Environmentalists say they’ve moved past their 19th century patron saint John Muir because he represents the monied, white privilege that continues to haunt the environmental movement to this day, the Los Angeles Times reports.
In an effort to connect more with Latinos and African Americans, some environmentalists are considering ditching Muir as their intellectual godfather. Environmentalists say that while they respect his ideas, they represent rich, Anglo-Saxon values that likely alienate minority communities.
“Muir’s legacy has to go,” Jon Christensen, a historian at the University of California in Los Angeles’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability, told the Times. “It’s just not useful anymore.”
“The conservation movement reflects the legacy of John Muir, and its influence on a certain demographic — older and white — and that’s a problem,” Christensen said.
Christensen and fellow environmental scholars convened at UCLA on Thursday to discuss Muir’s legacy and relevance to today’s environmental movement. Muir was a famed conservationist who inspired the creations of the national parks system and was the first president of the Sierra Club.
The Times notes that some environmentalists now argue “Muir’s vision of wilderness is rooted in economic privilege and the abundant leisure time of the upper class.” Muir’s critics also point to the “correlation between the emotional, biblical language of Muir’s writings and the demographic makeup of national park visitors and the ranks of the largest environmental organizations — mainly aging, white Americans.”
“Environmentalism, in some ways, has moved beyond John Muir,” Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity told the Times.
“Muir’s a dead end,” he said. “It’s time to bury his legacy and move on,” Christensen said.
Moreover, environmentalists argue that Muir’s view of nature really only appreciates large-scale national parks rather than urban parks and trails and such — many minority communities are located in inner city areas.
“We have to reimagine our relationships with nature to accommodate modern, increasingly diverse communities that see the world differently than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants like Muir did in the late 19th century,” D.J. Waldie, who writes on Southern California culture, told the Times.
“For many communities of color, nature of great significance isn’t out there in distant charismatic Sierra peaks; it’s in urban parks, in local mountains and along local rivers — and under their fingertips in the stuff they grow in their own backyards,” Waldie said.
Eco-groups have been struggling to diversify their membership, especially as Latinos are set to become a majority of the population in California in the coming decades.
The Sierra Club, which was founded by Muir, has recently tried building up environmental activism among Hispanics. Club president Michael Brune recently tweeted out an article by club activist Javier Sierra titled “Rolling Bombs: Millions of Latinos Live Next Door to a Public Menace, Oil Trains.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council recently published a study specifically pointing out that 90 percent of the 5.4 million Californians living within a mile of oil and natural gas wells were “people of color.”
Environmentalists also point to Muir’s poor record with Native American communities. He did not like California Indian tribes. University of Southern California professor Laura Pulido said Muir “was a man of his times, who actively worked to disgrace California Indians by taking their lands.”
“But he also launched the environmental movement, which is no small thing,” Pulido said, adding that “all this postmodern talk about what Muir said and what his prejudices were is, at the end of the day, just words. What counts is the number of acres protected.”
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