It was the kind of unintended confession that can mark an author and his ideas forever. In his 1968 classic, The Population Bomb, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote,
I came to understand [the population explosion] emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a couple of years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened. It seemed that anything could happen … since that night, I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.
It takes some patience to sort out the problems with this passage. Ehrlich seems to have misunderstood his uneasy sensation, which was the “feel” of poverty more than of overpopulation. The defecating, urinating, and screaming come of taking your domestic and intimate life outside beside you have no hotel room in which to enact it. The “hellish aspect” comes mainly from primitive technology: the open fires of the poor do in fact happen to fit some Christian images of eternal damnation, though they would hardly have felt that way to Ehrlich’s “mob,” probably made up in good part of Hindus. “Mob,” for that matter, is quite the pejorative for what the details suggest is just a neighborhood’s daily life: the word suggests a crowd on the edge of violence, out of its mind with some passion.
And here is the most damning thing about the passage. The “feel” Ehrlich evokes has almost nothing to do with living in crowded slums. There is no hint of interest in what it might be like to watch a half-defunct cab, with some anxious-looking foreigners inside, crawl within inches of one’s cooking fire on a hot Delhi night. The only feel he describes is his own discomfort. If we take the passage at face value, it says this: the feel of overpopulation is a wealthy white man’s unease at being pressed upon by poor, brown people.
This kind of thing, along with coercive sterilization policies in India and other poor countries, got the population question disinvited from respectable environmental conversations. It is worth lingering over. It crystallizes suspicions that have attached to environmental sentiment for decades. Chief among them are that environmentalists are misanthropic – they do not like most people very much; that they are pessimistic about human prospects – show them a slum, and they see the future of humanity; and they are blindly privileged – disinclined to think about how they came to be cabbing it back to the hotel while the “mob” squats and argues over cooking fires. Add to this another quality not instanced in Ehrlich’s Delhi vignette, but threaded throughout environmental literature: nostalgia for a lost, always better past, whether of pastoral harmony, pristine wilderness, or rugged adventure. To complete the charges, introduce that most delicate accusation, that there is something racist in the blended nostalgia and fear of privileged white people, for whom the nature to be preserved is the legacy of one’s own ancestors, and the crowding, consuming, philistine threat comes from the wrong kind of person. Let us lump these together, for the sake of economy, as the misanthropic worry about environmentalism.
This chapter aims to take these charges seriously and understand what they can show us about environmental imagination. None of the charges is unfounded. The more one learns about the history and personalities that formed the American environmental imagination, the more discomfiting associations arise to confirm the accusation. Most environmentally minded people today are unaware of all this, and most historians of environmental ideas, if they are aware, pass over these questions in haste or in silence. Rather than turn away from this uncomfortable history, this chapter addresses it directly.
Let’s begin with a passage that has some unsettling parallels with Ehrlich’s. It concerns “the result of unlimited immigration” into the United States just before the country’s entry into World War One:
The man of the old stock (Anglo-Saxon) is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners [“the Slovak, the Italian, the Syrian and the Jew”] just as he is to-day being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews. These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women….
This is Madison Grant, American aristocrat, Yale graduate, and dandyish son of New York City, in The Passing of the Great Race. This torrid work of pseudo-scientific fantasy won the uneasy distinction of favorably impressing both Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Grant was a prominent eugenicist, and here he was arguing that Americans should shut down European immigration to stem the low-quality tide of short, stocky, round-headed Alpines (“always and everywhere a race of peasants”) and dark, slight Mediterraneans (who thrived in “the cramped factory and crowded city” because of their racial aptitude to “work a spindle, set type, sell ribbons or push a clerk’s pen”) – let alone the Negro, with his lack of both “self-control” and “capacity for cooperation,” and his “low vital capacity” than any of the Europeans. Grant argued that a policy of open immigration was a “suicidal ethics” that would effectively wipe out the group that had created the country – the Nordics, in his term, a people of courage, initiative, and leadership, whose noble spirit and unsuspicious nature made them vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a people better adapted to an environment of factories and ghettoes.
Why spend even a minute on this wretched and obsolete work? For one thing, Grant came to his analysis of an overcrowded world by the same path as later and more respectable theorists of overpopulation. Humanitarian sentiment and scientific advance had combined to reduce infant mortality, meaning that the children of the poor were surviving to crowd cities and pour across oceans – producing, for instance, the “tumultuous and frantic invasion” of Polish Jews who had overtaken Grant’s Manhattan. This undermined biological checks on population. While “the laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit,” in present conditions social policy would have to step take up the slack, not just restricting immigration, but imposing sterilization on the least desirable segment of humanity. Eugenicists and modern population-control advocates make an argument with the same basic structure: our habit of valuing every life, combined with new technological capacity to save lives, puts us on a collision-course with environmental limits and requires us to give up some of our liberal, democratic, humanitarian commitments. As ecologist Garrett Hardin put it in his iconic 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” “freedom to breed is intolerable” because it results in crushing overpopulation: only political coercion could save us from one another.
Of course the explosion in human population is a reality, not a fantasy, and so are the ecological pressures it produces. But what is real is no less an occasion for fantasy, and it is telling when someone, confronted with the problem, experiences it as the personally threatening press and crowding of alien people, eroding an idealized and nostalgic legacy. To be clear, I do not mean to tar Paul Ehrlich or the late Garrett Hardin with this nasty brush. Understanding their resonances with Madison Grant, though, helps to show what in Ehrlich raises the hackles, and will also help to sort out which parts of the misanthropic worry to take seriously.
Madison Grant’s greater interest here, though, is not that he is a eugenicist who sounds like Paul Ehrlich, the conservationist. It is that Grant was himself a conservationist, an influential figure who has been mostly scrubbed from the history of the movement, in whom conservation and elitist, nostalgic, anti-democratic racism were closely intertwined. His New York Times obituary captured the unity of his governing sentiments: “The preservation of the redwoods, of the bison, of the Alaskan caribou, of the bald eagle … of the spirit of the early American colonist... and of the purity of the ‘Nordic’ type of humanity in the country, were all his personal concerns, all products of the same urge in him to save precious things.”
