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Monday, July 26, 2010

Conservation, Eugenics, and Reconciliation

I love Orion magazine. To those who classify and categorize, Orion would likely be labeled as "environmentalist" or "conservationist." However, it is concerned with broader questions of existence that have to do with place, the space that we inhabit and the ethical and philosophical questions surrounding it. It jives well with me because it places environmental concerns within the question of "what kind of human beings do we want to be?"

My interest in environmentalism and conservation of the natural world stem from my concern for the heart and soul of a consumeristic culture. I wonder what kind of damage we do to ourselves if the primary force behind most of our lives (from the big decisions to the little decisions) is an impulse to consume, to have more and more stuff. I also have fallen in love with natural beauty and with the kind of "silence" that only things like trees, streams, mountains, chipmunks, moose, lakes and oceans can provide.

I also appreciate Orion even more after this article by Charles Wohlforth in the July|August issue. It is an honest evaluation of the connection between conservation efforts and eugenics. Check it out.

"The American environmental movement remains predominantly white and middle class, detached from minorities, immigrants, and the poor along the same lines of class and color that existed a century ago....More broadly, our political language for protecting the environment is about conflict between forces of good and evil, the fear of annihilation, and the exaltation of purity. It's the language of war, with dark undertones of racism we've inherited but no longer recognize."


The article traces the dark side of the history of environmentalism. For some, conservation of the natural world was rooted in a belief in the dream of early twentieth century eugenics: that Americans should breed a strong race of rugged, hard-working individualists, "oddly, the improvement of the dominant race meshed with the New Nationalism's utopia for a merit-based society." For Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, it meant sticking up for the average guy, uh, white guy of course. So, preserving the average, strong working (white) man from the dominance of government and corporate powers that might impose on his freedom and destroy the land.

"Roosevelt was worried about the loss of a special American quality of strength and ingenuity that supposedly had evolved among whites on the frontier."

Said Roosevelt: "If our nation cares to make any provision for its grandchildren and its grandchildren's grandchildren, this provision must include conservation in all its branches--but above all, the conservation of the racial stock itself."

It gets worse, not better.

"Roosevelt wrote, 'I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized, and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them. But as yet there is no way possible to devise which could prevent all undesirable people from breeding. The emphasis should be laid on getting desirable people to breed.'"

Well, that's one approach. It's the eugenics way, of course. And, actually, there was someone who tried to devise a way for a eugenics vision. Heir Hitler and the Nazis....which brings up more oddity, absurdity, and downright idiocracy, because "Nazi officials who slaughtered human beings in death camps also passed some of the world's most advanced legislation to protect the environment and endangered species, even outlawing cruelty to animals, including the sort of medical experimentation they performed on their human victims."

Weird. Very weird. But back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives, whose perspective on the environment was couched within an overall worldview of superiority. It begs the question: "How could progressives who world for conservation, national insurance, and the rights of the workers adapt an ideology of hatred against the weak?"

Indeed. What is clear is that imperialistic thinking thoroughly permeated the heart and soul of the white race, even amongst reformers like T.R. and other Progressives.

The article has an interesting conclusion. "Power won't help us....This is a better job for the weak, who often have more at stake in the loss of nature, a closer relationship to its gifts, and a greater capacity to recognize when a certain level of material wealth is enough." This conclusion is intriguing because the article begins by suggesting that the environmental movement is a project of the white middle class, presumably those who want to protect nature (and the ecosystem) for their enjoyment (and safety). It is a movement detached from the marginalized, the poor, minority races, or immigrants. In this sense, it can become another "cause" that benefits the existing benefits of those who are higher in the power structure.

"Understanding the history of racism in the conservation movement is important, not to assign blame, but to diagnose our unhealthy relationships with each other and with nature, learn from our mistakes, and begin cooperating in the ways that we must in order to reverse our destruction of the Earth's ecosystems."

Agreed. But in order to cooperate with the marginalized, there must be something at stake for them, some benefit to their cooperation. These divisions between us are deep in the United States, and it is important to our power structure that we maintain them. As such, I imagine that the conservation movement will continue to be a project of the white middle class. In order to enlist the marginalized, they have to receive something in return, a greater share in the power and wealth of the nation, and a breakdown of the stigmas that make them marginalized. Cooperation means that the marginalized are no longer perceived as less than. Enlisting their cooperation means that the white power structure has to give something, something economic in return.

Knowing that this is the case, I doubt that such a cooperation will occur. More than likely, the environmental movement will continue to be a project of the white middle class. I will support it, of course. But these days, I am more inclined to think in wider terms; specifically, I want to ask about reconciliation in the broadest sense, the type of reconciliation that is at the core of the Christian faith, though it is often not recognized as such: "In Christ there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female." This passage and others suggest that the ultimate end for Christian reconciliation is the obliteration of all hard divisions based on ethnic groupings, class and social status, and gender privilege. All exist together, unified under Jesus the Christ.

Environmental and other causes often exist in isolation from greater philosophies of reconciliation. Articulating such a greater philosophy is one of the great opportunities for religion in general and Christianity in particular.

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