Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt's America

Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt's America

by Ian Tyrrell

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Long before people were “going green” and toting reusable bags, the Progressive generation of the early 1900s was calling for the conservation of resources, sustainable foresting practices, and restrictions on hunting. Industrial commodities such as wood, water, soil, coal, and oil, as well as improvements in human health and the protection of “nature” in an aesthetic sense, were collectively seen for the first time as central to the country’s economic well-being, moral integrity, and international power. One of the key drivers in the rise of the conservation movement was Theodore Roosevelt, who, even as he slaughtered animals as a hunter, fought to protect the country’s natural resources.

In Crisis of the Wasteful Nation, Ian Tyrrell gives us a cohesive picture of Roosevelt’s engagement with the natural world along with a compelling portrait of how Americans used, wasted, and worried about natural resources in a time of burgeoning empire. Countering traditional narratives that cast conservation as a purely domestic issue, Tyrrell shows that the movement had global significance, playing a key role in domestic security and in defining American interests around the world. Tyrrell goes beyond Roosevelt to encompass other conservation advocates and policy makers, particularly those engaged with shaping the nation’s economic and social policies—policies built on an understanding of the importance of crucial natural resources. Crisis of the Wasteful Nation is a sweeping transnational work that blends environmental, economic, and imperial history into a cohesive tale of America’s fraught relationships with raw materials, other countries, and the animal kingdom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226197760
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/19/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ian Tyrrell was the Scientia Professor of History at the University of New South Wales, Sydney until his retirement in 2012. He is the author of nine books, including True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860–1930 and Historians in Public, also published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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Crisis of the Wasteful Nation

Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt's America

By Ian Tyrell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19793-7


Alarmism and the Wasteful Nation

German American journalist and artist Rudolf Cronau loved the land of his adoption. Traveling far and wide as a foreign correspondent for the Cologne Gazette, he had observed over many years the grandeur of American scenery and the richness of the nation's wildlife. Yet he was often pained by what he witnessed in the European settlement of the continent, and his anger burst forth clearly in his writings. A key complaint was the thoughtless destruction of forests, which would, he argued, produce a timber famine in the not-too-distant future and steadily rising prices. His indictment was stark on this score: "As man made himself master over everything on the earth, so he won his battle against the forest. The settlers felled it, smashed it, burned it, till they got all the room they wanted. Their children followed this example and destroyed the forest with the same recklessness they would have used against their worst enemy." Surely, he concluded in 1908, "it is a reminiscence of those hard pioneer days, that so many Americans neither love nor respect trees, but have only one thought about them, and that is to cut them down."

Not unique in his observations, Cronau played a bit part within a larger drama of lamentations over natural resource waste. He could easily cite others who anticipated his jeremiad, including Emerson Hough. A journalist for Forest and Stream and an "outdoorsman," Hough wrote "The Slaughter of the Trees" for Everybody's Magazine in 1908. There, for more than half a million readers, was a clear message of what would follow if the warnings went unheeded. "In fifty years we will have the whole states as bare as China.... The Canadian forests north of the great lakes will be swept away," and the alluvial plain of the Yazoo Delta of the Mississippi "ripped apart" by floods. "We shall shiver in a cold and burn in a heat never before felt," he warned. "Like Chinamen our children will rake the soil for fuel or forage or food." For Hough, and for Cronau, the collapse of American civilization was at hand.

Cronau entitled his 1908 book on the subject of conservation Our Wasteful Nation and thus aptly captured the changing mood. Critics noted that Cronau's indictment covered the whole range of resources, not just forests, which were "only one form of the nation's profligacy." The German American fed off a growing sense of alarm at this apparently "wasteful" republic in the years after 1900, particularly from 1906 to 1910. A New York Times headline proclaimed "America's Profligacy with Her Heritage." "A Nation's Prodigal Waste," replied the Washington Post. The Chicago Tribune called Cronau's work an "appallingly truthful statement of facts." "A Continent Despoiled" was the headline for Cronau's work in McClure's Magazine. Volumes such as Mary H. Gregory's Checking the Waste added further publicity.