As the Times noted, Grant’s most visible achievement was organizing the Save-the-Redwoods League, an organization of wealthy and influential men (John D. Rockefeller donated one million dollars in 1924) that created many of the coastal preserves where California’s redwood trees now survive. Grant’s biographer, Jonathan Spiro, judges, “There can be little doubt that Grant identified the redwood trees with the Nordic race” – noble survivors of a heroic age, now being laid low by commerce and home-building for the democratic swarm. This is speculation, but it does express themes that always united Grant’s projects: elegy, a sense of threat, and a heroic call to save a vanishing world. The tone was established as early as his 1894 article on “The Vanishing Moose,” in The Century, a clearinghouse of progressive thought and letters. Grant began,
So much has been has been written … of the great achievements and rapid development of the United States that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we are still in a period of transition. The old order of things has largely passed away, but we are yet within sight of the primeval state of a savage and beautiful wilderness, and can obtain some idea of what this country once was by the untouched or only partly mutilated corners that remain. The end, however, is near…. Of the great forests … scarcely anything is left. That little will be destroyed by fire and ax within two decades, and with the trees will vanish the last of the game.
The themes are all there: “development” has also been a kind of mutilation, and only fragments can now remind us of past greatness. Those fragments are what should command our attention and affection.
In moods like this, Grant made himself a force for conservation over more than four decades. In 1893 he joined the Boone and Crockett Club, an elite society of outdoorsmen that Theodore Roosevelt had founded in the winter of 1887-88. Restricted to 100 members at any time, the Club’s requirements included having killed a member of three of the large species of North American game animals (bear, bison, caribou, cougar, deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, musk ox, pronghorn antelope, white goat, and wolf). Grant soon became one of the Club’s most active members, throwing its weight behind state bans on commercial hunting of game animals, helping to engineer the network of preserves that saved the American bison from extinction, and pressing to establish Glacier National Park in 1910. He was also instrumental in establishing the Bronx Zoo, whose naturalist and conservationist overseers largely overlapped with those of the Roosevelt-centered Natural History Museum and the members of the Boone and Crockett Club. He reckoned, like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, that “nature itself has some rights,” and that the US could respect those rights by leaving some areas of the continent in “their pristine condition of wilderness.”
The milieu in which Grant moved was the crucible for the conservation policies of Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Club’s president as well as its founder. Its membership was, quite without exaggeration, an Olympus of conservation thought. It included the former Interior Secretary Carl Schurz, who had first sought to restrict timbering on federal land, outraging Western populists; Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt’s chief forester and the leading spokesperson for the conservation idea; Albert Bierstadt, the celebrated painter of sublime Western landscapes, including Lake Tahoe and Mount Rainier; Theodore Strong van Dyke, the popular outdoors writer; Clarence King, former director of the US Geological Survey, Sierra explorer, and theorist of art who was heavily influenced by John Ruskin; Owen Wister, the literary tribune of the frontier nostalgia that shaped Roosevelt’s early experience and public persona; and, a little later, Aldo Leopold. It also included Grant’s very close friend and collaborator, Henry Fairfield Osborn, the director of the Natural History Museum, who contributed the introductions to Grant’s two major works of explicit racism, The Passing of the Great Race and The Conquest of a Continent, both times (nearly twenty years apart) praising the author for providing a thoroughly racial account of the causes and meaning of human history.
Osborn was not the only member of this influential circle to celebrate Grant’s racism. Roosevelt greeted The Passing of the Great Race with a letter, now lost, but excerpted in the publisher’s promotional material:
This book is a capital book; in purpose, in vision, in grasp of the facts our people most need to realize…. It shows a habit of singular serious thought on the subjects of most commanding importance. It shows a fine fearlessness in assailing the popular and mischievous sentimentalities and attractive and corroding falsehoods which few men dare assail. It is the work of an American scholar and gentleman; and all Americans should be sincerely grateful to you for writing it.
Another friend and fellow conservationist who evidently did not share the egalitarian “sentimentalities” that Roosevelt scorned was Gifford Pinchot, who was a delegate to the first and second international eugenics congresses in 1912 and 1921 and a member of the Advisory Council of the American Eugenics Society from 1925 to 1935.
Maybe none of this should be surprising. Certainly to be indignant would be anachronistic. It is one of the major arguments of this book that conservation sentiment arose as part of Progressive nationalism and a managerial view of both nature and social life. It would be rather astonishing if it did not share their darker aspects – resistance to immigrants, ambivalence about mass democracy, and an impulse to preserve the status and privileges of an older elite by reasserting their central place in the American nation. Moreover, what today might be called biopolitics was always a part of the managerial program: public health, labor markets, and the vitality of the country’s mothers and soldiers were central concerns for the same reformers who produced the conservation movement, and the affinities were much more than incidental. National efficiency was about the quality and deployment of the human stock in many ways; to its advocates, eugenics was one more of these.
In a more Romantic vein, Madison Grant’s redwoods, trophy mammals, and Nordic heroes, and his fear for the loss of all three, form quite a standard constellation. He, Roosevelt, and their fellow Boone and Crockett Club member made a milieu obsessed with the decline of heroism. Club member Owen Wister’s frontier novels, most famously The Virginian, spoke to the same sentiment. So did Roosevelt’s lifelong search for adventure and physical trial – on Dakota ranches, African safaris, and military excursions such as his Rough Riders’ bit part in the Spanish-American War. Familiar institutions such as the Boy Scouts have their origins here, in Ernest Thompson Seton’s efforts to preserve frontier experiences to put some rawhide in American boys’ character, and Daniel Carter Beard’s aim to do the same with stereotyped American Indian woodcraft. (Both movements merged into the khaki-clad, paramilitary-toned British import, founded by the Roosevelt- like imperial enthusiast, Lord Robert Baden-Powell.) Although nothing in these impulses guarantees racism, the cocktail of sentimentalism, nostalgia, and a sense of demographic threat to one’s own status all have strong affinities that way. Claptrap and bombast about Anglo-Saxon virtues from the misty forests of Northern Europe ran far back in American rhetoric: Emerson had indulged in it without misgivings. The pseudo-science that Grant popularized could only have attracted those whose minds were already bent this way.
