The field of environmental history, especially that of the United States, has long had a problem: its practitioners are overwhelmingly white males. This has long caused a lot of consternation and conversation, but it hasn’t really changed the field much. There is a panel about this just about every year, but the need for such a panel doesn’t change. Because of this, race and gender are simply not given enough attention in the field as they should be. This is almost a ridiculous thing to say in 2018, but it is true. This seems even more strange given the enormous literature on environmental justice movements and issues, which is largely written by non-historians, but still should be influential. My own view of this is that a lot of environmental historians approached the field after being environmental activists and that a lot of environmental activists have often been white men from middle or upper class backgrounds who don’t much want to examine their own privilege, which is part of the reason they felt comfortable using their activist energy in a movement that maybe wouldn’t force them to do so.
All of this is a preamble for why I appreciate Dorceta Taylor’s 2016 book on the development of American conservation. Taylor herself comes out of the world of environmental justice scholarship and at times the book reads like it, but overall, the book does a great job of centering the core issue at the development of American conservation: the desires of rich white men to do what they wanted. Other historians have certainly examined pieces of this story and my own master’s thesis 20 years ago now (!!) did a bit of this too. But this is the first overarching overview of this issue and it is a worthy addition to our knowledge. As the nation rapidly urbanized, industrialized, and became more diverse in the late nineteenth century, wealthy white males such as Theodore Roosevelt sought the outdoors as a place of leisure and to rejuvenate an Anglo-Saxon manhood they believed was threatened. But the forces of disorder also threatened this paradise, especially market hunters and subsistence hunters, the latter of which had almost nothing to do with the decline in major species such as bison and even deer, but who were still blocked out of the commons if they couldn’t afford the new hunting licenses. On top of this was the need to promote a more sustainable use of resources such as forests and water, which brings people such as the pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot into our history but also created the production regimes that dominated 20th century nature and caused all sorts of problems that led to modern environmentalism.
This is largely a well-known story, but by focusing on elite power, Taylor makes sure we know the core ideology of early American conservation. White men built part of environmentalism by blaming women and people of color for the destruction of the American bird population, largely by hunting for the millinery trade. Taylor notes that this threw feather workers out of a job and the conservationists basically didn’t care, as they didn’t support any workers’ causes during these years. Immigrant hunters were killing animals that rightfully belonged to rich white men and so were suppressed as well, as were Native peoples who had hunted on these lands for hundreds if not thousands of years. National parks were developed in coordination with American corporations, promoting commercial development and expanded tourism over preserving these special places. And ultimately elites believed the nation itself needed to be built by excluding people of color from the natural world, creating ideas of wilderness designed to rejuvenate the white race. This often meant the military forcing Native peoples off wilderness or national park lands. Even as late as the CCC camps of the Depression, whiteness and nation building were deeply connected and there was a lot of bitterness toward black participation, with white officers denigrating black CCC members in segregated camps.
Taylor also notes how women and people of color made major contributions to our environmental history that remain largely unknown. American expansion into Native lands was a profoundly environmental act, severing hundreds of tribes’ relationships with the natural world and then routinely stealing land. Black pioneers in the West had some of the most notable observations of the West in transition. Harriet Tubman plays a big role in this story, someone who we never think of from an environmental perspective. But she had intimate knowledge of the land around her that allowed her to guide people to freedom. Her journeys through nature were just as profound as that of Lewis and Clark. She learned how to read the stars and waterways working in the fields and her spiritual beliefs, in particular her self-proclaimed “sixth sense,” were deeply connected to how she understood the natural world. This is one just example of how Taylor integrates well known stories of American history into this environmental narrative, recentering this story on women of color so often isolated from the field’s major themes and studies.
My only real criticism of this book is that because it is such a compendium, many chapters end with short bits on groups that she doesn’t actually have much information on. For example, in the chapter “People of Color,” she ends with a paragraph on Koreans, but that paragraph just notes their existence and why they entered the U.S. and has nothing on their relationship with the natural world. Other than this sort of encyclopedic effect that undermines readability from time to time, this is a very fine addition to our understanding of environmental history. Hopefully, it finally helps move environmental historians toward caring about the issues of racial and gendered justice that animates most other humanities scholars.