This was not merely the rhetoric of scribes. It was a movement with genuine grassroots—if middle-class—support articulated through some of the key social institutions of the day. Schools, Chautauqua assemblies, churches, the Daughters of the American Revolution, women's clubs, and debating groups joined in. Businessmen voted with their wallets and, on the contagious assumption of an impending timber shortage, invested in tree planting. The years 1907–10 witnessed an Australian eucalyptus boom in California. The fast-growing trees would, speculators hoped, fill gaps in the timber supply after the rape of the land. At the same time, American companies began buying up forests in Mexico, fearful that domestic supplies would vanish anyway. Clearly, the alarm over wasted resources was not limited to journalists or a political elite. It could not simply be orchestrated from the top, even as federal government officials worked tirelessly and cleverly to do so by priming prominent figures with facts and, on occasion, even speeches to deliver. Whatever the true state of forest shortage, businessmen and many others made calculations that factored in a jeremiad about resource destruction.

Encouraging Cronau was the work of Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president (1901–9), and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Division of Forestry (later designated as chief of the Forest Service; 1898–1910). The precocious son of a New York philanthropist and merchant, Roosevelt is well known as an advocate of the masculine and strenuous life, a nationalist, an instigator of American empire, a lover of nature and the American West, a hunter, and yet a conservationist without par among American presidents. Deeply controversial and intellectually complex, many adored him, others loathed him, but his "high-octane personality," ample ego, and far-reaching agenda for conservation were impossible to ignore. By inheritance a wealthy man with a fortune derived in part from his father's wallpaper business, Pinchot is scarcely less famous in conservation circles than the wellborn Roosevelt. He served the president as de facto second-in-command for domestic affairs. Although receiving only one reference in Cronau's book, his work was vital to understanding the alarm over wasted resources. Roosevelt and Pinchot constituted, with Secretary of the Interior James Garfield and others documented in the pages that follow, a band of brothers (the term is appropriate) who exuded a "peculiar intimacy" and noblesse oblige in the service of the nation. Roosevelt himself has been authoritatively described as a reforming member of the old New York social elite. He was a card-carrying "Knickerbocker aristocrat" fashioning a modern public policy response to the obscenely wealthy "parvenus" of the new Industrial Revolution. In May 1908, the president called a widely reported Conference of Governors to dramatize the problem of resource waste and destruction and to push the existing anxiety in the direction of structural reform and national planning. From the governors' conference came the creation of the National Conservation Commission (NCC), to carry out an intellectual stocktaking with a broad interdisciplinary sweep across the Washington bureaucracy. Its research produced a hefty three-volume government report covering all aspects of conservation, the first such inventory in American history, and further meetings ensued. A Joint Conservation Conference in December 1908 considered the draft report of the NCC, established a committee with federal and state representatives to propose reforms, and endorsed conservationist objectives to continue the work beyond Roosevelt's term. These objectives were expressed in the Conference of Governors Declaration of Principles, a far-reaching statement intended to guide the committee. Then a North American Conservation Conference called by Roosevelt met in February 1909 and initiated continental cooperation on resource allocation. As a parting gesture, Roosevelt also proposed an ambitious World Congress on Conservation to be held at The Hague, and the diplomatic machinery was creaking into motion to advance the idea before he departed the White House on 4 March.

By that time, conservation had come almost to define Progressivism, that broad and sometimes woolly term used to describe reform movements seeking to adjust the United States to the pressures of a newly industrialized society, with all of its corporate power and labor strife. To be sure, generations of historians have defined and debated different strands of Progressivism, so much so that some would abandon the term entirely. A work constantly in the process of becoming, Progressivism was made as a concept and a movement in this period—and by the actors in this story. Conservation became quite central to their hopes and fears, as apprehension over resource depletion peaked from 1906 to 1910. Ultimately, conservation was enshrined in the Progressive Party platform for the 1912 presidential election.