Indeed, maybe the remarkable thing is that Grant was not more typical of those who wanted to save “the old America.” John Muir’s basically apolitical temper surely made it easy for him to consort with railroad barons as well as Progressive professors; but it may have helped preserved his seeming indifference to racist and nationalist jingoism. His sometime friendship and alliance with Roosevelt and Pinchot highlights his immunity to the fevers that stirred them and seem inseparable from their conservationism. It is striking, too, that women played an unquestioned role in the Sierra Club from the beginning – quite a different thing from the all-male Boone and Crockett Club, where a certain amount of dignified slaughter was the first membership requirement, and the future of nature was never far the future of manhood.
Unquestionably the most important historical marker here is World War Two. As the world began to confront and absorb the wages of racial ideology and eugenics in Nazi Germany, a set of attitudes that had recently seemed plausible extensions of progressive nationalism now smacked of ultimate evil. It is true that the Western confrontation with the Holocaust was neither immediate nor complete, and that the rise of human-rights universalism was not, as is often imagined, a quick and direct response to Nazi genocide. That said, though, had Grant lived longer than 1937, he would have had to confront the letter Hitler had written him, calling The Passing of the Great Race “my bible.” Similarly, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who died in 1935, would have had some explaining to do a decade later about his announcement, on returning from an enthusiastic 1934 visit to Germany, that “the metempsychosis of Germany is one of the most extraordinary phenomena of modern times.” (In using the term of the transmigration of souls, Osborn presumably meant to praise the Germans’ rebirth into a new incarnation under Hitler’s nationalism.) It is somewhat intuitive to draw a hard line sometime during the Nazi era, a kind of moral statute of limitations that, at least, grants that Roosevelt, Pinchot, and the rest had no real grounds to understand that they were tarrying with world-historical evil. If this is too sweeping, if there is no grounds to excuse them outright when others knew better, it is at least symmetrically true that anachronistic moralizing, which fallaciously turns everything Hitler might have approved of into a tendency to mass murder, is an enemy of clear historical and moral judgment.
There is, however, an eerie continuity between the shadowed alliances of conservation and Romantic preservation and the influences of their successor after World War Two, the new ecological sensibility. It was not Rachel Carson who first warned Americans of the threat that industrial society presented to planetary health and, ultimately, human life. Nor was Aldo Leopold, the old Boone and Crockett Club member, alone in setting out the ecological perspective. In 1948, twelve years before the chapters of Carson’s Silent Spring began appearing the New Yorker and a year ahead of the posthumous publication of Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Jr., published Our Plundered Planet, a manifesto for a new conservation. Writing simply as “Fairfield Osborn,” the son opened with an image of ecological harmony disturbed and nature and humanity threatened. The world was an “earth-symphony,” in which “each part if dependent upon another” and “all are related to the movement of the whole.” Subtract any one of the integral parts of the planey’s chemistry and “the earth will die – will become as dead as the moon.” Some parts of the earth were already dying from human interference, some were dead, and, “If we cause more to die, nature will compensate for this in her own way, inexorably, as already she has begun to do.” These were the themes that, twenty years later, would be suddenly ubiquitous in the national conversation: nature as an interdependent system, human power as an epochal disruptor of its harmonies, and the dangers of ecological collapse and mass extinction, even (Osborn seemed to hint) of humanity itself. Writing in the wake of World War Two, Osborn called “man … destroying his own life sources … that other, silent world-wide ‘war.’”
Osborn’s prescription, too, would have been unsurprising two decades later. He regretted that “[man] has failed so far to recognize that he is a child of the earth and that, this being so, he must for his own survival work with nature in understanding rather than in conflict.” Like Leopold, he urged his readers to appreciate the small place and brief span of human civilization: the universe was vast, time was deep, and if we hoped to survive in our fragment, we would have to understand that “human life on this earth … is but an element in the great scheme of nature,” and would have to conform to its standards. He also shared with Leopold a great emphasis on the primacy of soil to life and the need to preserve it. Osborn also gave in capsule form the argument about the anger pesticide, specifically DDT, in an ecological web that Carson would later make the touchstone of the ecological imagination. He explained that DDT could move through the food web, from its insect targets to birds, fishes, and reptiles, finally jeopardizing “the life scheme of the earth.” If insects had to be controlled, he argued, it should be by means resembling nature’s own measures, such as preserving natural predators: above all, we should bear their presumed importance within “the relatedness of all living things.”
None of this is to deny the literary achievements that earned Leopold and Carson their canonical status. They conjured and carried their readers through, a way of seeing the natural world and the human place in it that Fairfield merely asserted in patrician tones. Osborn, though, did make the same arguments, with the same stakes. That he was poised to do so highlights, among other things, how much in the ecological perspective was continuous with Progressive conservation. After all, the conservationists around the senior Osborn had seen natural systems as complex and intertwined – one of their touchstones was the way that clearing forests could produce soil erosion, exhausting land fertility and clogging rivers and irrigation systems. As early as George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, US conservationists had also understood that felling forests denied habitat to the bird species that, in turn, controlled pests – a point Osborn echoed in the passages that anticipated Rachel Carson. The conservationists had also insisted that natural resources were finite, and that hubris – mainly the laissez-faire spirit of the frontier – risked exhausting natural wealth and needed enlightened regulation to bring it to heel. Indeed, what Fairfield Osborn had that the conservationists had lacked – and which he shared with Leopold, Carson, and the generation that followed them – was the Romantic idea that nature mattered in itself and contained lessons essential to the human spirit. Understanding the natural world, for Osborn, gave us more than tips for prudent management: nature was a tutor in enlightened consciousness. Gifford Pinchot would have disagreed sharply, and George Perkins Marsh would have been nonplussed at best. But John Muir and Madison Grant, for all that separated them, would have said the same thing. Osborn and the other bearers of ecological ideas combined the conservationists’ description of nature with the Romantics’ way of valuing it. Of course, in doing so, they intensified some parts of earlier ideas, changed others, and set some aside. Nonetheless, the ecological perspective was continuous with the older views, and also a synthesis of the two.
