Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 17, 2015

The racism of early environmentalism–or environmentalists?

Filed under: Ecology,racism — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Jedediah Purdy

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.


  1. I just wanted to point out he was named Madison Grant, not John Grant.


    Otherwise, good points about people living in glass houses who shouldn’t throw stones and 20/20 hindsight.

    Comment by Poppa Zao — August 18, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

  2. You are correct, namely,”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.” Even progressive people, like Bertrand Russell, in his early worsk, wrote a lot of awful, disgraceful and racist thing about native Americans, Africans, and African Americans. Russell remained a support of eugenics for most his life. It is an ugly record.

    Comment by Abu Spinoza — August 20, 2015 @ 2:30 am

  3. This: “Social Darwinism and eugenics were deeply embedded in the intellectual life of the period.”

    Eugenics was mainstream up until World War 2; the defeat of the Axis left it moribund, where it still lays despite repeated efforts to revive it.

    Comment by jeff — August 21, 2015 @ 10:29 am

  4. Muir didn’t just think Indians lived dirty and irregular lives; his goal of “preserving” “wilderness” ultimately involved the expulsion of actual Indians from what became the national parks. Not to say that this necessarily taints the modern-day Sierra Club or anything, but given that Muir’s vision of “wilderness” still seems to enjoy quite a bit of popularity I think it deserves to be kept in mind.

    Comment by dn — August 22, 2015 @ 11:19 pm

  5. Jedediah Purdy’s article is timely and important.

    The reason we need to be reminded of the link between eugenics and environmentalism is because racism and imperialism continues to influence conservation today.

    Here’s an article I wrote on a similar theme: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32487-the-colonial-origins-of-conservation-the-disturbing-history-behind-us-national-parks

    Survival International is campaigning for a better conservation. You can find out more here: http://www.survivalinternational.org/conservation

    Comment by Stephen Corry, Survival International — September 3, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

  6. […] This exchange grew out of a comment by Survival International’s executive director under my article criticizing Jedediah Purdy. Purdy had written an article in the New Yorker Magazine charging Muir with favoring the ethnic […]

    Pingback by An exchange about John Muir with Donald Worster | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 7, 2015 @ 9:36 pm

  7. Astounding. Purdy’s article uncovers the racist history of misusing protection of the environment to justify marginalization and dispossession, and Proyect attacks him for failing to cover one eye and write about the nice things these systematic racists did along the way. This isn’t just an issue confined to the past, even today environmental organisations are overwhelmingly white, middle class with very little minority participation. This is not a coincidence but a consequence of long held negative attitudes towards non-white, non-western people within the environmental movement. It isn’t pleasant to acknowledge this, but it is necessary.

    Comment by Tom McKinney — July 10, 2016 @ 6:02 am

  8. McKinney, it is a fairly mundane exercise to castigate an early generation for its sins. I didn’t mention this in the article but Franz Boas was awful in many ways despite his being a step up from the preceding generation of anthropologists who shared Morgan’s faults. That being said, Purdy wrote a bunch of bullshit about John Muir as Donald Worster reported to me: https://louisproyect.org/2015/09/07/an-exchange-about-john-muir-with-donald-worster/.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 10, 2016 @ 11:16 am

  9. I want to note that in fact many were, at the time of Grant and Muir, writing or speaking in passionate defense of African American and Native American rights. It is simply not historically accurate to defend the lesser natures of Grant and Muir et al with arguments suggesting they were simply creatures of their times. We can appreciate their accomplishments without using historical determinism as an excuse for racist positions.

    Comment by RST — November 30, 2016 @ 4:54 am

  10. I want to note that in fact many were, at the time of Grant and Muir, writing or speaking in passionate defense of African American and Native American rights.


    Yes, many were. But the dominant tendency was racist.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2016 @ 1:45 pm

  11. I would be interested if anyone could come up with some (any?) prominent U.S. conservationists between, say, 1860 and 1960 who spoke passionately in defense of human rights. The “dominant tendency” might have been racist, but there were also voices raised against it, as has been said. Were any conservationists?

    Comment by Stephen Corry — November 30, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

  12. I think the real question is were there any conservationists. As far as I know, after Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts, there was nothing nearly as ambitious. Under FDR, there was zero attention paid to conservation as the megadams would indicate.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

  13. The gap between T Roosevelt and FDR was 24 years. My question covers 100. Were any conservationists in this period speaking for human rights? There may have been, I’d just like to know.

    Comment by Stephen Corry — November 30, 2016 @ 6:13 pm

  14. In broad brush strokes, I would say that conservationism did not really become a movement as such until the 1890s. Yes, there was John Muir but it was only when a section of the ruling class began to fret over the loss of natural resources that it developed some heft. It subsided until after WWII when you began to see some legislation protecting the water and land. Conservationism as a movement was largely transformed into the modern environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2016 @ 6:19 pm

  15. There was a movement before the 1890s (look at Yellowstone), it wasn’t just Muir. Anyway, I’d still be interested in hearing of U.S. environmentalists speaking passionately in defense of human rights. There must have been some, surely!

    Comment by Stephen Corry — November 30, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

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