A striking near consensus emerged on the need for conservation as a key Progressive reform in these years, as attested by the statements of the three leading contenders for the presidency in that election. Yet opinions differed over the degree of reform needed. Not everybody agreed with Cronau or likeminded Jeremiahs. The Literary Digest asked, "Are We Conservation-Crazy?," while the Los Angeles Times recalled the miser who said he was saving for a rainy day but died before that came, thus missing out on "all the comforts and good things of life." The paper openly championed the oil industry, just then developing in Southern California. Many opponents of conservation represented such obvious economic interests and reflected sectional tensions. In the western states, certain grazing, mining, and other groups did not want federal interference in their arrangements to use public lands. They resented what they regarded as collective eastern hand-wringing, particularly when the advocates of conservation called upon the federal government to withdraw those lands from sale, thus locking up resources in developing states. Governor Edwin Norris of Montana said of easterners, "They have eaten their cake, now they want some of ours." Journalist George Knapp of Saint Louis targeted federal control over public lands as the worst of all despotisms, one suffused with the arbitrary authority of petty officials telling the common people whether or not they could farm or mine at all. In practice, many conflicting interests fragmented grassroots opposition in the American West, with larger-scale lumber and cattlemen's operations often supporting federal programs that could stabilize their businesses. Yet Knapp's case expressed the immediate experience of many other farmers, ranchers, and small-scale lumber millers. Opposition grew in strength during Roosevelt's presidency, precisely because of the widening scope of federal intervention.

Underlying and augmenting regionalist responses was legal opinion. For some state governors, conservation within the states was not the business of the federal government, although they acknowledged the need for reform. They cited constitutional arguments that federal power did not extend to non-navigable rivers, control of waterpower, and related matters. Just as clearly, these constitutional points were aligned with business interests that, Progressive conservationists charged, spearheaded the opposition. The most outspoken champion of untrammeled corporate development was Knapp, writing in the North American Review: "That the modern Jeremiahs are as sincere as was the older one, I do not question. But I count their prophecies to be baseless vaporings, and their vaunted remedy worse than the fancied disease. I am one who can see no warrant of law, of justice, nor of necessity for that wholesale reversal of our traditional policy which the advocates of 'conservation' demand. I am one who does not shiver for the future at the sight of a load of coal, nor view a steel mill as the arch robber of posterity." According to Knapp, the entire Washington press had been enchanted by a diametrically opposed position emanating from a federal juggernaut of bureaucrats. The "finest press bureau in the world," he charged, had "labored with a zeal quite unhampered by any considerations of fact or logic." It pandered "not to popular reason, but to popular fears."

Opponents of conservation made a deeper, philosophical case about development as well. Here, nature was malleable. Humans had altered it in ways that embodied value through capital, thus improving the prospects of future generations. This position rested on the antebellum Whig political economy of Henry Carey, stated in The Slave Trade, Domestic and Foreign (1853): "The earth is a great machine given to man to be fashioned to his purpose. The more he works it, the better it feeds him, because each step is but preparatory to a new one more productive than the last—requiring less labour [sic] and yielding larger return." This argument was inherently hostile to alarmism. For example, by building railways, humans increased the comfort of future generations, albeit at the cost of destroying forests to lay railroad ties. Though the implication was rarely stated, nature had actually become incarnate in capital. A New York Times reviewer of Cronau wrote: "If we have hewn the forests, we have invented steam. If we have exhausted the mines, we have developed electricity. Assuredly our followers are better off with the reduction of natural resources, accompanied by the inventions which recent generations proffer as a recompense." This critic also rejected guilt over the legacy to future generations by pointing to material progress already achieved: "what right has posterity to expect so much from us? Our ancestors did not do so much for us." And yet the current generation had a higher standard of living than ever before in human history, the disbelievers chanted.

That said, even those who praised the transformation of nature into productive capital still conceded, under a de facto precautionary principle, that conservation should be attempted. When the New York Times denied recourse to intergenerational equity, it agreed that there was "need for prudence, but not cause for fright." Careless and unnecessary waste the paper accepted as a sin. Though the Wall Street Journal likewise scoffed at apocalyptic conclusions, it stressed that the country was living off its capital by destroying raw materials. Reliance on the free market was "too much like locking the stable after the theft of the horse fully to meet the case." Perhaps the answer was not to stop resource use but to engage in "technical and scientific research." That was, most scholars would argue, a very American response that flowed from the key role of technology in the nation's culture. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal conceded that technological growth would not simply happen on its own. Government, business, or university research was needed to promote more efficient use and to discover substitutes. The paper praised the prudent policy of resource conservation already applied to forests by Pinchot.

