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Escaping the Dark, Gray CityFear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation$

Benjamin Heber Johnson

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780300115505

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300115505.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Escaping the Dark, Gray City

Benjamin Heber Johnson

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter talks about a more comprehensive and balanced portrayal of conservation, exploring how it maintained race and class hierarchies, and how the movement laid the basis for real and lasting environmental improvements. Several spectators realized that conservation had a lot to do with Progressivism, as environmental measures were among the most important legacies of the Progressive era. The chapter thus introduces three goals for conducting this research. First, it aims to offer a more expansive synthesis of conservationist thinking and doing, one that stresses the movement's complexity, heterogeneity, ambition, and breadth. Second, it means to show how deeply tied this movement was to the larger course of Progressivism. And finally, it argues for the relevance of conservation for contemporary environmental reform.

Keywords:   conservation movement, Progressivism, environmental reform, racial heirarchies, class heirarchies, heterogeneity

The extraordinary intelligence of human beings can seduce us into thinking that we are the sole architects of our history, with the rest of the world—plants, animals, weather, geography—simply the props and stage on which we enact our dramas. The premise of environmental history is that this larger world is also an actor in human stories. Most of the time, the dialogue between humans and the world in which they live is a hushed murmur, a conversation whose echoes we can make out only much later: farmers chose to plant the seeds from a grass with the largest heads, and a thousand years later developed corn. Or Europeans bring with them to the Americas diseases that allow for their multiplication and expansion, the unexpected product of past animal domestications and the easy spread of plants and pathogens across the Eurasian land mass.

At other moments, however, the background hum reaches a crescendo that itself becomes the subject of thought, comment, and perhaps action: the last passenger pigeon dies, a scientist discovers that the chemicals propelling hair spray and other conveniences are also destroying the ozone layer, or a hurricane brings exceptional flooding that strikes many as a harbinger of a warmer planet.

One such extended moment occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States. Influential scientists, writers, political leaders, and a large portion of the general population became (p.2) convinced that humanity had lost its proper place in the larger world. Americans, they believed, were destroying species, overconsuming natural resources, and moving to homes and cities that isolated them from natural beauty and wildness. These women and men sought to restore a spiritually renewing and materially sustainable relationship with a nature made vulnerable by the unprecedented power of industrial humanity. Eventually adopting the term “conservation” to describe their efforts, they tried to do this by passing laws regulating such things as hunting and logging, turning over larger portions of the country to the management of foresters and other scientists, creating cities and buildings that evoked rather than denied nature, and replacing obliviousness and profligacy with understanding and responsibility. They sought to create both a culture that fostered appreciation, awareness, and restraint when it came to the natural world, and a vigorous state to enforce the dictates of that culture.

The prominence of conservation in the early-twentieth-century United States is widely known: elected officials such as President Theodore Roosevelt and environmental writers and activists such as John Muir appear in history textbooks and have spawned numerous studies by professional historians, journalists, and environmental enthusiasts. Those wishing to expand their knowledge of conservation can consult numerous biographies of its leading lights as well as studies of particular agencies and protected areas, of the concept of wilderness, and of the impact of conservation on rural people. So why write another book on the subject?

Escaping the Dark, Gray City grew from two mounting frustrations: with the ways that environmental historians write about conservation, and with how little other historians of the period write about it. Before the late 1990s, scholars and journalists examining conservation and conservationists generally wrote with the assumption that their subjects were virtuous, and that their task was to trace the emergence and accomplishments of environmental enlightenment and the grave ecological crises that this enlightenment sought to combat. This approach colored accounts of wilderness thought, of the careers of such figures as Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, of the establishment of national parks and other protected areas, and of organizations such as the Sierra Club (p.3) and the Save-the-Redwoods League. This kind of environmental history was not merely academic and was not read exclusively by professional historians, for it endowed histories of environmental thought and politics with moral power and political urgency, much as had the politics of older and better established histories of labor, women, emancipation, and civil rights. These writings drew me to become a professional historian. I began devouring these books, even taking them with me on backpacking trips. How there came to be national parks and forests, I thought, was just as riveting as the mountains and wildness that they encompassed. I went to graduate school to learn how to tell just such stories.1

