“Given the history of conservationists elevating endangered plant life over endangered black lives, it is environmentalismu2019s soul that most needs saving. Photo: Kristen Rogers Photography/Stock
Facing a new White House administration led by Donald Trump, environmental leaders recently signed an accord pledging their allegiance to civil rights and social justice. Among the signatories are several leaders of the Sierra Club, including its executive director, Michael Brune, who in recent years has steered the organization toward rather bold stances on a range of issues that arenu2019t traditionally recognized as u201cgreen.u201d In 2013, its board of directors voted that the organization should advocate for immigrant rights. The following year, the Sierra Club endorsed and defended the Black Lives Matter movement. Since President Trump came into office, the organizationu2019s resolve has only strengthened, as Brune indicated in a November 18 blog post: u201cIu2019m proud of how the Sierra Club has begun to address the intersection of climate with inequality, race, class, and gender, and I guarantee that weu2019ll go even deeper.u201d
This shift toward racial justice matters has not been universally accepted among the Sierra Clubu2019s ranks and may even have cost it a few members. Those who disapprove have often expressed sentiments amounting to u201cracism is not the environmental movementu2019s responsibility.u201d But Brune says the organization wonu2019t be backing off anytime soon, a position he forcefully defended on the groupu2019s blog. He will assure his members, he tells me, u201cthat we are continuing to protect wildlife and wild places, and this is how we can best do that in the 21st century.u201d
What Brune is acknowledging is the darker legacy of the green movement. Some may believe that environmentalism has little to do with social justice issues, but the mission of the Sierra Club, and many conservation groups like it throughout the late-19th century and most of the 20th century, was anything but race neutral. In many ways, racial exclusivity actually shaped the environmental mission, which is what makes the Sierra Clubu2019s leap toward civil rights advocacy such a radical move. Itu2019s important not because a network like Black Lives Matter needs environmentalists, but because environmentalists need black lives. Given the history of conservationists elevating endangered plant life over endangered people of color, it is environmentalismu2019s soul that most needs saving.
The rise of the conservation movement in the late-19th century came at the expense of Americau2019s racial promise to the black Americans it had enslaved for almost 250 years. In 1907, when President Teddy Roosevelt was looking to make America great again, he wanted to pull together what had been cast to ruin during the Civil War, which ruptured the nation fewer than 50 years prior. Rooseveltu2019s understanding of greatness, however, meant setting certain sections of the United States apart from the growing population of black people and immigrants who were filling American cities. The U.S. government had promised land to newly emancipated black citizens after the Civil War, but those properties were yanked away from themu2014and from many Native American tribesu2014to make room for new national parks and monuments.
This was done at the behest of white men who are considered the first class of environmentalists: men like John Muir, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Madison Grant. They are called the fathers of conservation, the public parks system, and the nationu2019s hunting societies and forestry movements. Many were also leading proponents of much darker philosophies.
Grant, known for having a hand in the creation of conservation leagues like the American Bison Society and national parks like Denali and Glacier, was also known for being a eugenicist and white supremacist. His virulently xenophobic worldview became the basis for Americau2019s extremely restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.
Similarly, Turner saw the western frontier as the basis for white American nationalism, and his ethnocentric theories framed the suspicion about immigration that weu2019re still seeing today. Noted historian and environmental studies professor William Cronon once explained in a PBS interview, u201cIf you believe that wilderness is fundamental to American national identity, then you need to protect wilderness to protect that part of America. And so, curiously, the frontier thesis can support immigration restriction, extra-national imperial expansion, and national park formation all at the same time.u201d
Muir was not as instrumental as Turner and Grant in terms of shaping immigration policy, but his views on the u201cuncleanlinessu201d of Native Americans were enabling, as was his silence on the eugenics science adopted by his peers.
All of these men were putting their full force into conservation at a time when African Americans were being killed at near-genocidal rates. Every vestige of Reconstruction had been destroyed by terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchings of African Americans were becoming a defining characteristic of the American milieu, and Jim Crow was becoming the de facto law of the land. And yet, throughout all of this racial turmoil, President Roosevelt believed the nation should soft-pedal its way through this terror and refused to prioritize protecting black lives.
But Roosevelt did believe that radical steps were necessary to preserve land. Elizabeth Kolbert recently wrote in the New Yorker about the camping trip Roosevelt took with Muir in 1903 and how this has u201cbeen described as the most consequential camping trip in American historyu201du2014it led to the creation of 18 national monuments, five national parks, and 150 national forests. On October 4, 1907, Roosevelt told a crowd that u201cthe conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.u201d”