In Osborn’s hands, the ecological perspective also carried forward the demographic anxieties of his father’s generation. Our Plundered Planet is very much a book about ecology. It is also, quite emphatically, a book about population. The first line of its preface is about the harmony of the “good earth,” and the first line of the main text is an image of the 175,000 newborns then, according to Osborn, coming into the world each day. As he presented it in his conclusion, the book’s basic argument described a pincer action between two forces: “The tide of the earth’s population is rising, the reservoir of the earth’s living resources is falling.” This situation, Osborn insisted, gave the lie to such humanitarian hopes as the Franklin Roosevelt slogan, “Freedom from Want”: he declared this “an illusory hope” unless we could limit our pressure on the planet by achieving “comprehension of the enduring processes of nature.” Those surely included the historical balance of population within ecological limits, now exploded by technology.
If one takes Osborn’s continuity with his father and Madison Grant as a cue to read Our Plundered Planet suspiciously, a very different book emerges. Osborn describes World War Two in politically neutral terms, not as a clash of principles, but as a tragic product of resource pressure, whose “spawn are armed conflicts such as World Wars I and II.” His description of the second of these as “the most cruel and deadly world-wide war … marked by horrors and atrocities from whose memory we are still attempting to recover” laid no specific blame. Although it was not an ecologist’s job to moralize about the late war, he did not hesitate to moralize elsewhere, and it is at least suggestive that he ended the book by calling one of Roosevelt’s wartime Four Freedoms a delusion. His father’s community of eugenicists, after all, had praised the Nazis for seizing the demographic problem directly. While Osborn’s neutral description of World War Two might be just that, within the larger shape of his thought, it might also conceal the by-then-unspeakable thought that the losing side had, at least, understood part of the problem, while the victors remained caught in humanitarian optimism. This rather pessimistic interpretation would fit with Osborn’s striking remark, in the course of arguing further that ecological pressures drive war, that “it is difficult to adjust one’s mind to the possibility that … the problem of the pressure of increasing population – perhaps the greatest problem facing humanity today – cannot be solved in a way that is consistent with the principles of humanity.” What other principles might be more compatible with “the enduring processes of nature,” Osborn did not say.
This is not a brief against Fairfield Osborn, or against twentieth-century environmentalism. It is not an argument that he, or it, is best understood as the bearer of some crypto-racist doctrine driven underground after World War Two. All of that would fall much too close to conspiracy theory. In any case, the biographies of ideas are not their essences, and neither Osborn nor Madison Grant carried some ideological bacillus that could have contaminated the environmentalists of 1968 and afterward. Moreover, Osborn disowned some of the uglier things his father had celebrated, writing, “The antipathies of nations and races, the cults of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races, cannot be founded on biology.” Although the discussion that leads up to this ringing conclusion is choppy and opaque and gratuitously concedes that different human populations may have evolved in parallel rather than from a common ancestor, Osborn plainly meant to rest no part of his argument on the torrid racial fantasies that had united his father, Madison Grant, and, at least sometimes, the first President Roosevelt.
What does emerge here is that a deep pessimism about humanity, inherited in part from earlier theories of racial decline, was present at the start of modern environmentalism. It was a misanthropic sentiment, not just in its deep skepticism toward humanitarianism, but also in a certain grim eagerness to condemn human optimism in the name of the natural limits humanity had supposedly violated. Reflecting on Fairfield Osborn may remind any former student of philosophy of a passage in the Genealogy of Morals where Friedrich Nietzsche purports to find hatred at the root of Christianity’s doctrine of love – suppressed and redirected, but hatred nonetheless. Why, he asks, does St. Paul write with such care, attention, and energy of the punishments of Hell, if he is not secretly rapturous at seeing the proud, lustful, and wholly alive pagans wrung on the rack of his God? Is a similar spirit lurking in Osborn’s oblique, portentous passages about how nature answers those who disregard her? Is it present in his willingness to set aside “the principles of humanity” as sentimental error?
Maybe so. In any event, it is clear that the older, eugenicist strain of disgust at disorderly, overbreeding humanity did not disappear after World War Two. Fairfield Osborn’s uncle, Frederick H. Osborn, remarked tellingly in his nephew’s 1962 edited collection on the global population crisis, that the “geneticist, if he is wise, will not introduce the genetic argument” because people “don’t like to admit” the importance of genetic differences. Instead, he should hope that “population pressures may bring about genetic reform by intensifying the problems of civilization and forcing us to seek new solutions.” Here, with self-contradicting explicitness, is the old eugenics, gone underground in the movement to control population growth.