My plans were derailed, for the study of conservation went through a dramatic transformation. In the 1990s, a growing number of scholars asked skeptical questions about conservation and environmentalism. What did it mean to call a place a wilderness when it had been home so long to human beings whose hunting, fires, and crops had shaped the landscape now valued for its supposed isolation from the social world? Could appreciation of the wild lead people to ignore or even denigrate the more quotidian nature of their backyard, neighborhood, and city? What happened to the hunting, fishing, and gathering of people living in and around the new national parks and forests? Why did establishing a park or forest so often result in the removal of Indian people and the criminalization of their ways of living off the land? Given the some-times disastrous consequences of the fire suppression and predator extermination that conservationists pursued with such vigor, were the purported saviors not sometimes as destructive as those whose environmental profligacy they so roundly condemned?2

I embraced this turn to a more critical history and contributed modestly to it with an article about how conservation restrictions in Minnesota had subordinated Indians and immigrant miners by depriving them of access to natural resources. My enthusiasm for the study of conservation had not waned, I told myself, but rather matured. To regulate nature was to regulate society, I now saw, and this had often been done unjustly. Conservation’s importance lay in its failures and blindness as well as its accomplishments. These kinds of histories were not so inspiring to read on a backpacking or canoe trip, but they spoke (p.4) powerfully to the sense of disfranchisement palpable in the old mining-turned-tourist towns that I had come to know and love. These revisionist stories angered some environmentalists and environmental historians, but I saw in my own classes how they did a valuable service by forcing environmentally minded people to think about what had been done in the name of protecting nature, to leaven their environmentalism with a concern for social justice.

But after a few years, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the consequences of narrating the history of conservation by focusing on its sins. A comment from one of my less environmentally minded students brought this home: at the end of a class session in which we discussed the dispossession of Indians and rural whites by conservation bureaucracies, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “This just sounds like the kind of bullshit that goes down when the government does anything.” I shuddered: was this my lesson to my students, to bolster their already robust cynicism about the wisdom of the American public using the powers of its government to limit environmental damage? Would we be better off without the game laws, the protected areas, and the myriad ways that conservationists had pushed Americans to think about nature? I had helped my students see the limits, oversights, and even crimes of conservation. I wanted them to see its accomplishments, too, so that the critical histories would inform a contemporary politics that melded environmental protection with social justice. Indeed, in a time when humanity faces the extraordinary challenge of global climate change, I thought that this synthesis was one of the duties of environmental history.

So this book began as an effort to offer a more comprehensive and balanced portrayal of conservation. I wanted both to explore how conservation perpetuated race and class hierarchies (a subject that some historians continue to ignore or dismiss) and to show how the movement laid the basis for real and lasting environmental improvements.3 Early research into the history of Los Angeles seemed promising. In the decades around 1900, the metropolitan area fostered something of a renaissance of conservation. Scientists and landowners looked to the chaparral-covered mountains hemming in the city as a key source of water for their prosperous orchards and growing city, but one they thought endangered by fires and rapid timber cutting. They helped make (p.5) these forests among the first brought under permanent federal control and management. Some of these figures aspired to bring the principles of plant breeding and conservation to the management of human reproduction, writing of “conserving” what they considered the better sort of human beings. The mountains drew many thousands of Angelenos, including those of more modest means, to their wild and harsh beauty. Outing and hunting clubs built lodges to welcome travelers, and were joined by private entrepreneurs offering hiking and pack trips to nature enthusiasts. Writers extolled the ruggedness of the mountains and the vast, austere desert to the east in newspaper columns, simple but eloquent letters to newspaper editors, and in popular books. In the metropolis itself, homeowners and orchardists planted their grounds, and architects designed homes to evoke the region’s natural beauty, practicing what some considered a kind of suburban or domestic conservation. Progressive reformers proposed ambitious public parks, warned of the dangers of cutting off urbanites from regular contact with the nonhuman world, and advocated modeling large city parks after the region’s wilder expanses. Neighborhood residents sought more and better parks, wrote eloquently of threats to their favorite trees, and debated the merits of camping in their municipal parks. The participants in these conversations included women and men, scientists and laypeople, conservative business owners and socialist labor leaders, and those of affluence and modest means. They all seemed to share some sense that something about modern life—wage labor, industry, urbanization, and materialism—had poisoned the relationship between humans and the larger natural world.

