation of Women's Clubs (Mrs. R. Burdett) gave this Muir-like speech in the early part of this century:

"While the women of New Jersey are saving the Palisades of the Hudson from utter destruction by men to whose greedy souls Mount Sinai is only a stone quarry, and the women of Colorado are saving the cliff dwellings and pueblo ruins of their state from vandal destruction, the word comes to the women of California that men whose souls are gang-saws are meditating the turning of our world-famous sequoias into planks and fencing worth so many dollars.... Better one living tree in California then fifty acres of lumberyard. Preserve and replant them and the State will be blessed a thousandfold in the development of its natural resources." (1900)

Shortly thereafter, the organization's founder, Mrs. Lovell White established the Save the Redwoods League.

The Women's Club even directly allied with John Muir in the fight over the Hetch-Hetchy dam. Their major opponents included the early Forest Service director, Gifford Pinchot. Gifford had not learned very well from his preservationist mama, who had chaired the Daughters of the American Revolution's Conservation Committee. Pinchot's philosophy was like his resources-oriented boss Teddy Roosevelt: add this stuff is to be used for Man.

"Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation, and/or renewal of forests, water, lands, and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time."

Doubtless Pinchot believed this. In his world, the greatest good was material affluence wroth from the value of virgin resources. Pinchot weighed in for the dam and more water for San Francisco. The opponents were branded as "short-haired women and long-haired men", obvious misfits. The women, the Sierra Club, and John Muir lost.

Meanwhile, there was some alarm going up over the disappearance of some American birds, most spectacularly, the passenger pigeon. The Secretary of Agriculture was charged (in 1900) with the task of doing something to restore game and wild birds. Through the influence of the strange bedfellows of bird-lovers and bird-shooters (such as President Roosevelt) the first U.S. refuge preserve was established in 1903 (Pelican Island, Florida). This doubtless pleased the President for it seemed to ensure "sport" into the future. As he was fond of saying:

"I never feel more alive than when I am killing something."

When hunting was prohibited on refuge preserves in 1906, he probably had second thoughts.

Just to follow this issue up to the present: the country has had a (somewhat incredible) debate for decades about whether one should be able to shoot, or harass (via recreational activities), animals in an area labeled as a "Refuge." In 1929, we seemed to be in better tough with the dictionary (and logic) when it was decided that "Refuges" should be inviolate sanctuaries. We then lost our dictionaries (our minds, or was it hearts?) after World War II, when in succession it was decided (Congress) that we could kill animals on 25% of the refuges (1948), 40% of the refuges (1959), have public recreation on the refuges (1962), think of the refuges as primarily "mixed use" facilities (1966). Refuges were being turned into slightly isolated recreation areas where one might see a few waterfowl while water-skiing. Appallingly, this almost total disregard for the species and habitats which the refuge idea was designed to protect, is precisely the philosophy pursued by certain politicians in the U.S. Congress "today" (1998). The ring-leader in this, and proud to shout it to the rooftops, is a powerful representative of Alaska, Don Young, who is in favor of water-skiing over breeding grounds, grazing for profit wherever the stock would wander, and selling all the refuges to private businesses. [And, to any offended historian-reader, who feels that history writing should not contain pointed remarks such as the above, the current author says, with all due respect, GET REAL.]

But, back to the Old Days: Our next great writer-speaker for the wilderness was Aldo Leopold.

Aldo Leopold is revered as a visionary defender of the wilderness and "the land", as entities of the greatest value in their own rights. He did not begin this way. Leopold was a forest manager in the school of Pinchot thinking at the start. He had, perhaps, a deeper emotional tie to the wilderness than did Pinchot. This tie, originally, was anthropocentric. He saw in Wilderness Experience something virtually important for human beings (or, at least, human males).