Ecology and Anti-Humanism
The point of this story is to put forward the least pleasant facts in the American rise of environmental ideas, and to show the nastiest company that those ideas have kept. This is to lay the ground to consider the charges that, at the beginning of this chapter, I collected together as the misanthropic worry. To do that as fully as possible, consider the strongest version of this principled case against environmentalism, which the French critic Luc Ferry expressed in a polemic titled The New Ecological Order. Ferry, not one to neglect an exposed jugular, reminded readers that the Nazis passed what he claims was the first comprehensive environmental-protection legislation in the mid-1930s, along with laws promoting animal welfare and regulating hunting. These laws had the attention of Hitler and his top ministers. This precedent, unsurprisingly, seldom plays much part in the standard histories of environmental lawmaking. Yet, Ferry claims, we should give ut close attention. It shows environmentalism’s moral problems, which go beyond the obvious point that loving nature does not prevent one from despising some or all of humanity. (As Ferry grants, the history of the Nazi regime also demonstrates that building freeways is compatible with genocide, which tells us very little about the moral status of highway construction.) According to Ferry, the Nazi environmental legislation expresses a deeper philosophical logic.
That logic has several parts. One is the nostalgic identification of “nature” with the mythic origins of a people, here the Germans. Nazi theorists, Ferry points out, reworked natura in German to urlandschaft, both “earth” and “original land.” Valuing “original land” meant prizing the natural, or primitive, condition of the world, idealizing undisturbed nature. This is already something of a nostalgic fantasy, since human habitation has thoroughly reworked the world. Much more troublingly, “original earth” was aligned with the people who had their origins there: in Nazi racial ideology, the Germans. The value of people was thus connected with their rootedness, their nearness to these origins. Nature had erected a hierarchical divide between those who belonged to the place where they dwelled and those did not – the uprooted, who, for the Nazis, were always and especially the Jews. Enlightenment thought at its best had insisted that rationality and freedom were universal qualities, giving people everywhere more in common than separated them. That is to say, it defined humanity by its distinctness from nature and origins, and valued it for that separation. The Nazi idea that an intact urlandschaft sustained the German people spiritually as well as materially denied this Enlightenment conception of humanity – and, not coincidentally Ferry argued, denied the freedom, equality, and universal human dignity that had flowed from it.
Closely related was the Nazis’ vitalism, their celebration of health and life – in the body, the race, and the land of national origin. Ferry argued that Hitler’s minions shared this ideal with the “deep ecologists” who came later in the century, and even with their American contemporaries, such as Aldo Leopold, who would have expanded the scope of ethics to “the land community.” What these positions share, according to the criticism, is that they find the basis of value in the life that humans share with the rest of nature. Although superficially attractive, this approach to value has several problems. It abandons the Enlightenment project of thinking critically about value as a special problem for free and rational creatures, and treats it instead as if it were natural fact. This is an abdication of the burden of freedom and rationality: to think through the questions of what to value and how to live, not act as if they were presented to us as nakedly as the weather. This approach also invites sorting people into “healthy” and “degenerate” groupings, as the Nazis did, turning the universal standard of human dignity into a relative one that many people, even peoples, might be thought to fail. It also invites subordinating human interests and those of non-human nature: if a people has exhausted its cropland, maybe it should be allowed to starve, rather than receive succor to help it burden the planet another day. Finally, vitalism gives us no reason to second-guess our “instinct,” however tribal, selfish, or bloody-minded it turns out to be; what are those sentiments, after all, but expressions of life and health?
Should we be concerned, then, when we remember that Thoreau urged, “all good things are wild and free” and “the most alive is the wildest,” and praised “this vast, savage, howling Mother of ours, Nature lying all around”? That he praised “tawny grammar,” words rooted in experience of the natural world, over coldly rational denotation? That he described the westward movement of the American “star of empire” as the national ingestion and absorption of the ancient, raw vitality of the American landscape, harbored in its forests and swamps, which would sustain Americans and fuel their creation of a new body of myth, as great as what had sprung from the Nile, the Ganges, and the Rhine before those once-wild places were exhausted? It is not only in racist outliers such as Madison Grant that American environmentalism is tied to a vitalist nationalism that celebrates instinct over cold reason and fantasizes about a people’s identity becoming inseparable from the fertile and dark depths of its land. Where does the misanthropic worry stand, with its charges of racism, nostalgia, misanthropic pessimism, and obtuse privilege?
Let us begin with racism. First, an observation: Madison Grant’s toxic, pseudo-scientific fixation on racial purity made him an outlier in the conservation movement of his time, while Teddy Roosevelt’s sympathy for Grant and embrace of jingo imperialism were rather more standard, especially in Boone and Crockett circles. That is to say, as far as conservation was a quintessential Progressive program, it grew connected with the racial attitudes of Progressives across their full spectrum. It is much harder, though, to argue that a deep logic connected conservation and racism. The managerial strain of conservation bound up scientific resource use with utilitarian nationalism, and its distasteful attitudes were of a piece with its nationalist affinities, notably the imperialism of Roosevelt and allies like Albert Beveridge. Conservation was woven into this idea, most dramatically in Beveridge’s global manifest destiny. The heart of the connection was the conviction that there was only one right way for a people’s history to unfold, toward American-style prosperity and institutions, and that rational mastery over nature was both necessary for this path (because it produced wealth and power) and one of its fruits (because successful institutions would perforce manage nature rationally). The conservationists’ view of nature and the utilitarian nationalists’ view of human destiny converged on a single shape for history (not surprisingly, as they were often the same people) and lent support to policies that were advertised as bending history that way. All of this confirms how thoroughly ideas of nature were drawn into the programs of the time, but these connections leave conservation in the same place as the rest of the Progressive agenda. That agenda was, in sum, an excessively self-confident movement toward social rationality in a time marked by acute racial anxiety and widespread bigotry. Conservation bore these marks, but its really defining quality was supreme confidence that nature could be rationally managed for social advantage, its sense that the world’s complexity was just great enough to respond to expert administration, and not, as ecologically minded environmentalists later insisted, to confound it. The conservationist view of nature made it easier to be some kind of universalist, even one who believed, like Beveridge, in bringing other peoples into universal destiny by force, and these attitudes are rife with dark sides. A conservationist view, though, was not in itself a friend to racism.