A surprising number of opinion makers across the political spectrum agreed that government needed to do something serious about natural resource waste. Four-fifths of the states created conservation commissions, illustrating in the process the breadth of concern. Manifestly, the enthusiasm for conservation went far beyond partisanship, loyalty to Roosevelt, or purely national action. The acquiescence of so many political figures and media outlets in some degree of conservation sentiment indicated that alarmism had partially won the debate by pushing many of the unconvinced to favor some—though not all—of the action that enthusiasts of conservation advocated.

Previously little used, the term "conservation" became ubiquitous and closely identified with the team of Roosevelt and Pinchot. In fact, Pinchot claimed to have hit upon it while riding in Rock Creek Park, in Washington, DC, one day in 1907, but "conservation" as a concept was used by George Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream, as early as 1884. Grinnell had written of both preservation and conservation, meaning the careful use of resources in the latter instance and the prevention of development of resources in the former, but for forestry, the practice of conservation had already begun in British India, Germany, and other places well before that.

To be sure, the jeremiad on forest depletion was neither new nor exclusively American. Historian Richard Grove has demonstrated that concerns for the disappearing forests in Europe's colonies run back to the late seventeenth century. The German explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt expressed a similar alarm regarding Spanish Venezuela in 1800. The United States was not directly affected by such soul-searching, as it lacked overseas colonies—but it did have the West, which served a parallel, quasi-colonial function. In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans already worried about the future of a wantonly destructive nation as the West was rapidly "won." Though prophecies of shortage for other resources were made in that era, the forests were by far the chief worry. In these years Americans articulated ideas of preserving nature, spurred especially by George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature, the first major American account of the damage humans had done to natural environments. In this 1864 book and later editions, Marsh emphasized lost forest cover that led to soil erosion and floods, and he investigated the impact of deforestation on climate. A quarter of the nation's landmass must be kept in woodland, he argued, to prevent serious problems. Social scientists took up the cause in the 1880s and 1890s, with Richard T. Ely of the University of Wisconsin urging a greater role for the federal government in creating public forests, since only public action could command the "vast scale" needed, as well as comply with the necessity of thinking long term to make forestry profitable. The eminent geologist Nathaniel Shaler of Harvard greatly valued Marsh's work and by the 1890s broached the subject of depleted oil stocks, though his comprehensive indictment of resource misuse was not published until 1905, when he blamed Americans for the "very worst" of the "sinful wastes [sic] of man's inheritance in the earth." The book's arrival was splendidly timed to reinforce as well as reflect upon the growing sense of alarm.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Abbreviations xiii

Part I The Origins of Alarm

1 Alarmism and the Wasteful Nation 3

2 American Conservation and the "World Movement": Networks, Personnel, and the International Context 21

Part II The New Empire and the Rise of Conservation

3 Colonies, Natural Resources, and Geopolitical Thought in the New Empire 39

4 Encountering the Tropical World: The Impact of Empire 55

5 Energy and Empire: Shadows of the Fossil Fuel Revolution 79

6 Dynamic Geography: Irrigation, Waterways, and the Inland Empire 99

7 The Problem of the Soils and the Problem of the Toilers 127

8 Conservation, Scenery, and the Sustainability of Nature 145

9 Lessons for Living: Irving Fisher, National Vitality, and Human Conservation 173

Part III The Global Vision of Theodore Roosevelt and Its Fate

10 To the Halls of Europe: The African Safari and Roosevelt's Campaign to Conserve Nature (While Killing It) 191

11 Something Big: Theodore Roosevelt and Global Conservation 207

12 "A Senseless and Mischievous Fad?" From Alarm to Sobriety as a Nation Takes Stock 233

Epilogue: The Present, the Future, and the Power of Contingency in Human Life 251

Notes 263

Index 337

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