Exploring these conservation circles seemed like a promising way to push beyond the limits of both the hagiographic and revisionist accounts of conservation. Such a work also promised to uncover the continuities between some strains of conservation and more recent environmental movements. The time that I spent in Los Angeles in the early 2000s exposed me to a dynamic urban environmentalism, one concerned less with a nature far away and supposedly pure, and more with the places close at hand, like the Los Angeles River, which had been despoiled, neglected, and often forgotten. These activists often understood their actions as a break from past environmental politics. Yet some of (p.6) their proposals, as in the case of calls to transform the paved and sewer-like Los Angeles River into a public green space lined with parks, bore a striking resemblance to plans made but never implemented in the decade after 1910. Moreover, some of the Angelenos who called themselves conservationists were deeply, even centrally concerned with ethnic pluralism and questions of labor and capitalism. At least some conservationists had seen more connection between questions of environmental and social justice than scholars had thought; what is generally assumed to be a new conversation about the interconnectedness of the social and environmental, I came to see, was actually an old one.

These deep ties between conservation and other Progressive-era reforms led me to embrace another goal: to prompt historians of the period in general to take conservation more seriously. Like most U.S. environmental historians, I found the debates over the study of this period to be compelling and fruitful. Ours was surely a field rising in prominence. Yet the flowering of environmental history in the past three decades has conspicuously failed to put important environmental chapters such as conservation into the larger stories told by American historians. Recent treatments of Progressivism as a whole have paid slight attention to conservation, portraying it as a minor character that walks on stage, remains briefly, and exits a central drama whose main themes concern political reform, monopoly, ethnic diversity, labor, and gender.4

At least some observers realized that conservation had a lot to do with Progressivism. In 2010, after the conservative pundit and television show host Glenn Beck launched a diatribe against Progressivism as a form of closet communism, Jon Stewart, host of the left-leaning satirical news program The Daily Show, fired back. In addition to lampooning Beck’s hypocrisy for researching Progressivism at a public library (exactly the sort of contribution to the common good that Progressives thought state institutions offered that the private sector could not), Stewart took his viewers to “an alternate universe where America was saved from the scourge of Progressivism.” The Daily Show reporter Samantha Bee appeared live from the “Yellowstone National Tire Fire,” sporting a beard caused by the dumping of hormone disruptors by pharmaceutical companies unencumbered by the regulation of such agencies as the Food and Drug Administration. Stewart and Bee discussed the dubious (p.7) glories of life in a country where there had been no Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson presidencies, no income tax, no national parks, no antitrust laws, no women’s suffrage, and no regulation of polluters or the chemical industry.5

The Daily Show seemed a step ahead of professional historians in its satirical argument that environmental measures were among the most important legacies of the Progressive era. Why had we environmental historians not been able to persuade more of our colleagues of this? Perhaps part of the problem was that focused case studies continued to dominate environmental history as a field. No professional historian had written a wide-ranging synthetic treatment of conservation, one that would systematically trace the ways in which conservation was part and parcel of Progressivism as a whole. I came to hope that a book that took a national rather than regional approach to the subject would stand a better chance of restoring conservation to its central place within Progressivism, much as Samuel P. Hays’s study of conservation and ideas of efficiency made a mark on the field after its publication in 1959.6