The white supremacism and racist theories-of-everything that Madison Grant embraced had, for him as for the Nazis who admired him, less affinity with conservation than with the Romantic way of celebrating nature – the vitalism, the myth of deep origins in sacred land, the near-totemic adulation of charismatic peaks, forests, and species. It was never really plausible, though, to connect this Romantic totemism with the genesis of North America’s northern Europeans, as the Nazis did Germans and their landscape. The continent was plainly not the origin of the people whose descendants dominated it by the end of the nineteenth century: to claim it imaginatively, a people could be inspired by it or try to live up to it, but white Americans could not claim to come from it – nor, for the same reason, claim that preserving it meant preserving their “racial” heritage. Much of American environmental imagination took shape from the effort to work the continent into the idea of a new nation, but that was a different, even opposite, thing from claiming origins there.
European bids to claim the continent imaginatively tended to erase or simplify the Native American presence here: think of Thoreau’s “wild,” his image, in “Walking,” of a continent full of untapped vitality. All of the past before New England is, at best, pre-history in this picture, preparatory to the self-realization of the American nation. John Muir erased Native American history in a more pedestrian way when he assured his readers that Indians had been broken to docility on US public lands, so Romantic tourists could wander there without danger. In this, though, Romantic conservation scarcely did more harm than any other nineteenth-century take on the national project, a theme that almost always began by ignoring, maligning, or distorting the aboriginal presence. [Interesting nonetheless that they didn’t overcome this, as Thoreau and Emerson overcame certain warlike and racist attitudes of the time.]
What is remarkable about the Romantic strain of environmental imagination is how consistently its claims were universal – quite opposite in spirit to Grant’s racism, which relentlessly drove distinctions among peoples. For John Muir and his Transcendentalist predecessors, the human qualities that wild nature vivified were higher potentials that everyone shared. The meaning of the American landscape lay in universal human and natural forces that Americans could hope to absorb and live by, not in qualities it had specially imparted to anyone’s ancestors. In this respect, Romantic conservation had something in common with the idealistic, natural-law strain of American constitutionalism. The thought that united them was that certain principles should be American because they were true, not that they took their force from being American. This idea fits a nation of conquerors and immigrants: the important thing was that the indwelling potential of the American land should be open to those who could claim it.
Nonetheless, those who stepped forward to claim it were a quite particular patch of the American people. Interpreting American nature, especially in a Romantic register, was the special preoccupation of educated white Protestants, especially traditional elites with roots in New England and the Upper Midwest. The early Sierra Club was a collection of academics, artists, scientists, and seekers after outdoor adventure and aesthetic delight. They saw appreciation of nature as a mark of refined sensibility that set them apart from the hurly-burly of money-seeking and utilitarian ideas of what gave life value. They constantly assured one another that their time in the high country confirmed them in these values. The view of nature that they helped to make popular supported the special status of a traditional elite that had lost its grip on the country’s economy and political institutions and felt the need for other bases of distinction and deference. Historian Richard Hofstadter emphasized decades ago that the entire Progressive era was shaped by the status struggles of declining American elites; this was acutely true of the Romantic view of nature. Thoreau was a cultural dissenter within New England when he enlisted nature in support of aesthetic values over his neighbors’ conformity and search after wealth. Six-odd decades later, the themes he set out helped those New Englanders’ descendants, both familial and cultural, to assert their specialness against new tides of economic strivers.
This history speaks to two parts of the misanthropic worry: privilege and nostalgia. Much of the continent was interpreted, and then shaped and managed, as an austere but spectacular pleasuring-ground that marked the refinement of those who could enjoy it. It was a public-lands equivalent of the aristocratic English gardens of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which deliberately shaped parts of the landscape to show off the educated eye of their owners. We may call it privileged because what it holds up as the universal spirit of nature is really the favored bauble of a declining elite, nostalgic because it looks to nature for unearned reassurance that this elite’s attitudes are especially valuable and at home in the world. These observations form the starting point for a body of criticisms of environmental politics. These range from the demographic fact of environmentalism’s predominantly white and prosperous constituency to the claim that much of environmental sentiment is just the search for an enchanted home, a fairy-tale castle in the woods, of white men and women dissatisfied with what the workaday world has provided them.
There is an important fallacy in these criticisms. The fact that an idea arose in a certain group, even to assert that group’s privilege, does not limit its potential validity for others. If we were inclined to disqualify ideas that began in this way, we would have to start with ideas like democracy and citizenship, which began as the special powers and rights of an overclass in the slave societies of the ancient Mediterranean and came into their modern forms through the gradual extension of white, male landowners’ privileges to every member of the political community. The test of the Romantic idea of nature is not its origins but its uses.
The criticism, however, can be recast as one about the use of the idea, and here it comes to its nub: misanthropy. The environmental imagination is deeply involved in a set of reactions against strands of the modern world: from Thoreau’s shopkeepers to Muir’s lowlands, Roosevelt’s unhealthful cities to the tourists the Wilderness Society struggled to keep out of its shrines, the involvement with nature has been a way to stand apart from the ordinary human situation, with all its compromises, indignities, and petty satisfactions. By aligning one’s self with nature, one can disown ordinary humanity, or at least put oneself outside some of its limitations. There is, then, a disgust at humanity that runs through environmental imagination.
There is also pessimism about human powers. In the twentieth century, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was only the most visible of the many strands that connected environmental sentiment with mistrust of technological mastery, what Aldo Leopold rejected as “biotic arrogance.” Consider by contrast John Stuart Mill’s argument, that our duty toward nature is to make it fit human security and freedom as far as possible – that is, to transform it in line with a better human future. This exhortation distills centuries of humanitarian hopes. The stronger the pessimism about technology, the more an environmentalist writes off this hope as a mistake.
