You know Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” before you know that you know it. It is heroic and elegiac, and it comes pre-distilled. According to Turner, the frontier created American democracy and indelibly shaped national culture. The free land of the frontier was a safety valve: both malcontents and the ambitious could head west. Their constant emigration from eastern cities saved the country from permanent classes of property-holding elites and low-wage workers. The practical-minded self-reliance of the frontier was a wind from the West, blowing east demands for voting rights, democratic constitutions, and libertarian government. The report of the 1890 Census had found settlement everywhere, erasing the westward line that was, properly speaking, the frontier, and so, “the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”
Turner, a University of Wisconsin professor who later taught at Harvard, announced his thesis at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago on July 12, 1893. It was the season of the Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair marking four hundred years of European presence in the Americas and celebrating the cult of progress. The fair grounds were rife with displays of a future perfected by technology and planning, all centering on the famous White City, stucco-coated, lighted by electricity, and meticulously designed. It was both a monument to optimism and growing human powers and an unintended reminder of the fragility of all plans for the future, from its ephemeral architecture to its closing event, the shocking assassination of the popular mayor by an angry and delusional patronage-seeker.
Turner’s thesis had a White City-like simplification. He might have been designing an exhibition when he invited his reader to “Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file – the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer – and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between.” Turner claimed that the whole outline of human history displayed itself again and again on the open continent, as it had in the longer and more meandering ascent of older societies. At the same time, there was a shadow in Turner’s account. It lay in the irony that American life made sense only at the moment when it ceased to make that kind of sense. Describing a country shaped by the frontier, Turner was also describing a people prepared by its history for a different world from the one that was coming into being in 1893. With the end of abundant and good frontier land, a nation of individualists faced the interdependence of people stuck with one another; a culture built on the expectation of effectively limitless resources confronted scarcity and class conflict; and a democratic community, accustomed to self-governance, met a world too complicated for ready shared decisions, a world that only experts and planners could navigate. Americans had lost their nature, and they would now have to find a way to take responsibility for a planned nature, in some ways as artificial as the White City.
So, when Turner wrote that “American democracy … came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier,” he was describing a democracy whose time had passed with the frontier. The country was now “looking with a shock upon a changed world.” The problem, Turner argued, was no longer how to cut and burn the Western forests, but how to preserve timber, not how to encourage settlement, but how to propagate scientific agriculture. The age of conservation and management had come.
Just as nature now needed to be managed collectively and by experts, new social conflicts seemed to demand the same. Turner’s idea of American democracy was highly individualist; egalitarian individualism and the democratic spirit seem to have been roughly the same thing for him. Yet, he reflected, as he lectured on the frontier, the country was torn by labor strife – organized workers gathered against massed capital. His beloved West was producing the most radical, which is to the say the most collectivist, of the American unions, among the miners of Montana and Colorado. Turner wrote in 1903 that American politics seemed to divide mainly on “the question of Socialism,” the question of how far economic life should be subject to collective control, and for what purposes. In an address late in 1910, he aligned himself with Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism,” a program of strong government that Roosevelt imagined as preserving the virtues of individualism and civic spirit through intelligent management. Like Roosevelt, Turner contrasted this management-for-individualism with the simple, laissez-faire individualism of conservatives like the railroad baron E.H. Harriman, whose simple rejection of government was a throwback to a lost frontier.
Loss of the frontier, then, was also a loss of a certain kind of political innocence. As Turner presented it, American democracy had taken shape in transient freedom from the basic problem of most politics, especially modern and democratic politics. This is the problem of conflicting interests and values, made acute by scarcity. There is not enough of the all the good things in the world – land, wealth, leisure – and conflict over those things determines whose wishes come true, and whose lives end up as the compromised instruments of others’ comfort. Because one of the best ways to live comfortably is to exploit others, one of the basic political problems is what Turner identified as the theme of his time, the relation between capital labor, or, put in less stark language, the terms of work and cooperation. The frontier relaxed the pressure of both these problems. It made expansion an alternative to political conflict, exit an alternative to exploitation. When Americans pressed each others’ interests too hard, they could leave for open land, returning themselves to what Turner imagined as an early stage of social development. The frontier was a safety valve for inequality and social conflict, and by reducing the force of these, as much as by cultivating self-reliance on settlers’ farms, it helped to give American politics the individualist stamp that Turner called democratic.
