The founding error of American environmentalism

The Sierra Club, like many American institutions, is trying to come to grips with systemic racism.  The Club was founded in 1892 under the leadership of John Muir who “…made derogatory comments about Black and Indigenous peoples that drew deeply on harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life,” according to Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in his letter of July 2020 to Club members (available HERE).

John Muir is the founder of the Sierra Club.

Author and activist, Rebecca Solnit, follows up on the roots of racism in the American environmental movement in the most recent edition of Sierra Magazine, the national magazine for Club members.  Her telling of events reveals the founding error of the native plant movement that was based on the mistaken assumption that European settlers were entering a pristine landscape that had been unaltered by humans.  The goal of the native plant movement has therefore been to replicate the pre-settlement landscape, presumed to be the ideal landscape.

Early settlers were well aware that they were entering occupied land.  After all, the settlers had to dispossess Native Americans to occupy the land.  But that reality was quickly forgotten, enabling “the lovers of the beauty of the American landscape who reimagined the whole continent before 1492 as an empty place where, as the Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, ‘the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’” (1)

John Muir’s lack of respect for Indigenous culture prevented him from understanding that he was looking at the results of Indigenous land management when he admired Yosemite Valley:  “The word garden occurs over and over in the young John Muir’s rapturous account of his summer in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. ‘More beautiful, better kept gardens cannot be imagined,’ he declared. When he saw Yosemite Valley from the north rim, he noted, ‘the level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden.’ He assumed he knew who was the gardener in the valley and the heights, the meadows and the groves: ‘So trim and tasteful are these silvery, spiry groves one would fancy they must have been placed in position by some master landscape gardener. . . . But Nature is the only gardener able to do work so fine.’” (1)

In fact, Yosemite Valley looked like a garden to John Muir, because it was a garden, the garden tended by Native Americans for thousands of years:

“Native Americans as hunters, gatherers, agriculturalists and horticulturalists, users of fire as a land-management technique, and makers of routes across the continent played a profound role in creating the magnificent North American landscape that Europeans invaded. Their use of fire helped maintain plants and spaces that benefited these first human inhabitants—including increasing animal populations, causing plants to put forth new growth in the form of straight shoots suitable for arrow making and basket making, and keeping forests open and underbrush down. In Yosemite Valley, burning encouraged oak trees and grasslands to flourish; conifers have since overtaken many meadows and deciduous groves. The recent fires across the West are most of all a result of climate change—but more than a century of fire suppression by a society that could only imagine fire as destructive contributed meaningfully.” (1)

Native Americans setting grass fire, painting by Frederic Remington, 1908

Solnit correctly describes the consequences of this founding error on the development of environmentalism:  “Had he been able to recognize and convey that the places he admired so enthusiastically looked like gardens because they were gardens, the plants in them encouraged, the forests managed by the areas’ Native people, the history of the American environmental movement might have been different.”  (1)

Solnit believes there are three significant losses to American society and the environmental movement because of the initial lack of respect for Native Americans and their cultural practices.  The first was the greatest loss to Native Americans because disrespect for them as people and a functioning society made it easier to justify dispossessing and marginalizing them.  The second was the loss to American society that would have benefitted from understanding and emulating their accomplishments.  And the third loss was the founding error of American conservation policy that is based on the mistaken assumption that the pre-settlement landscape is the ideal landscape because it was unchanged by humans.

Several recent scientific studies have found that lands occupied by indigenous people in Australia, Brazil, and Canada have much more biodiversity than lands that have been designated as “protected areas” by governments.  Typically, indigenous people have been forced out of the protected areas, based on the assumption of traditional conservation that humans harm the environment.  As the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin explains in a recent article in New York Times, “If you’re going to save only the insects and the animals and not the Indigenous people, there’s a big contradiction [because] we’re one ecosystem.”

A new conservation ethic

Our conservation goals require a major revision to right this wrong.  New goals must acknowledge that humans have altered every place on the planet for thousands of years.  New goals will acknowledge that nature is dynamic, that changes in nature are usually impossible to reverse, and that they have both positive and negative impacts. New goals will be adapted to the current environment, such as higher temperatures and drought.  New land management strategies can be informed by those used by Native Americans, but replicating the landscapes of 500 years ago will remain out of reach because underlying conditions have been fundamentally altered by evolution and the activities of modern society.

A new conservation ethic can honor the traditions of Native Americans as well as the sovereignty of nature.  We must stop damaging nature in the futile effort to replicate a landscape that was as much a human creation as the landscape of the Anthropocene era. 


(1) “Unfinished Business:  John Muir in Native America,” Rebecca Solnit, Sierra Magazine, March/April 2021

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