This pessimism easily becomes a moral complaint that humanity is disrupting the natural order, presumptuously putting its own needs ahead of the rest of the living world. Then the complaint is not just that we are unlikely to succeed in controlling nature – the basic pessimistic claim – but that success would itself be a kind of moral failure. As we saw earlier in this chapter, disgust with humanity and pessimism about its prospects ran together in the strand of early environmentalism that fixated on population growth after World War Two.
Environmental historian William Cronon has gathered these criticisms, especially disgust at humanity, into a charge that environmentalism as a whole suffers from “the trouble with wilderness.” The trouble is that that American environmentalists imagine nature as standing in contrast with the lowlands of society, technology, and politics, in a way that enables its devotees to divide their loyalties. When in the lowlands of everyday life, they are not entirely of it, because they hold apart the most essential portion of themselves. In wild nature, they cultivate a (supposedly) higher part of the self, and they assume that this, the best in us, cannot thrive where we spend most of our time and energy. The best and highest, what we live for, is elsewhere for most of our lives. In this divided attitude, we find excuses to neglect and disrespect the places where we actually live and the people we live among. At the same time, we fail to take the “higher” values of nature as seriously as we might when we reserve it for rare occasions and faraway places, rather than work to bring it into everyday life.
To assess this, it helps to step outside the assumption that misanthropy and pessimism are simply bad, and ask whether, in some version, they can also be helpful. The objection to these attitudes is tied up with the democratic premises of our time. Our public ideas encourage accepting – at least nominally – the equal value of everyone’s perspective and denying that anyone should have any business telling others how to live. Although we may not do very well at actually showing respect to each individual, we happily knock others off their high horses. In the United States, we accept enormous economic inequality, but only if it comes with cultural equality. This country will happily elect a billionaire mayor but revolt if he presumes to stop residents of his city from drinking giant sodas. Our tax rebellions are more likely to aim at public institutions that can be colored as elitist, such as public broadcasting or state universities, than at low tax rates for the wealthy. Elitism and misanthropy run smack against these democratic premises: what makes backcountry skis better than a snowmobile, a wilderness better than a scenic highway, solitude better than a mall or nightclub? And who has any business saying so? Nothing and nobody are today’s democratic answers.
Our time is also committed to boundless economic growth. The survival of any Western government, and probably the very legitimacy of states such as China, depend on it. In our politics, it is effectively impossible to ask whether our economic optimism is misplaced, not a real, long-term estimate of our prospects, but only be a convenient medium-term illusion.
Environmental ideas sometimes break us out of these simplifying premises. Take the anti-judgmental premise of equality. Because environmental lawmaking directs acreage and resources to serve specific visions of nature’s value and our place in it, it unavoidably engages questions about what is valuable, and about how to live. Being committed to one version of nature’s value and willing to argue and fight for it can seem elitist. The unavoidable contrast between many environmental ideas and our highways and strip-malls can seem misanthropic. But that is what it means to argue for a view of nature’s value that lacks the support of a present majority or an economic cost-benefit report.
This kind of argument might be good for democracy, because our anti-judgmental, live-and-let-live attitude is superficial for environmental problems. Our neutrality can only be spurious: economic analysis works only because someone selects the values that provide its prices, and those values are exactly what the argument is over. Any environmental regime – like any economic order, like any legal order at all – tilts power, resources, and everyday experience toward one version of how to live together, and those who see things differently have no choice but to argue democratically over those commitments. In this way, arguments about nature’s value ask a democratic people to grow up into its own responsibilities.
In a mature democracy it must be possible to address a majority by criticizing, even denouncing it. Citizens must understand that they are choosing among values, in the face of disagreement, and that they have no choice but to do this, if they are to choose at all. A democratic people should be able to believe that over time it is improving, not just getting richer, but understanding more of how it means to live and coming close to that ideal. For this to make sense, its members must be able to step outside the familiar present and call on a better version of the country. They will call on familiar strands of dissent, of course – religious prophecy, constitutional ideals, practices of civil disobedience – to make it clear that they are addressing the present from a possible, imagined future. A rich democratic culture gives its members the means to speak to one another in this way. Calling on nature is one of the ways we do this in our American politics. It discomforts our simpler democratic premises – neutrality and non-judgment – to strengthen more complex and essential democratic powers: to criticize, exhort, and change ourselves. That is high-minded; but that is also precisely the point.
This is where taking responsibility for nature and taking responsibility for democracy come together, and why this book begins with Thomas Hobbes, who believed we could find no divine reassurance to underwrite either our politics or our relation to the natural world. The lesson I took from Hobbes was that we must accept that we make our own political order – and, in our technological age even more than his, our own nature. The lesson I took from Montaigne, which Americans such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir have developed, is that making nature does not mean treating it as just an enemy or a resource mine. We can, and do, develop relations with nature, draw meaning from it, as we do with one another – though with even more bafflement, and perhaps just as much mystery and wonder, as with other people. In a phrase, the democratic responsibility is what Hobbes defined it as being: to take on ourselves the responsibility of making a world, a responsibility that, for much of human experience, has fallen instead on the imagined legislation of gods. This is true for both the political and the natural world. Always bound together in imagination, these two are today ever more inseparable in fact.
Pessimism, criticism, the social wariness that misanthropy cultivates, all draw attention to the basic questions: What are we doing? What shall we do next? They remind us that no providence is overseeing our burning through the planet’s storehouses of energy and fertility – for they were not created as storehouses at all. They remind us that our cultural and political drift is not all we can, or might wish, to be, even when a majority of us rests there for the moment, whether comfortably or anxiously. They call us back to questions we cannot help answering, if only implicitly or passively, and which we would therefore do well not to avoid asking, even if the questions are discomfiting and confusing. Again, calling on nature is one of the ways we do this, and have all along.