Leopold was a hunter. He felt that humans were hunters by nature. He was disturbed by certain characteristics of the "urbanized man." City life restricted the human spirit, and left empty holes and deadness in the soul. Bent personalities were the result. The remedy was Wilderness. Wilderness hunting, one might almost say "Deep Hunting", was an immersion which touched "fixed characters" (instincts?) in humans. It filled the urban-deadened holes with adventure and raw life. It revitalized, and harmonized.

Wilderness in Leopold's vision was open to human use, but not casually so. Wilderness must be wild. It must be "devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man." One enters Wilderness with respect and risk, with the tools on ones back and the cleverness in ones head. And one leaves with the Wilderness intact, carrying out only the experience.

As his life progressed, the logic of his vision turned ever more biocentric. Though still recognizing the human-related value of wild places, he begins to speak of it almost spiritually as a reality owed existence and respect in its own right. Some of this radical shifting may have been due to his joining the newly formed Isaak Walton League (in 1925) and his meditation on the Upper Mississippi fish kills and humanity's general abuse of nature. But his deep-immersion vision of what is "right" about wilderness probably inevitably drives one to a greater biocentric radicalism.

Prior to Leopold there had been a few nature writers who, in their ways, prepared the ground for Leopold's later ideas. Many Hunter Austin in Land of Little Rain was one such author. She said that it was "not the law, but the Land [which] sets limits." We humans must reassess ourselves and show some humility. We must reassess nature, and accept and preserve the "requirements of life in the wilderness." Whether Leopold read Austin or similar nature writers, these sentiments precursed his growing radicalism. Out of that evolution came the famous "land Ethic, and his most well-read book, the posthumous Sand County Almanac (This is a collection of essays from the last decade of his life, and published in 1949).

Leopold came to see a reverence for "The Land" as a primary requirement. There were Rights of Nature. There was a right of an ecosystem to be preserved. We humans must develop a new morality -- an ecological conscience. Because there was an inherent natural morality, whether we honored it or not: the disturbance of the integrity of the biocentric community (The land) was wrong. Decisions of a personal, economic, or governmental type must be taken with this primary consideration in mind: what will it do to the integrity of The Land?

Having arrived at the culmination of his life and his wisdom, Leopold grew pessimistic... pessimistic about both the state of The Land and the possibilities of reversing the human values and institutions which were degrading it.

"Forest devastation goes on as before. I admit the reality of this predicament. I suspect that the forces inherent in unguided economic evolution are not all beneficent. Like the forces inside our own bodies, they may become malignant, pathogenic. I believe that many of the economic forces inside the modern body-politic are pathogenic in respect to harmony with land."

Leopold wondered what possibly could be done. He was still a man of the woods, of the old America. Freedom in all its guises must be fiercely guarded. Government and tendency toward Socialism must be warily resisted. Must economic somehow undo what economics has done? Would consumers buy "good" vs. "bad" lumber, paper, beef, and foodstuffs? Could the whole system-of-exploitation behind products be made clear to the public? Would we respond?

"The trouble is that we have developed, along with our skill in the exploitation of the land, a prodigious skill in false advertising."

Thus the remarkably insightful and prescient Leopold threw up his hands and despaired at our chances of re-orienting the economic, technical, and affluence-seeking momentum of our lives. He looked for optimistic straws in the wind. His hope came in the form that hope often comes to despairing old men: the youth, the better-educated and more mindful young professionals who he saw around him. The youth and education... that they may be better than we.

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a commodity to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."


Go to Ecological Succession as a Model for Human Behavior by Dr. David Hargreave

Go to Global Climate Change: Information, Misinformation, and Disinformation by Dr. Michael D. Swords

Go to The Earth, Not Space, is Our Last Frontier by Dr. Kenneth A. Dahlberg

Go to Thoughts on the Notion of Community by Dr. David Hargreave

Go to Trouble in the Ozone by Dr. Michael D. Swords

Go to What Constitutes an Interdisciplinary Environmentalism Education? by Dr. David Hargreave 


Last updated: July 10th, 2000
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