Environmentalist John Muir: Too Stale, Pale, and Male for Vibrant-Americans


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Back in the 1970s, my cousin backpacked the 215 mile John Muir Trail along the crest of the Sierra Nevadas from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. It took him at least a month in the wilderness, with one resupply stop near Mammoth Lakes to pick up a cache of food.

From the Los Angeles Times:

John Muir’s legacy questioned as centennial of his death nears

John Muir’s critics say world has changed so much since his death that he’s no help to environmental movement

Critics say population growth, urban sprawl, demographic shifts, climate change make John Muir irrelevant

John Muir Trail

John Muir is the patron saint of environmentalism, an epic figure whose writings of mystical enlightenment attained during lone treks in California’s wilderness glorified individualism, saved Yosemite and helped establish the national park system.

As the first president of the Sierra Club, Muir shaped enduring perceptions about how the wild world should be prioritized, protected and managed.

But now some critics are arguing that the world has changed so much in the century since his death that Muir has gone the way of wheelwrights.

He is no longer relevant.

“Muir’s legacy has to go,” said Jon Christensen, a historian with UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability. “It’s just not useful anymore.”

Christensen and others see Muir’s beliefs as antiquated in the face of 21st century environmental challenges that the bushy-bearded Scot could not have imagined: population growth, urban sprawl, demographic shifts, climate change.

… To Christensen and others, however, Muir’s notion that immersing people in “universities of the wilderness” — such as Yosemite — sends the message that only awe-inspiring parks are worth saving, at the expense of smaller urban spaces.

Critics also say Muir’s vision of wilderness is rooted in economic privilege and the abundant leisure time of the upper class.

Rather than accessing Muir’s beloved Sierra Mountains as backpackers, skiers or rock climbers, they argue, Californians would benefit more from the creation of urban parks, additional roads and trails in wild lands. …

Lining up behind him will be other critics — including Richard White, a historian at Stanford University who says Muir’s late 19th century, Anglo-Saxon brand of environmentalism and bias toward untouched wilderness skewed the way nature has been portrayed in popular culture. …

Critics also see a correlation between the emotional, biblical language of Muir’s writings and the demographic makeup of national park visitors and the ranks of the largest environmental organizations — mainly aging, white Americans.

The Sierra Club, which Muir founded, and the Audubon Society are struggling to connect with California’s diverse population, particularly Latinos, who polls show are among the most devoted environmentalists in the state. A strong and diverse membership in California, where Latinos are expected to become a majority by 2050, is important to influencing political decisions and raising funds to support missions of conservation and environmental education.

Yet “the conservation movement reflects the legacy of John Muir, and its influence on a certain demographic — older and white — and that’s a problem,” Christensen said.

He is joined in that view by D.J. Waldie, an author and expert on Southern California culture.

“We have to reimagine our relationships with nature to accommodate modern, increasingly diverse communities that see the world differently than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants like Muir did in the late 19th century,” Waldie said.

“For many communities of color, nature of great significance isn’t out there in distant charismatic Sierra peaks; it’s in urban parks, in local mountains and along local rivers — and under their fingertips in the stuff they grow in their own backyards,” he said.

One blemish on Muir’s past is indisputable: He had disdain for California’s Native Americans, a group he claimed had no place in the Sierra landscape.

… Christensen wouldn’t budge. “Muir’s a dead end,” he said. “It’s time to bury his legacy and move on.”

Back in 2009 in Taki’s Magazine, I previewed the PBS Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks, America’s Best Idea, which focused heavily upon a black park ranger and other tokens of Diversity:

If the National Parks really are “America’s best idea,” the problem for Burns and his financial backers is that this best idea was invented by the worst sort of people. The founders of the conservation movement in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were, overwhelmingly, white Protestant males. Moreover, many of the heroes of the preservation of the American landscape were active in the immigration restriction movement that triumphed in 1924. And, they often had other, even less respectable, enthusiasms, such as social Darwinism and eugenics.

The national park system, which was formalized with the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, was an outgrowth of the Progressive movement, much like the 1924 immigration restriction act. The intertwining of immigration limitation and nature preservation seemed obvious to Progressives, especially Northern Californians. Indeed, the Sierra Club stood for immigration control until David Gelbaum donated $100 million in the mid-1990s on the condition of Club leaders not opposing immigration.

All the minorities in American history played less of a role in the crucial decades of the conservation movement than just the eugenics advocates alone, such as Teddy Roosevelt, TR’s founding chief of the Forest Service Gifford Pinchot, Madison Grant (co-founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League and author of the bestseller The Passing Of The Great Race Or The Racial Basis Of European History), Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone inventor who was crucial in the early history of the National Geographic Society), John Muir’s close friend Henry Fairfield Osborn, David Starr Jordan (co-founder of the Sierra Club and president of Stanford), horticulturalist Luther Burbank, and so forth.

The Progressives’ reputation, long sky-high because they were seen as the forerunners of today’s liberals, has shrunk as their WASP chauvinism has become politically radioactive. Many of the Progressives’ favorite causes—anti-machine political reform, conservation, publicizing birth control, eugenics, muscular Christianity, immigration restrictions, and Prohibition—formed a fairly coherent agenda for maintaining WASP hegemony of America in the face of decades of heavy immigration.