For these reasons, it is superficial to say that appeals to nature are irrational and half-superstitious, as John Stuart Mill insisted. They are, instead, part of our repertoire for asking uncomfortable and necessary questions of one another. Calling on nature serves the most rational human power, criticism in service of clear choice, and it uses the tools and spurs of misanthropy and pessimism to do so. It does not, however, step out of the democratic project. Better understood, it presses deeper into that project, where nature also needs to become part of the democratic question. The ways that Americans argue about nature are not a betrayal of Enlightenment; they are expressions of Enlightenment problems and projects, as they have developed in our democratic culture. Our investments in nature are no more fictional or made-up than our investments in liberty, equality, or authenticity. No one has seen or touched those principles, any more than any laboratory instrument or computer model could ever confirm or falsify the meaning of nature; but in all these cases, we are talking about something real, a part of our shared lives, which we can argue over, learn from, and honor, even though it is also something we have created. We have created it by talking about, living by it, and becoming the kinds of people who do such things, which is how language, reason, and imagination contribute to making a world.
This returns us to Thoreau’s “in wildness of is the preservation of the world,” and what he might have meant by it. I raise this not because we must respect what Thoreau believed – of course that is up to us – nor even because, 150 years later, it is possible to be sure what he meant – as if most of us were sure of what we ourselves meant yesterday! I raise it because the thing about wildness is very different from the trouble with wilderness, and it is much more helpful in sorting out the problems I am discussing here.
It helps to consider that Thoreau was using world here in the same way as in his call to reform “the world” before reforming “the globe,” which we examined in Chapter [ ]. By world, he meant, not the physical planet, the “natural world,” but rather the joint product of the planet and the minds that met it from moment to moment. The world was a matter of experience. The foremost human contribution to the world, meant in this sense, was to cultivate the qualities of mind that helped one to meet it openly and generously. The ideal was to move fluidly through the present moment, on the perpetual threshold between past and future. It was to gather into one’s attention those things one found in the moment, so that thought and plants, sensations and qualities of light, rose from within and outside to meet one another. Mind and things, inside and out, met to form the moment as past joined future. We are never anywhere else, Thoreau insisted, but we too easily forget altogether where we are.
Wildness is not a quality of the globe, not a matter of the density of forest or species: it is a quality of the world, the moment where we always are. It is, in fact, the quality of the world, the essential preserver. It is the condition in which we are open to surprise, insight, sudden elevation or humility, a sense of wholeness or diffusion – in which we remain in motion through a living and mobile world, sauntering, as Thoreau put it, toward an ever-receding Holy Land that cannot be more than another instance of the present moment.
Where do the basic questions of this chapter stand? The misanthropic worry is sometimes well-founded. Environmental ideas can be, and frequently have been, braided together with bigotry, narrowness, obtuse privilege and nostalgia, and indifference to careful argument. Both history and reflection suggest that environmental ideas even have some affinity with these attitudes. Environmental thought bears the marks of the Romantic revolt against narrow forms of reason, and shares its tendency to celebrate irrationality as insight and freedom. Nature, unspeaking and sometimes beautiful, invites the narcissistic projections of nostalgia. Environmentalism often begins in response to harm that humans have done, and in “taking nature’s side” it can slide into dislike of humanity, and for this reason it attracts and amplifies misanthropy.
When environmental thought has not been parochial or immature, however, its relation to these issues has been constructive. It has pressed at the seams of the same modern commitments it has been accused of betraying – democracy, humanitarianism, technological mastery, reason – in ways that may yet prove essential. The problems it poses are reminders that democracy is not just the stripping away of old hierarchies; it means making the world together, collectively and politically, including taking responsibility for our mutually shaping interaction with nature. The environmentalist ambition to align oneself with nature is a reminder that reason, public debate and private deliberation, mean more than clearing away the moss and ivy of superstition to let in the light, more than the technological control of nature. Reasoning about how to live benefits from the power to draw ourselves away from the present to imagine the future, to escape – temporarily – from familiar human entanglements into a sense of our place in the larger living world. Trying to build a peaceful and humane world means finding a way to live peaceably with nature, and not just mining it for our convenience. This is true both because harmony with our setting is a cultural achievement for a good life and, more materially, because disrupting natural cycles ensures that our lives will be disrupted in return. Environmentalism, taken in its best light, is a reminder that our dominant versions of democracy, reason, and progress are still superficial, especially because they rely on ignoring or recklessly exploiting nature, and that, for these values to be sustainable, we must give them a sustainable relation to the larger living world.
 2d ed, 1918, 91
 [Spiro sources]
 MG, Passing 227
 Id. at 209.
 Conquest of a Continent, 285 (1933).
 Id. at 91.
 Conquest at 224; on dynamics of population, Passing at 48-50.
 Passing at 48-54.
 443 of McKibben reader
 NYT, June 2, 1937.
 Spiro, 272.
 Century, Jan. 1894 (345, 345).
 Letter to Secretary of the Interior [ ] West, Jan. 16, 1929 (quoted in Spiro, 71).
 Quoted at Spiro, 158.
 See Garland E. Allen, “’Culling the Herd’: Eugenics and the Conservation Movement in the United States, 1900-1940, n. 2. Published online in connection with the Journal of the History of Biology, DOI 10.1007/s10739-011-9317-1 (March 13, 2012).
 See Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.
 Spiro at 357.
 Spiro at 371.
 Fairfield Osborn, Our Plundered Planet vi (1948).
 Id. at ix.
 Id. at 4-5.
 Id. at 10 (the general argument appears at 5-10).
 Id. at 67-86.
 Id. at 61.
 Id. at 60.
 Id. at iv.
 Id. at 3.
 Id. at 201.
 Id. at ix.
 [Material from Spiro.]
 Id. at 40-41.
 Id. at 26.
 Frederick H. Osborn, “Overpopulation and Genetic Selection,” 51, 60 in Our Crowded Planet.
 Id. at 67.
 Luc Ferry, The New Ecological Order 91-107 (trans. Carol Volk,1995) (1992).
 Id. at 98.
 Timothy Morton’s very unfriendly characterization.