No doubt one reason for the influence of the Frontier Thesis was that Turner’s claim about the frontier and democracy was not at all original. He was casting in (barely) academic language the tenets of a civic religion. Thomas Jefferson had promised in his first inaugural address that frontier land would enable Americans to live a rural, egalitarian life for a thousand generations. Two years before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln argued that open land created unique social mobility in American life, so that the class structure of labor and capital did not apply here as it might in Europe. William Gilpin, Colorado’s first governor and a great rhetorician of Manifest Destiny, announced that geography formed America’s destiny – a destiny of a continental empire of liberty. These were only some of the most prominent expressions of a whole world of American rhetoric.
Turner was less typical in his claim that the frontier had closed, and in closing changed the terms of American life. Not that this idea was new, either: early in the nineteenth century, G.W.F. Hegel had argued that an open continent enabled Euro-Americans to escape the conflicts of politics, and that the United States would not come to grips with a genuine political identity until it ran out of land, and Americans had to turn and face one another. Until then, its politics would be a gloss on escapist expansion, with few resources to answer the problems of scarcity, exploitation, and conflicting goals. Five years before Turner announced the Frontier Thesis, Theodore Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club, an elite sportsmen’s organization devoted to conserving North American big game in the face of commercial hunting and development pressure on wild lands – concerns that would attract Roosevelt, nostalgic western novelist Owen Wister, and other members of the club to Turner’s thought, as Turner would later be drawn to Roosevelt’s program.
Turner’s thesis hewed close to what many had already said, although he was early in announcing the frontier “closed” at a time when many were prepared to accept this as a diagnosis of the time. It has also been subject to so much criticism that it is, itself, more an object of historiographic interest than a contender in theories of American political development. [Insert summary of the discussion.]
Turner was right that American political culture, and culture at large, were formed in constant engagement with, and reflection upon, a rich continent, new to its settlers, which they turned into an advancing wave of frontiers. This much is hardly deniable. It is why, for all the limitations that sophisticated hindsight shows in Turner’s argument, it is hard to deny that, in some broad sense, he could not have been wrong. Rather than assess Turner’s face-value claim, it is more interesting to consider him as an instance, another symptom, of the very condition he diagnosed. Turner argued, following Hegel, that Americans had been able to stay oblivious to the basic problems of politics, enjoying a kind of national adolescence in which energy and individuality seemed enough to organize the world. With special assistance from nature, they had evaded politics until his time, when Roosevelt and other Progressive reformers squarely faced the problems of social and political order.
Turner himself, though, was not the Owl of Minerva; he was a juncture within a larger story. The American use of nature to avoid politics did not end with Roosevelt’s reforms, nor was the ideology of the frontier its only earlier version. Every major form of American environmental imagination has called on the natural world to underwrite, to “naturalize,” one version of politics, pressing others outside of serious debate. Each version has in some ways powered political imagination and mobilization, by enlisting nature in support of political agendas; at the same time, each version has evaded politics, tried to shut down imagination and mobilization, by claiming that certain would-be political questions must be decided by nature, not by human judgment.
So Turner’s Frontier Thesis both memorialized and put to rest – or claimed to put to rest – one American version of nature’s politics, the idea of a republican, agricultural frontier, all but indefinitely expanding, which Thomas Jefferson shared in with Colorado governor William Gilpin. Nature bespoke God’s Providence, in this view, and Providence had made possible a new form of widespread political freedom and equality, intertwined with the dignity of labor, especially agricultural labor. Nature, in this view, was made to fulfill human needs richly, but only on the condition that we worked on it, filled up its undeveloped vastness with clearing, planting, and settlement. Because nature had this purpose, the land belonged to those who made it bloom – to colonists over the king who tried to restrict their westward expansion, and even more to settlers over the indigenous people of the land they claimed. Providence thus helped the settlers to put aside questions of justice and legality as they streamed across the continent. This version of nature also gave a plain agenda to the federal government: to create private property by deeding land by sale or in exchange for clearing, planting, mining, irrigating, draining – whatever it took to make more of North America the landscape it was made to be.
This was environmental imagination as political imagination, defining the purpose of politics – to create private property and a culture of settlement – and setting its boundaries – little time for Native American claims or non-productive uses of land. This version of environmental imagination also presented an ideal of the individual mind, the mind of an alert, practical, self-reliant citizen, the citizen of Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s republics, whose character Turner described as if it had been molded from frontier soil and fired in the heat of burning Midwestern forests. It gave Americans who adhered to it a basis of dignity, the dignity of being that kind of admirable person, whose ability and effort were turned toward nature’s providential plan. This version of nature was also training in a way of seeing the non-human world: as a storehouse of potential wealth, awaiting an ordering hand to make it flourish. It trained the eye of the surveyor, the eye that would make the Jeffersonian grid, a scheme of uniform development thrown across a rough and diverse continent.
