Last week the New Yorker Magazine ran an article by Duke Law Professor and public intellectual Jedediah Purdy titled “Environmentalism’s Racist History” that might have been more appropriately titled “Environmentalists’ Racist History” since the brunt of the article was to show that a group of men held deplorable but typical Victorian ideas about race while at the same time waging important campaigns on behalf of wildlife preservation.
For example, Madison Grant—an ally of Theodore Roosevelt—fought to protect the bison and the Redwood trees while at the same time writing a book titled “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History.” I should add that Purdy includes Grant’s role in creating the Bronx Zoo on the positive side of the ledger—something I would question given the sorry record of captive creatures in such places. Apparently the book helped to influence the Immigration Act of 1924 although it is not exactly clear what this has to do with the bison. When my grandparents came over before this bill was passed, did they take the next train to North Dakota to hunt bison? I rather doubt it.
Purdy also takes aim at John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club who refers to Blacks as lazy “Sambos” and the “dirty and irregular life” of Indians. Again, there is not exactly any connection made between Muir’s racist views and the mission of the Sierra Club. Henry David Thoreau also gets smacked for stating “the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.”
He also points out that many of these early environmentalists backed eugenics as well, not that there was any direct connection between protecting bison and sterilizing women.
Purdy tries to make a connection by rendering Grant and Muir as misanthropically predisposed to humanity, especially its lower classes. They were catering to the aristocracy that saw the forest and especially its larger animals such as elk as a refuge from the teeming masses.
This is an analysis I first ran into from William Cronon that I alluded to in a May 23rd post titled “Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda”. Cronon is very big on the reactionary character of Teddy Roosevelt era wildlife preservation programs:
Thus the decades following the Civil War saw more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens seeking out wilderness for themselves. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: enormous estates in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (disingenuously called “camps” despite their many servants and amenities), cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled.
Missing from Purdy’s article is any understanding of the context. In point of fact, all of the men he writes about were simply reflecting the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time. Social Darwinism and eugenics were deeply embedded in the intellectual life of the period.
For example, Lewis Henry Morgan—best known in some ways for Marx and Engels’s positive references to his study of the Iroquois—viewed Indians as an impediment to civilization because of their reliance on hunting, something he regarded as enchaining them to their “primitive state”.
Furthermore, many of the great philosophers of the 19th century viewed Europeans as higher up on the evolutionary scale, including Immanuel Kant who wrote:
The inhabitant of the temperate parts of the world, above all the central part, has a more beautiful body, works harder, is more jocular, more controlled in his passions, more intelligent than any other race of people in the world. That is why at all points in time these peoples have educated the others and controlled them with weapons. The Romans, Greeks, the ancient Nordic peoples, Genghis Khan, the Turks, Tamurlaine, the Europeans after Columbus’s discoveries, they have all amazed the southern lands with their arts and weapons.
What would have been remarkable is if any of these early environmentalists had written passionate defenses of American Indian or African-American rights. Furthermore, Purdy has complaints about the racism of environmentalist groups today, calling attention for example to less than two per cent of the combined seven hundred and forty-five employees of the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.), and Friends of the Earth being from minorities.
Purdy has a new book out titled “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene” that will probably sell lots of copies since he is one of those people who gets interviewed by Charlie Rose and reviewed in the Sunday Times Book Review section. From the looks of it, it has the same kind of profundity as the typical TED lecture:
A democratic Anthropocene is just a thought for now, but it can also be a tool that activists, thinkers and leaders use to craft challenges and invitations that bring some of us a little closer to a better possible world, or a worse one. The idea that the world people get to inhabit will only be the one they make is, in fact, imperative to the development of a political and institutional programme, even if the idea itself does not tell anyone how to do that. There might not be a world to win, or even save, but there is a humanity to be shaped and reshaped, freely and always in partial and provisional ways, that can begin intending the world it shapes.
In any case, I hope that in trying to correct the racial composition of the Sierra Club et al, Purdy finds the time to prevail upon his editors at the New Yorker Magazine to rectify the imbalance there since the percentage of minority contributors is about the same: about two percent.
This is not to speak of Duke University, where he is a big muckety-muck in the Law School. Also on the Duke faculty is one Jerry Hough who can’t understand why Black students just don’t get it: “I am a professor at Duke University. Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.” Or that has students who like to hang nooses to make a point to Blacks with those strange names about knowing their place.