Environmentalism In 1901: Was It Elitist To Save The Planet?

Image from pingnews and Library of Congress

As the environmental movement looks to the future, it can often forget its past.

We often make light of it here, but there really are some people out there that think that environmentalism is all the product of some imperious, self-righteous group of city slickers trying to tell them how to lead their lives. As it turns out, that point of view is not wrong, just slightly antiquated.

In 1902, one of the most environmentally friendly US presidents of all time, Teddy Roosevelt, was working hard to block off land not because it was the right thing to do, but because rich people wanted a recreation area.

Like many government initiatives, conservation, which is what it was called then, formed first in a series of grassroots organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Audobon Society. Teddy, despite being an environmental titan, was also something of a social butterfly, and knew most of the key players: all of whom were white, Anglo-Saxon and protestant males. He was also a founder of one of these groups: the Boone and Crockett club, named for the frontiersmen and formed over a dinner party he hosted in 1886.

These groups, by and large, weren’t dedicated to leaving pristine wilderness, in the fashion that the Sierra Club advocates. Many, if not most of them, were for what they termed “responsible use,” something akin to today’s arguments over sustainability, only applied to hunting and fishing instead of energy. And of course, at that time, the working class couldn’t afford to go hunting or fishing for fun. They were either anachronistic survivors who disliked the idea of responsible use because it limited their livelihood, or, more likely, were part of the urbanized post-industrial society that, simply put, didn’t have time to engage in such things.

Rich white guys had the resources to get into the wild, and so rich white guys fought to protect it.

It wasn’t until much later in the 1960s, that diversity would come to the environmental movement; a combination of social struggles, but also the infrastructure improvements that made it easy for everybody to see what they were fighting for.