And what about the new politics, and the conservationist approach to nature, that Turner shared with Roosevelt and other Progressives? It was not an escape from non-politics into political rationality. It was, like the providential settler view, another version of political imgination, founded on its own version of nature, with its own political and legal agenda, its own version of the American mind, and its own way of seeing the non-human world. Each version had its own kind of rationality, but it was rational relative to an idea of nature and the human place in it, not rational in and of itself.
Progressive reformers like Roosevelt also saw nature as existing to serve human purposes, though not all would have insisted that it was created with that end in mind. Some did take this providential view, while others emphasized a more utilitarian approach: human interests were the key thing, and it just made sense to regard nature as a reserve of resources to be used for those interests. For them, the key thing about nature was that, contrary to the providential settler view, it was not arranged to support the small-scale clearing and settlement of frontier culture, not programmed for harmony with the Homestead Act and the Jeffersonian grid. Instead, many natural systems worked on scales that were too large, and in ways that were too complex, for Jeffersonian settlers to manage them well. Moreover, the self-interest of individual settlers would not always lead to good management of nature, as the providential view tended to suppose. Instead, pioneers had cleared forests too quickly, exhausted their fields, and sent eroded soil downstream to clog waterways. The country was using its natural wealth poorly, and too quickly. What was needed was management at the scale of the complex and interdependent resources themselves – forests, rivers – over nature’s time-scale, and in the interest of the whole political community, not just some lucky members of the present generation. Only government could do that, and it had to be a government staffed by people with scientific training. Where the providential version of nature called out for clearing and settlement, the Progressive version demanded management. Early in the nineteenth century, the continent had seemed to call forth a homesteading, agrarian empire of liberty; now it invited a strong national state, the administrative state of the twentieth century.
How was this embrace of governance an evasion of politics? The key lies in a famous remark about Theodore Roosevelt, that he loved government but did not care for democracy. It is not, of course, a matter of Roosevelt’s personal temperament, but in this case his attitude captures a whole tendency in the politics of his time. Roosevelt said that his entire program of domestic reform was nothing but an extension of the principle of conservation, and the analogy to other areas of progressive policy is straightforward. From antitrust to labor law to city planning to public-health regulation, social and economic life was encountering the same problems that Progressives found in nature: the systems were so large and complex that leaving them up to individual decisions dis-served the public good. Like rivers and forests, the streams of commerce and even the lives of citizens had to be managed for the long-term good of the whole population. This management was a public-minded project, but not a democratic one. It did not take its standards from popular will, but from expert knowledge. It is not strange, then, that some of the strongest conservationists, including Roosevelt and his great supporter, Senator Albert Beveridge, were adamant imperialists, confident that the US could govern the Philippines and other far-off places for the benefit of their people, since the touchstone of good government was not democracy, but, as Beveridge argued in support of Roosevelt’s foreign policy, administration.
The key to the evasion of politics was the conviction many Progressive reformers shared that there was one right definition of the public good, a utilitarian calculus that would tell the expert manager just where the national interest lay. When Roosevelt and his key allies treated natural resources conservation as the model of all social and economic regulation, they implied that the social benefit of a policy could be calculated objectively and without controversy, without the need to answer to competing values and incompatible goals. Managing a forest for timber and erosion control allowed a straightforward calculus of public costs and benefits that a manager could use to schedule and locate logging over decades. There was no room for disputes about just what the value of a tree was, or whether trees, or ecosystems, might have their own interests – ideas that Romantics like Sierra Club leader John Muir had begun to sound in public, but which Roosevelt’s circle mostly scorned. Taking forest management as a general model meant acting as if the competing demands of labor and management, laissez-faire capitalists and socialists, were open to the same objective accounting. It implied that there was no irresolvable clash of values between antirust advocates such as Louis Brandeis, who wanted to protect an economy of smallholders, and others, like Roosevelt, who wanted to embrace big business, then regulate it.
Conservation, then, was pivotal in the rise of cost-benefit analysis, which today is a touchstone language of American policy and lawmaking. Since the 1980s, when it became central to environmental policy, critics of cost-benefit analysis have argued that a technical, would-be objective technique cannot identify whether laws are good, let alone legitimate. Historians of economic and social policy recognize that those debates are special instances of broader problems that came into view when American policymakers after World War Two began pursuing overall consumer welfare rather than engage in openly distributive politics or other traditional concerns of political economy, such as the quality of work that people do. That policy, in turn, has its roots in the technocratic, managerial approach to social policy that the Progressive conservationists pursued, which itself rested on their understanding of nature and the human place in it. In a sense it was the American landscape, the vast tracts of interdependent forests, waterways, and soil systems, many of them still under public management and ownership when Roosevelt’s reforms got underway, that made plausible a managerial, welfare-maximizing approach to social policy generally. This approach is the leading way, today, of making policy non-political, even anti-political, in the name of an objective and technical conception of the common good.