So by the time I sat down to write this book, three goals came to the fore. First, I want to offer a new and more expansive synthesis of conservationist thinking and doing, one that stresses the movement’s complexity, heterogeneity, ambition, and breadth. Second, I hope to show how deeply tied this movement was to the larger course of Progressivism, particularly in the way that its advocates invested their hopes in both expanded state power and widespread cultural change. Not all conservationists were Progressives, and not all Progressives were conservationists, but (as many observers at the time noted) conservation was a central part of the Progressive quest to humanize industrial capitalism. Third, and as much implicitly as explicitly, I want to argue for the relevance of conservation for contemporary environmental reform. As we confront environmental challenges today, we can learn not only from the mistakes and blind spots of previous reformers, but also from the ways that they delegitimized markets, validated state action in the defense of the common good, and fostered a culture of appreciation for nature both distant and close at hand.

Organizationally, what follows is a straightforward narrative of mounting concerns about environmental crises in the later nineteenth (p.8) century, the emergence of an ideologically diverse intellectual and grassroots movement to address these problems, the debates within this movement about its proper scope and meaning, and its bureaucratization and consequent narrowing. I trace important conservationist policy victories such as the creation of metropolitan parks, national game legislation, and the creation and expansion of such agencies as the Forest Service and National Park Service. Yet the book’s center of gravity lies with ideas rather than policies. Conservation was a set of ideas and hopes as much as it was policies and agencies. As is common in social movements, its reach exceeded its grasp; a focus on policy rather than ideas risks obscuring the most interesting and compelling aspects of Progressive-era environmental reform. Breadth and unity are the dominant themes of the book’s first half, whereas faction and discord characterize its second half. This is a story of the congealing of a movement, its rise to prominence, the swelling ambitions of its proponents, and the dashing of its greatest hopes despite substantial accomplishments. In the epilogue, I assess conservation’s legacies for subsequent environmental politics, arguing that many later developments were adaptations of diverse traditions of conservation thinking rather than breaks with prior practice, as most scholarship has emphasized.

Any narrative, especially of a subject as large and sprawling as this one, necessarily imposes an order on a messy and fractious reality. One of the most difficult choices that I had to make while crafting this book was who to count as a conservationist. One of my primary arguments is that conservation was ideologically much broader than it is usually conceived, with the publisher Horace McFarland as a key figure and with a family tree that includes the radical American economist Henry George and the English socialist John Ruskin as well as more familiar environmental figures such as the scientist and legislator George Perkins Marsh. Some of these people did not call themselves conservationists. Indeed, some could not have: the word “conservation,” as I explain at length, did not take on its specifically environmental connotations until 1907, well after many of the figures now included in the conservationist pantheon—George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot, to name three—had published some of their most influential works (or, in the case of Marsh, were long dead).

(p.9) Just as applying the term “conservation” only to those who used it to describe themselves would exclude too much, broadening it to encompass all environmental thinkers and reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would be similarly problematic. It would risk making my argument about the ideological breadth of conservation tautological: conservation would look robustly diverse simply because I retroactively placed a wider cast of characters into the category “conservationist.” This approach risks becoming the wholesale imposition of a particular brand of contemporary environmentalism on the past, with no consideration for how historical actors defined themselves or for important changes in environmental politics in the past century.

The way out of this dilemma was for me to distill the essence of conservation from the words and actions of those who used the term, and then to explain where their movement came from and what its consequences were. At the heart of conservation lay two ideas: that industrial life had badly skewed humanity’s relationship with the nonhuman world, and that this relationship had to be carefully and self-consciously remedied for the mutual benefit of society and nature. Cities took central stage in both of these beliefs. Burgeoning urban areas epitomized the artificiality, ugliness, and alienation that so many conservationists believed characterized modern life. This book’s title, which includes a phrase taken from an essay by the suburban nature writer Dallas Lore Sharp, is meant to evoke the effort to escape industrial cities, sometimes in the literal sense of finding refuge in wild nature, but also metaphorically, by reforming urban landscapes. Recognizing the importance of cities to conservation helps us see the movement’s complexity and its democratic side, and it points to some of the ways in which American conservation was produced by a dialogue with European reformers similarly preoccupied with the environmental and social harms of industrialism.

