Environmentalism & White Supremacy

Environmentalism & White Supremacy

The connection between environmentalism and white supremacy hadn’t crossed my mind, and I’m sure that holds true to many of you.  However, a couple of months ago – before George Floyd’s murder and the current national outcry – I stumbled across an astonishing passage in a book that my son gave to me: Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet (Mann, 2018).

In a chapter on the historic influences of Mathlus’ population theories, Mann draws a link between white supremacy and the early conservation movement after World War I.  The precedents for the emerging race ideology of the time were nineteenth century colonialism (remember the white mans’ burden?) as well as concerns about overpopulation and immigration.  As Mann explains, perhaps the chief proponent of the ideology was a New Englander named Madison Grant:

. . . many of the racial alarmists were also leaders in the nation’s new conservation movement.  The blue-blooded toffs who feared that the noble and superior white race was menaced by unwashed rabble also saw wild landscapes as noble and superior wilderness menaced by the same rabble.  Prizing expert governance of resources, they found little difference between protecting forests and cleaning up the human gene pool. 

Madison Grant was an example.  Born into a patrician New England family and raised in a turreted mansion, Grant co-founded the Bronx Zoo, organized the preservation of the California redwoods, helped create the national park system, played a central role in saving bison from extinction, and wrote ecological texts that anticipated Aldo Leopold.  He also spent decades trying to protect his privileged cohort from the rising lower classes – indeed, he wrote The Passing of the Great Race to decry “the transfer of power from the higher to the lower races.”  Among Grant’s most zealous fans was Adolf Hitler, who (Grant boasted) sent him a fan letter; The Passing of the Great Race was the first foreign book published by the Nazis after they took power.

(Mann, 2018, pages 80-81).

Mann moves on quickly from this to further build his central thesis about the dynamic tension between Wizards — who believe that science, technology, and engineering are the primary route to saving humanity (embodied by the Green Revolution in agriculture) – and Prophets – who ascribe to the strongly-held ethos that the Earth and its ecosystems have certain carrying capacities that all species, including humans, must live within or face certain calamity.  However, the passage quoted above, as you may agree, hits pretty hard.  Hitler!

I recalled this passage amidst the current unrest and decided to follow this thread of Madison Grant to see where else it may lead.

I found two articles that go into more depth about Grant: Environmentalism’s Racist History, by Columbia Law Professor, Jedediah S. Purdy (The New Yorker, 2015), and Adam Serwer’s White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots (The Atlantic, 2019).

Grant published The Passing of the Great Race in 1916, which was a deeply racist period culminating in passage of the Immigration Act of 1924.  One may entertain the notion that Grant was a product of his time (always a tricky historical construct) and perhaps in no way emblematic of today’s conservation or environmental movements.  However, Purdy dispels this notion by drawing a thread from Grant to Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Fairfield Osborn (head of the New York Zoological Society) to Gifford Pinchot (first head of the Forest Service and proponent of eugenics) to John Muir to Paul Ehrlich (author of the 1968 best-seller, The Population Bomb) to passage of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts in the 1970s and 1980s.

As Purdy puts it, referring to the likes of Grant and Pinchot, “The time they lived in is part of an explanation, but not an excuse.”

I believe that by drawing a thread from Grant to successive environmental leaders, Purdy is highlighting that Grant’s ideology may have persisted unnoticed and unexamined, mutating perhaps into more benign-sounding positions, but surely present behind environmental policies and decisions-making.

Purdy does take note of a turning point in 1987 when the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, launching movements for what we now call environmental justice.

Serwer’s piece in The Atlantic mentions Grant’s environmental legacy in passing, but chillingly draws out the connection between Grant, his pseudo race science allies, and rise of the Nazis in Germany.  Of course, the Nazis became America’s enemies, and this pre-war history is now obscure.  Serwer points out how this “historical amnesia” allows the ideology to resurface in later times, epitomized by some of today’s most nasty rhetoric and the actions that ensue (including from the unwanted drove that gathered in my hometown of Charlottesville in 2017).

Purdy brings this sense of amnesia back to the environmental movement and a wake-up call for us who are part of that movement:

It can only help to acknowledge just how many environmentalist priorities and patterns of thought came from an argument among white people, some of them bigots and racial engineers, about the character and future of a country that they were sure was theirs and expected to keep.

The key word here is acknowledge, meaning to shine a light on it, illuminate it in order to eradicate it from our “patterns of thought.”  This, perhaps, is the real work of environmental justice.  Many environmental organizations have a renewed purpose to pursue Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (termed DEIJ), and many are doing an admirable job, with much in the way of self-reflection, re-imagining strategic plans, and creative programming.

However, recent events and ongoing systems of racism that they highlight do demand of us that DEIJ  not be an ornament to hang on the tree of environmentalism without digging in and examining the roots of that tree.  Madison Grant is not a name that rolls off the tongue when recounting environmentalism and its chief accomplishments.  However, he lurks beneath the surface, representing one of those roots and “patterns of thought” that are still manifesting themselves in ways that are difficult for us to discern as individuals and organizations.

As Mann, Purdy, and Serwer help to point out, the Madison Grant root is rotten and excluded by very real and dangerous intent the diversity of peoples that are now sorely needed to be a part of solving today’s and tomorrow’s environmental challenges.

David J. Hirschman, [email protected]

References & Resources

Charles C. Mann, 2018, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, Vintage Books, A Division of Penguin Random House LLC (originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf), New York.

Jedediah Purdy, Environmentalism’s Racist History, The New Yorker, August 13, 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history

Adam Serwer, White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots, The Atlantic, April 2019 Issue, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/04/adam-serwer-madison-grant-white-nationalism/583258/

Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, 1987 (updated in 2007)




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