Standard histories of US environmental politics tell the story of Hetch Hetchy, the dramatic Sierra Nevada valley near Yosemite, which San Francisco dammed as a municipal water reservoir around the time of World War One. One of the protagonists in the usual story is Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt’s chief conservation adviser and the leading theorist and publicist of the conservationist approach to public policy. The other is John Muir, founder and longtime president of the Sierra Club, a group that did much to bring a new approach to nature into politics and lawmaking. The Sierra Club perspective was the Romantic one. In this view, nature’s most spectacular places, such as mountain peaks, sheer cliffs, and crashing waterfalls, had power to free and sustain the human mind. Visitors to these places found themselves clearer, more alive, less burdened by habits and conventions, anxieties and trivial distractions. This experience was at once emotional, aesthetic, and religiously in a loosely pantheistic way. Sierra Club members reported that they left the high country with renewed connection to their own true selves and to real powers of the universe.
Romantic activists such as Muir insisted that the landscapes they treasured should be preserved as something like secular cathedrals. Their position was not exactly that these places should be outside the utilitarian calculus of public benefit – the Sierra Club made an early peace with cost-benefit analysis – but that aesthetic, recreational, and emotional satisfaction should be central to the meaning of public benefit. “Not by bread alone” was a frequent refrain of Sierra Club arguments that aesthetics should figure in public decisions. By the early 1920s, the Romantic vocabulary had become the standard way to justify and explain the national parks, which were officially described as natural cathedrals. The highest legal and political achievement for the Romantic approach was almost certainly the Wilderness Act of 1964, product of an alliance between the Sierra Club and the hard-core wilderness advocates of the Wilderness Society, which dedicates large tracts of public land (more than 107 million acres at the time of writing) to primitive recreation, with effectively no development or exploitation allowed.
In one way, the Romantics expressed the twentieth century’s most important political challenge to the dominance of the conservationists’ utilitarian approach. The campaign for wilderness, in particular, brought into public language a way of valuing the natural world apart from aggregate human benefit, an anti-utilitarian argument that developed under the pressure of finding public, democratic ways to engage the dominant utilitarian arguments. At the same time, however, the Romantics had their own ways of evading politics. On the one hand, they claimed to reach outside of democratic disagreement to call on the real meaning, value, and purposes of nature. On the other hand, they rapidly made their peace with a consumerist relationship to nature, whose paradigm was the vacation. This approach to nature was transcendentalist and supra-political in its first posture, consumerist and sub-political in its second. The effective compromise between these two chords in Romantic politics was to focus political effort on defending high-country sanctums while ignoring the environmental politics of everyday life, which Romantics consigned to the fallen world of the lowlands. The Romantics claimed to rise above politics in protecting the places they valued most, while ducking it for every other question that their core concerns, consistently pursued, might have raised. This meant that no political agenda ever emerged to rethink all dimensions of the human relation to nature in light of the Romantic concern with the quality of consciousness and experience.
The fourth major version of American nature, the ecological, has now been at the center of environmental politics, lawmaking, and imagination for roughly fifty years. It took energy from the growing visibility and sophistication of ecological science; from the massive increase in the American and Western European resource footprints in the consumer-industrial economies that grew up after World War Two, which pressed many natural systems harder than they had been pressed before; from a new cultural emphasis on security and cleanliness in the prosperous suburbs of the era; and from growing doubts that technological mastery of nature always meant progress, doubts spurred by, among other things, the atomic threat and the failure of US technology and planning in Vietnam. The heart of ecological nature is interconnection so deep and extensive that boundaries among organisms, places, and systems are neither stable nor secure. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring crystallized what this meant for an industrial society: toxins released into air and water ended up in soil, in flesh, in DNA. The suburbs were unsafe; even the body was not secure. From the beginning, the ecological image of the world brought a threat, the apocalyptic specter of a “poisoned world.” It also brought a comforting, pastoral promise: being a part of the non-human world, continuous with it, could be redress for alienation and discontent, a version of the restorative unity with nature that the Romantics had sought, but with a basis that was humbler, more widespread than the “cathedrals” of the high country, and based as much in science as in feeling and intuition.
