(Note: This blog is a reflection on David Samuel’s “Wild Things” article in the June 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. All quotations are from the article.)
It seems almost impossible to find a bridge between 20th and 21st century conservation practices and the pseudo-science of eugenics. However, the conservation movement of 20th century America was the progeny of some of the most active eugenicsts living at the time. Echoes of exclusivity, purity and worth still influence the way we think about wilderness and the environment today.
Madison Grant, born in 1865, was both a pioneering eugenicist and a pioneering conservationist. Grant’s most famous work was a treatise on Nordic superiority and Western cultural heritage, The Passing of the Great Race. Hitler described Grant’s book as his “bible.” Grant also spearheaded efforts to preserve North American Bison, save redwood trees and create national parks. He founded the Bronx Zoo, now considered to be one of the best urban wildlife parks in the world.
Grant’s seemingly disparate interests informed one another. When he began his attempt to save the American Bison, Grant insisted that the animals be bred from “absolutely pure full blooded stock.” He wrote that it was essential to preserve the American Bison “without any cross-breeding,” presumably because cross-breeding rendered the bison less worthy of preservation.
This effort occurred more than ten years prior to the publication of The Passing of the Great Race in which Grant espoused identical maxims regarding purity, though in reference to humans rather than bison. Like other eugencists, Grant viewed miscegenation as a form of “racial suicide.” Just as pure-blooded bison ought to be preserved as a representation of the “Old World,” so too should “pure-blooded” Aryans, Anglos and Nordics be prevented from mingling with “worthless race types.”
Grant’s position as both a prominent conservationist and eugenicist raises many complicated issues. His obsession with weeding out “bad” stock is a concept that is often applied to breeding plants and animals. His belief that wilderness should be preserved as much as possible is admirable in our time of shrinking wildlife habitats and the rapid loss of biodiversity. Though Grant’s conservation objectives were noble, his underlying eugenical beliefs were fundamental to his conservationism. He could not have separated the two concepts if he had wanted to. The history of American environmentalism is woven through with the poisonous legacy of Grant and his fellow racists.
Access to wild spaces, not to mention public parks and beaches, has always been mediated by a relationship to racism. The United States has historically used race as an excuse to bar African Americans from accessing outdoor recreation and enjoyment. Currently, Latino immigrants and the Latino community are often scapegoated for environmental degradation.
While Grant and his eugenicist cohort might have been genuinely concerned about saving species and preserving wilderness, their conservation efforts were inspired in no small part by a fear of contamination. Their efforts to save the genetic uniqueness of different animal species were mirrored in their attempts to enact eugenical legislation targeting different racial and ethnic groups of humans.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the social value of the national parks and other wild places was based on the ability to appeal to the white middle-class and their newly acquired leisure time. Access for the poor and marginalized members of society was not a priority.
In the 21st century we have seen environmentalism play out even further along racial lines, with environmental groups fracturing into two camps: one that is dedicated to conservation and one that is devoted to environmental justice.
Unfortunately, these two areas of environmentalism often find their goals to be mutually exclusive.
Conservation organizations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are largely supported by white, middle class liberals. Environmental justice organizations often work in (and are run by) communities of poor, urban, and rural people. Communities that most need to see environmental justice work accomplished are usually communities of color.
Though Grant’s and other eugenicist’s legacies are barely visible within the modern environmental movement, it is essential to remember that they are indeed there. Environmentalists should work to understand the complex history of the idea of “worth” within the movement. With the current schism between environmental justice and conservation efforts, the environmental movement has the potential to fracture along the very lines that Grant was working to create.
Now, the Bronx Zoo is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York, were access to nature is mediated by glass walls and cages. That is neither a solution to environmental injustice, nor is it a way to halt rapidly diminishing wilderness. To achieve a shared vision of environmentalism in the United States, we must engage with the complex history of the profoundly racist men who helped make conservation part of our social consciousness.