Essay / Misc.

John Muir: How to Conserve

Teddy and Muir John Muir (1838-1914) deserves the title of “founder of the conservation movement.” He found his voice at a strategic time in American history and was remarkably effective at getting land preserved. He invented a whole range of rhetorical strategies which captured the public imagination and persuaded politicians to take action. When Muir made a case for saving old growth redwoods, he held nothing back: He appealed to morality, religion, financial self-interest, aesthetic sensibility, concerns for physical and mental health, and national pride. Any argument would do if it would keep the ancient trees standing and the wilderness in pristine state. With a writing style shaped by his early immersion in the King James Bible (and a little bit of Plutarch, though his father worried about letting him read a pagan author), Muir wrote like a man on a mission. He even used humor:

Now some millmen want to cut all the Calaveras trees into lumber and money. But we have found a better use for them. No doubt these trees would make good lumber after passing through a sawmill, as George Washington after passing through the hands of a French cook would have made good food. But both for Washington and the tree that bears his name higher uses have been found.

What exactly was it that Muir wanted to accomplish? His major strategy was to persuade the federal government to set aside big sections of land as protected areas, national parks. His timing was impeccable: those decades around the turn of the century were excatly the right moment for a central government to grab wilderness regions and declare them public trusts. Fifty years earlier such a move would have been irrelevant, unnecessary, and unenforcable. Fifty years later would have been too late: much territory would have been destroyed or compromised, and the human cost to residents and industry would have been much higher.

Muir also found a chief executive who was ready to hear the argument and take action on a grand scale. Teddy Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks during his time in office, extended the borders of some of them, and brought about 230 million acres of American territory under public protection (as parks, national monuments, sanctuaries, reservations, preserves, etc.). Roosevelt understood Muir’s appeal and took up the cause himelf with characteristic zeal:

In utilizing and conserving the natural resources of the Nation, the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight…. The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life.

Around 1900, the perfect strategy for conservation was to have the federal government grab land and declare it protected. Big man Roosevelt running big government USA sets aside big parks. Massive state parks and monuments (like the Muir Woods, which I got to visit a few weeks ago) bear witness to this being an effective and appropriate strategy for that time. Just after the middle of the twentieth century, the best way to conserve natural resources was for the will of the people to be made known, and the now cliched image of protesters standing between trees and bulldozers made perfect sense in its time. Public demonstrations got the voice of the people heard, and much urban greenspace has been preserved because of micro-movements of this nature. If John Muir were working in 1960, would he have hugged trees to show they are loved. No doubt.

What if John Muir were doing his work today? His fluid and flexible wit would surely not let itself get bogged down in strategies appropriate to 1906; there just aren’t any more Yosemites or Crater Lakes out there. Rainforests in somebody else’s country aren’t really candidates for National Park status, so that bag of tricks wouldn’t apply. He probably wouldn’t even get snared in 1960 strategies, marching and protesting and laying down in front of bulldozers. That strategy always leads to a deadlock: the will of the people is equally expressed by protesters and by the free market’s drive to development. The will of the people is on both sides of the bulldozer.

A twenty-first century conservationist who wanted to be as effective as John Muir would, I think, undertake a strategy appropriate to this era. He would bend all his wit and persuasiveness to make the case that the best interests of the free market are served by conservation. Instead of clouding the issue by striking faux-heroic anti-capitalist stances, John Muir 2006 would enter the belly of the beast itself. He would generate an unstoppable host of arguments proving that natural territories are more valuable than what can be developed on them. He would calculate the actual cash value of a tree or a forest and demonstrate in market terms that no rational capitalist could afford to trade this resource for another one. With Muir’s resourcefulness, he would probably itemize the cash value of a forest all the way down to the leaf. Is there a calculation that captures the way natural spaces appreciate in value while anything build on a developed space inevitably depreciates? Wouldn’t that be a magical equation to turn the head of any economist?

Instead of persuading a president (1906) or amplifying the vox populi (1960), John Muir 2006 would go up against the market itself and win as big as he did 100 years ago. But it will take some creative rhetoric, with statistics, dollar equivalents, and long-term extrapolations to get the invisible hand of the market to set down the chain saw and pick up the watering can. Many conservationists operate with a naive model of political economy and think they can keep their hands clean of market concerns. Equipped with a more realistic sense of the way the free market functions, wouldn’t it be nice if conservatives took the lead in conservationism?

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