Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun posted at article dated November 13, 2014, “John Muir’s legacy questioned as centennial of his death nears.” Mr. Sahagun quoted several scholars. Historian Jon Christensen concluded that the Muir legacy is not useful. Center for Biological Diversity director Noah Greenwald stated that environmentalism has moved beyond Muir. Historian Richard White criticized Muir for upholding an “Anglo-Saxon brand of environmentalism.” Unnamed critics believe Muir’s vision for pristine wilderness is not useful because it appeals only to “aging, white Americans.” An expert on Southern California culture said that wilderness is not relevant to non-white populations. USC American Studies professor Laura Pulio claimed that Muir “actively worked to displace California Indians by taking their lands.”
California taxpayers are paying these professors. They should ask for their money back.
Getting beyond the sheer silliness here (criticizing Muir for his ethnic heritage and accusing him of stealing native lands) there is a much darker side to this. Let’s start with the false premise that contemporary environmentalism must be based on urban nature vs. wild nature (big wilderness). According to the experts, environmentalists can only support one or the other.
That premise has already been debunked by the concept of “climate justice” notably promoted by Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs. the Climate. The livelihood and quality of life of the urban masses (and scattered rural population), including employment and pollution issues, can be enhanced by replacing carbon energy with renewable energy. Wilderness is a part of this: protecting our largest wilderness area, the sky, is in everyone’s interest. Protecting the wilderness polar regions from global heating is also in all our interests. The false dichotomy posited between whites and non-whites is nonsense. We are all subject to the same atmosphere.
The scholars claim that urban populations may have a greater interest in parks nearer to home than in those more distant. This is true in as much as it is easier to get to somewhere closer by than farther away. I live on a mountainside in New Mexico. I hike there more often than in Yosemite. But it doesn’t follow that therefore I don’t or shouldn’t care about Yosemite. Environmentalists must work with equal determination to care for both wilderness and urban natural environments—it’s all connected! And who do you think worked harder than anyone else to prove that connection: John Muir.
The article also claimed that a professor of geography supported the anti-Muir position, although he was not directly quoted. Here is a biology lesson that relates to geography. Wild nature and big wilderness provide free services to those of us who live in or near cities and towns. Let us start with air purification. All those lovely plants in wilderness areas (including diatoms in the ocean) are busily capturing carbon and exhaling oxygen. And then there is the matter of water filtered and stored in wilderness areas. Water does not come from a tap any more than food comes from a grocery store. The scholars presumably confuse delivery with generative systems.
The corollary to this is that the destruction of wild nature leads directly to the destruction of urban centers. I would draw the attention of geographers and historians to Jared Diamond’s Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and to Paul Sears’s Deserts on the March. When it comes to race, Nature is color blind. Destruction of wild nature is a leading cause of poverty.
The anti-Muir forces fit in with the larger neoliberal/conservative/reactionary political movement that is gaining strength from Sweden to England to China to Russia to the U.S. This ideology holds that nature must be subservient to the economic desires of human society. (Many American political “liberals” also believe this.) Muir showed us that our success in the world must be in accord with the laws of nature. In our time, economic prosperity and the continued existence of wild nature are as absolutely linked.
I wish that I could attend the anti-Muir gathering at UCLA (mentioned in the article) to take on the neoliberals and their destructive, nonsensical politics.
We need Muir more than ever.
<Yosemite NP Spring Storm, May 20, 2014, dlw photo>