Ecological nature required new forms of regulation, pitched at the level of systems, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, or protecting “critical habitat” wherever it occurs, as the Endangered Species Act permits. Most earlier lawmaking around the non-human world had amounted to zoning on a continental scale, with regions of private property implicitly dedicated to economic use, public lands explicitly committed to a mix of managed production, as in the national forests, and recreation, all the way to the wilderness areas that law protected from all development. The zoning-style approach could no longer seem adequate, once it became apparent that natural systems respect large-scale jurisdictional boundaries hardly more than they do private property lines. In a way, the ecological insight did to the conservationist, zoning-based approach what the conservationists had done to the providential, property-oriented lawmaking that came before it: showed that its artificial boundaries were too narrow for a deeply interconnected natural world.
There is also no keeping human beings out of ecological nature. Wilderness was the apex of the Romantic view – a nature without people, without production or extraction, set aside for leave-no-trace pilgrims. Agriculture would be a fair candidate for the touchstone of ecological nature: it is one of the most basic ties between the human body and the rest of the world, a relationship of sustenance and survival. It shapes landscapes, soil systems, and the human culture of labor and technology that surrounds it, and its practices, from plant breeding to pesticide and antibiotics, define the chemistry and bacterial ecosystem of the human body. Another candidate is energy. The energy economy transforms the chemistry of the global atmosphere through its emissions and drives change in global climate. It forms landscapes directly through mining, drilling, or windmills and solar panels. Energy sources also shape human habitation: today suburbs and exurbs have grown up around cheap fuel, as towns and villages once clustered around waterways that could drive their mills and carry their goods.
In these ways, ecology has deepened the problems and raised the stakes of environmental law and politics. In fact, the intensification may be so great that referring to “environmental” questions is artificially narrow; in a real sense, we are talking about everything. To shape the human relation to the natural world, we have to take account of most of what we do and how we live. In fact, we will shape the human relation to the natural world regardless of whether we take account of it. The question is whether we will do so in a deliberate and self-aware way, or obliviously, remaking the world, as it were, behind our own backs.
The need for a deepened and broadened environmental politics has never been greater. That need comes at a most inopportune time. Considering what it would take to be intentional about the human shaping of the atmosphere, for instance, only highlights the inadequacy of existing politics. Even the largest countries are small enough that any measures they take to fight climate change have the economic structure of foreign aid – all the costs at home, most of the benefits abroad. Election cycles are tragi-comically shorter than the time scale of climate change, meaning that politicians’ self-interest generally lies in making reassuring noises (either that something is being done about the problem or that no action is necessary) while doing no to burden their constituents during their own time in office. Efforts to achieve meaningful global agreements have so far been studies in how hard it is to overcome these barriers, exercises in selling out the future for the convenience of the present. More exactly, these efforts have ended up embracing tremendous future uncertainty and loss of control in return for a margin of comfort and false security today, the immediate-gratification payoff of concluding that there is nothing that needs to happen, or, at least, nothing to be done.
The problem is not just a matter of the scale – in time and space – of existing governments. It is also that the world’s democracies are in malaise, even around their established functions. Effective democratic government has been hard enough to come by in the United States and Europe that one hears murmurs, and more than murmurs, wishing for the strength and decisiveness that some Westerners associate with Chinese authoritarian rule. In other words, concluding that a deepened democratic politics of nature is what the world needs now is not at all an upbeat or exhorting judgment. On the contrary, it may well be the crux of a tragedy, that humans can see the shore we need to reach, but, for reasons we understand but cannot overcome, have no way to get there.
It may be partly because this prospective tragedy is so unsettling that ecological nature has inspired its own evasions of politics. The recent center-left fantasies that it would be refreshing to live under Chinese efficiency are second-time-as-farce replays of 1970s fantasies that a Green authoritarian state might be the key to the ecological crisis. As a desperate response to democratic failures, this is certainly instructive, but more as a diagnosis of how deep disaffection with stumbling democracies runs than of what might be a solution. Quite apart from the moral priority of democracy, which I hold very high, the hope for benign and sustained authoritarianism is absurd in practice and a mark of intellectual desperation.
 Significance of the Frontier in American History (last lines).
 Id. [earlier]
 FJT, The West and American Ideals
 FJT, Contributions of the West to American Ideals (1903, Atlantic)
 FJT, Social Forces in American History.
 [Cite for popular use of this phrase.]
 Kristof, Friedman, and anecdotes of high-powered murmurers.