Using this definition of conservation allows me to make an argument that is in some ways revisionist. This definition makes room for the commonalities among the ideologically diverse environmental reformers that I first encountered in my study of Los Angeles, including those more likely to label themselves suffragists, reformers, or Progressives than conservationists. Some of these people focused on the material side (p.10) of conservation, in such concerns as the destruction of other species or the threat to or monopolization of valuable natural resources such as timber and soil. Others found themselves preoccupied with the spiritual costs of alienation from nature, fearing for those who had no access to natural beauty or wildness. Regardless of their emphasis on the spiritual or material, conservationists focused on a range of landscapes: most prioritized the countryside, but more conservationists than we have realized were deeply invested in the design of cities and suburbs, where more than half of Americans lived by 1920. The human body was for some also a landscape in need of conservation, whether through general notions of health and vigor or a eugenic focus on heredity and the environment. The objects of conservation reformers were broader than we have realized, and so too were their methods. Some conservationists emphasized laws, regulations, and bureaucracies to enforce them, and others placed their faith in civic organizing and cultural change. Vanishing wildlife, for example, could be protected by laws forbidding their transport across state lines, but also by stigmatizing the use of plumage in women’s hats or the killing of does. A forest might be valued for its timber and watershed, or for the sublime majesty of its trees, or both; and it might be protected by forest rangers as well as by a heightened vigilance among campers about fires. A neighborhood might be made more “natural” by the city government planting trees or constructing a park, but also by private homeowners carefully landscaping their properties.

So there were many different kinds of conservation, beyond the now old distinction between conservationist (the materialistic approach epitomized by Gifford Pinchot) and preservationist (the spiritual and Romantic approach epitomized by John Muir). I also show a bit more diversity among conservationists, particularly regarding class and gender. There was little racial or ethnic diversity: like most Progressive reform efforts rooted in the Protestant middle class, conservation was largely a native-born white affair, though some African Americans, such as those in the National Association of Colored Women and a Chicago Defender columnist, articulated visions of conservation adapted to black experiences.

Even as this definition of conservation allows me to present a more (p.11) heterogeneous and fractious conservation, it leads me down some traditionalist paths. Radical and urban-centered voices loom large in early chapters, but figures such as George Perkins Marsh, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir receive even more attention. I resisted this at first, wanting to tell a more original story of the roots of conservation, one with a truly diverse cast of characters. Unable to come up with a plausible and compelling version of this story, I left the first two chapters for last. Eventually I embraced elements of the traditional account, and so many of the subjects of the early portions of this book are familiar figures in the conservation pantheon. Their arguments that industrial humanity imperiled nature (and thus, ultimately, the prosperity and health of people) laid the intellectual foundation for conservation a century ago and environmental sanity today.

The conservation movement described in this book created lasting legacies in politics, the structure of the American state, the landscapes of cities, and environmental thought. Later environmental activists and leaders drew on these legacies, both in trying to revive what they thought conservation was about, and in distancing themselves from what they understood to be its mistakes. My own assessment of these legacies is not celebratory. The expanded state power that conservationists advocated could be antidemocratic and even authoritarian, as it was with other aspects of Progressivism. Conservation succeeded in subjecting much of rural America to the authority of public lands bureaucracies, which often crushed local opposition, expelled Native peoples from their homelands, and forced people out of subsistence economies and into markets on very unequal terms. Conservation policies of fire suppression, timber harvesting, and predator control had disastrous environmental consequences in many places, suggesting the potential hubris of scientific knowledge. But just as important, conservation embodied the great promise of Progressive democracy: that an awakened people could check the dangers of industrial life and concentrated economic power by organizing themselves and using the powers of their government. This democratic version of conservation was a legacy that environmentally conscious people today can still turn to and build upon. Like the rest of Progressivism, conservation, more than a century after its inception, still speaks to the present.