This month’s Scientific American has an interesting article about the colonialist routes of the modern conservation movement, focusing on the role of John Muir in the foundation of Yosemite National Park. John Muir was the charismatic founder of the Sierra Club, a big organization in the conservation movement internationally and especially in the USA. John Muir was also an enthusiastic genocider:

his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination[1]

Muir thought of the native Americans of Yosemite as “hideous” and “strange creatures,” and had no respect for them. He wrote that

they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.

Which is an interesting example of how counter-productive such racism can be. The article presents compelling evidence that those people who had “no right place in the landscape” had actually carefully shaped the entire conservation area through generations of traditional slash-and-burn farming practices, which Muir ignored or actively reviled, with the consequence that the park lost much of its original beauty and character within Muir’s lifetime.

It is of course no surprise that an enthusiastic proponent of genocide should refuse to listen to or respect the ideas of those whose land he stole, and a bitter dreg of schadenfreude that his ignorance and racism led to the corruption of his dream stolen property. That will no doubt have been of little consolation to the men, women and children murdered in pursuit of his conservationist dream.

I wonder if the desire for pristine wilderness amongst those early conservationists was driven at least partly by a desire to reach an itch in the conscience that couldn’t be scratched. No humans on the land means being able to look away from what you’ve done, and to maintain a pretense of terra nullius, that the land was never occupied anyway, that those people who “have no right place in the landscape” were just drifting through anyway – only white men can touch the land in a way that leaves indelible marks, and to the romanticist those marks can only be the cruel marks of industry. So the only solution to protect the land from the evil touch of men is to set it aside – and carefully look away from the fact that the land was being nurtured by red men before you came and took it.

From this guilty itch and wilful blindness was formed the impulse to set aside land for conservation – the essence of the modern conservation movement. There is no doubt that this movement has done a lot of good for the environment, but it’s worth remembering the bloody crucible in which that impulse was born, and wondering how different the modern conservation movement would be if Muir had listened to those people he wand to see “fading out of sight,” instead of hastening their journey down the pass …

fn1: these are the words of his future wife’s friend. They should serve as a reminder that at the time of genocide in America and Australia, opinion was not settled on the rightness of the matter, and those who commissioned the deed were well aware that there was debate as to whether it was right.