The origin of Environmentalism in America is often associated with Rachel Carson’s prophetic warning in Silent Spring (1962) and the counterculture movement. A less revisionist history would extend the origins back to the ‘progressive-era’ (~1900-1930) and the tireless activities of a relatively small, but extremely influential group of ‘old-stock’ Americans (see entry on Nativism/Nordicism). The leaders of these related movements formed what Spiro (2009) called the “Interlocking Directorate of Wildlife Conservation” with many also serving on the executives of eugenics organizations, as a sort of anthropological extension of their conservation efforts. This august list included such notables as future President Theodore (Teddy or T.R.) Roosevelt, Gordon Pinchot, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn (see Spiro, 2009, 391-393 for a list of organizations headed by Grant and his ‘directorate’ comrades).
The Genesis and Radiation of Conservationism in progressive America The genesis of the Conservationist movement in the United States dates back to 1888 with the formation of the seminal Boone & Crockett Club, named by Teddy Roosevelt for the legendary frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett. Membership was limited to one hundred of the foremost hunters of the time, who had taken trophy specimens of at least three of America’s premier big-game species. Initial members included U.S. Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge, America’s first official Forrester Gordon Pinchot, Secretary for War Henry L. Stimson (who served under Taft, Coolidge, and F.D.R.), George Eastman (founder of Eastman-Kodak), and Henry Fairfield Osborn (the ‘Dean’ of American anthropology and later president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the site of two international congresses of eugenics). In 1893, prominent Manhattan lawyer and Nordic patrician, Madison Grant, was admitted into the club and became a leading light in the movement to conserve America’s unique wildlife and wilderness areas for the purpose of preserving these game animals and their habitats for the kind of aristocrats and wealthy gentlemen who could afford expeditions to ‘properly’ hunt trophy specimens (as opposed to the indiscriminate slaughter of poachers and market hunters). Beginning with these rather selfish motives, the movement expanded to lobby for hunting regulations (especially limits for commercial wild-meat hunters), establishing wilderness refuges across the country, and protecting the increasing number of threatened or endangered American big-game species. With the influence and popularity of ‘T.R.’ and the remarkable fundraising, organizational, and lobbying skills of Madison Grant and his patrician colleagues, the first U.S. National Forests and Wildlife Refuges (later National Parks) were established by acts of Congress. By his death in 1937, Madison Grant had species of antelope and caribou named after him, as well as a grove of California Redwoods and a mountain peak in Alaska (Spiro, 2009).
Eugenics and Conservationism The original leaders of the American conservation and eugenics movements were almost exclusively White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) of “old-stock American” descent, who could trace their ancestry back to the Puritans or other early colonists of the pioneer-era (Grant, 1933). At the same time that they were lobbying for conservation of American nature, they were also leaders in curtailing immigration of non-Nordics as part of the reactionary ‘Nativist’ movement (Engs, 2005). Thus Teddy Roosevelt took-up the clarion call to protect the Nordic-race from the imminent threat of race suicide, a term coined by renowned sociologist, turned ardent Nordic eugenicist, E.A. Ross (Dyer, 1980; Ross, 1914). The leaders in these related movements formed the ‘interlocking directorate,’ with the same coterie of elite men occupying executive positions in numerous conservation and eugenics organizations. These men wanted to conserve healthy breeding stocks of American big-game and unique wildlife and habitat for future hunters, but by WW I their mission had expanded to creating National and State parks and permanent wildlife refuges that could preserve pristine wilderness areas and big-game from the increasing encroachment by ranchers, lumber barons, industrialists, and local ‘market hunters’ who supplied game-meat to hungry consumers, especially value-conscious immigrants in the burgeoning urban areas of the Eastern Seaboard and the Mid-West (Spiro, 2009). This marked a critical transition from merely establishing reserves for future exploitation, or what has been labelled eco-efficiency, to wilderness conservation for its own sake – divorced from future human use or profit (Alier-Martinez, 2002). Madison Grant was a leading figure in this transition, along with his close associates George ‘Bird’ Grinnell (a founder of the discipline of wildlife ecology) and John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club).
Conclusion The Nativist/Nordicist racial ideology of Madison Grant and like-minded American aristocrats was a powerful force at this time. What began with the fervent efforts to preserve America’s native wildlife and ecological zones from rapid human encroachment into formerly pristine wilderness areas (the ‘end of the frontier’), was extended to the notion that the ‘new immigrants’ were thought to be encroaching on America as a ‘civilization preserve’ for the Nordic race, and what these men perceived as their birthright. In the wake of the Holocaust and the Nuremburg trials that indicted the interwar American eugenics movement as ideological co-conspirators of the Nazis, many established conservation groups sanitized the active participation of American Nordicists like Grant and Osborn from their official histories, but their legacy has been recovered by scholars such as Dyer (1980) and Spiro (2009). Thus, the intimately interconnected histories of the Nativist-led conservation movement and the highly racialized early American eugenics movement have restored the problematic relationship between nature conservation and the deeply embedded racial hierarchies of progressive-era America.
Dyer, T.G. (1980). Theodore Roosevelt and the idea of race. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Engs, R. (2005). The eugenics movement: an encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Grant, M. (1933). The conquest of a continent: the expansion of races in America. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Martinez-Alier, J. (2002). The environmentalism of the poor: A study of ecological conflicts and valuation. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Ross, E.A. (1914). The old-world in the new. New York: The Century Company.
Spiro, J.P. (2009). Defending the master race: Conservation, eugenics, and the legacy of Madison Grant. Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont Press.
Allen, G.E. (2012). Culling the herd: eugenics and the conservation movement in the United States, 1900-1940, J. Hist. Biology, 46(1), 31-72.
Brechin G. (1996). Conserving the race: natural aristocracies, eugenics and the conservation movement. Antipode 28(3), 198-225.