Environmentalism has often been seen as a bastion of liberal ideology. Miles A. Powell’s Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation, however, traces a dark and disturbing origin story of conservation, one of the mainstays of the environmental movement. Powell seeks to untangle connections between a century of conservation language, fears about the extinction of animals and white masculinity, immigration restriction and eugenics, and population control. Taking a chronological approach beginning in the mid-1800s, Powell characterizes American elites as initially having a “fixation with taming lands and peoples, and destroying organisms that defied domesticity” (44). In a time when the West still presented a real threat to whites, civilization and domestication seemed safer ideologies. In the late 1800s, however, with the “end” of the frontier and increases in urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, white elites supported protecting wilderness as a testing ground for white masculinity, recreation, and sport hunting (46–47). Nonwhites, however, had to be excluded because they failed to use the land appropriately. Those who hunted animals for market or for food, conservationists maintained, “practiced unsporting methods” (94) or destroyed the “pristine” image of the land. In addition, since native-born whites perceived immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe as a threat to the white race, imperiled animals in wilderness areas “became a potent metaphor for the endangered white American” (80, 83). Ties between conservation rhetoric, immigration restriction, and eugenics became more pronounced in the early twentieth century. As efforts to protect bison, migratory birds, and redwoods succeeded in Congress, conservation advocates focused on concurrent arguments about selective breeding for stronger herds. What worked for animal herds, conservationists like Madison Grant and Gifford Pinchot believed, could be applied to strengthen the white race and “weed out” inferior ones. Powell notes that many white conservationists also “conflated [white] racial vigor and national strength” (107) with their support for forced sterilization and eugenics. Powell uses stories of the last known passenger pigeon, Martha, the last living heath hen, Booming Ben, and the “last allegedly wild Indian” (120), known as Ishi, to point to American willingness to conflate animal and Native American populations. By the early twentieth century, Americans had a well-developed sense of what a “last” representative of a species should be, primarily based on characteristics shown by James Fenimore Cooper’s character in The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757—noble, physically superior, despondent about the passing of his people, and willing to die rather than join civilization. Contemporary accounts repeatedly romanticized both birds as stellar representatives of the ideal “last” of a species, yet Ishi defied expectations. Small and sickly, he refused to speak of his people and willingly joined civilization to survive. Rather than allowing Americans to glorify a romanticized image of Native American culture, Ishi presented uncomfortable reminders of white domination. Even as the science of ecology informed conservation arguments, white elites continued to link their goals with racism. Powell closes his book with a discussion of the issue of overpopulation in the mid-twentieth century, again focusing on connections in rhetoric between wildlife and humans. With overt white supremacy out of favor after World War II, “cultural racism” gained sway, which asserted “immense, perhaps unbridgeable, cultural differences between ethnic groups” (184). Conservationists and preservationists worked for population control among these human groups, who they perceived as overusing limited resources, just at the time that they began to understand the importance of predators in controlling animal populations. Overall, Powell notes that “historical connections drawn between wilderness and whiteness help explain why many nonwhite Americans continue to feel ill at ease in those same parks and other sites of outdoor recreation … for too long the American conservation movement has sought to protect a vision of wilderness entwined with a particular notion of whiteness” (191). He hopes that with a fuller understanding of the historical background of the conservation movement, environmental activists will reach out and increase diversification in key areas. Critiques of the environmental movement as elitist remain strongly dependent on how scholars define the movement. As Powell notes briefly in his introduction, scholars in environmental history have revealed nonwhite, non-male, urban, health-centered, and anti-pollution efforts as an integral part of the environmental movement. Women, in particular, around the turn of the twentieth century, fought against noise and smoke pollution with notable successes. African Americans also formed part of the early movement, framing their urban environmental activism as part of combatting racism. To understand the full picture of the movement, readers should balance Powell’s book with, for example, one dealing with African American environmental involvement. Studies like Kimberly K. Smith’s African American Environmental Thought: Foundations (2007), Mark D. Hersey’s My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver (2011), or “To Love the Wind and the Rain”: African Americans and Environmental History (2006), edited by Dianne D. Glave and Mark Stoll, go a long way toward correcting the image of early environmentalism as exclusively white and wilderness centered. Powell clearly delineates the limitations to his tightly knit work. His argument centers on the arguments of elite white men such as George Bird Grinnell, William Temple Hornaday, Theodore Roosevelt, Madison Grant, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Aldo Leopold who led the conservation and preservation movements. He freely acknowledges that alternate rhetorics existed within these diverse movements, particularly in the case of women. He also chose to focus primarily on these white men’s reactions to the perceived extinction of Native Americans, rather than of other groups. Powell’s choices limit the book’s scope, but not its conclusions. In conclusion, Powell’s book is engaging and superbly researched, with convincing arguments backed up by powerful evidence. Readers, of course, should be aware that the book tells the story of only a portion of the environmental movement. Scholars and students of environmental history, race/ethnicity, gender, science, and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries should find it a useful study of an uncomfortable topic. Honest and difficult examinations of topics such as Powell’s can only help to understand the problems of nature and privilege in American culture. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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