Try Orion

Conservation and Eugenics

The environmental movement's dirty secret

by Charles Wohlforth

Published in the July/August 2010 issue of Orion magazine

THE RAIN HAD JUST STOPPED in the little eastern Kansas town of Osawatomie when thirty thousand people, gathered in an atmosphere not unlike that of a country fair, fell quiet. Their hero, former president Teddy Roosevelt, climbed atop a kitchen table and began to speak in a high, almost falsetto voice, orating amid cheering for ninety minutes. When finished, he had delivered the most controversial and influential address of his career, in which he described a radical new program that was both denounced and celebrated in newspapers across the country. The date was August 31, 1910.

The New Nationalism Speech, as it came to be known, emphasized conservation, as did most of Roosevelt’s speeches written by his friend Gifford Pinchot, who had been his conservation chief for the two terms of his presidency. But it also newly placed the “moral issue” and “patriotic duty” of conservation into the context of a racial conversation, as well as a much broadened concept of progressivism.

In appealing to the folks in Osawatomie, Roosevelt went well beyond the program he had pursued in office, proposing a powerful national government strong enough to address many of its citizens’ problems. In this new regime, government would be a general antidote to corporate power. Federal programs would control wages and hours, health, and corporate governance. The government would take over utilities and railroads if necessary to stop monopolies. Corporate political contributions would be limited and publicly reported. Most radically, this vastly empowered national government would transform America’s economy to reward only merit, using graduated estate and income taxes to pull down the fortunes of the very rich.

The states that originally ratified the Constitution had faced none of these problems and never consented to a national government strong enough to solve them, but once corporations could span the nation—and Roosevelt viewed corporate combination as an inevitable consequence of the industrial age—then only a central authority even mightier than they could prevent a few rich men from controlling the country’s laws, natural resources, and workers’ lives. Corporations already did control much of that, and the workers weren’t going to stand for it. Nineteenth-century laws essentially gave away natural resources to the first to find them, allowing the rich to privatize immense new wealth in oil, coal, minerals, and hydropower at close to zero cost. Business interests exploited workers with as little government interference, creating grim servitude in western mining towns that would sometimes flash into violence.

Roosevelt’s New Nationalism offered federal power to manage the economy and tame the exploitation of people and resources. Instead of class conflict, all would join as equals in allegiance to a shared national identity stronger than the old links to community or state.

Americans had to learn nationalism—flag worship and the pledge of allegiance were promulgated in that era, too. The federal government at the time didn’t seem equal to many tasks. Back in 1889, when Gifford Pinchot was a young man exploring the idea of going into forestry, a recently retired secretary of agriculture, George Loring, told him forest management would never work in America because the country lacked “a centralized monarchial authority.”

Later that same year, Pinchot attended the Paris International Exposition, at the site of the brand new Eiffel Tower, where he felt deeply impressed and inspired by the immense forestry exhibit. The great world’s fairs were society’s premier tool for acculturating its people to the new, as Robert W. Rydell reports in his fascinating book All the World’s a Fair. Not only did they promote amazing technology, they also demonstrated the new relationships among people that the machines brought about, including affiliation with the symbols of national rather than community identity—monuments, mass communication and transportation, mass-produced goods, and celebrity. Contemporaries believed the fairs reduced class strife and political violence. In the United States, each fair attracted a substantial fraction of the entire population, and those who couldn’t attend read saturation coverage in the press. At the world’s fairs, civic leaders produced self-contained models of a hoped-for future in order to mold ideal citizens to live in it.

The utopia exhibited at the expositions held on American soil included and eventually drew a connection between the richness of the country’s natural resources and the superiority of its dominant race. The first American world’s fair, held in Philadelphia in 1876 to commemorate the nation’s centennial, presented Native Americans as hideous brutes fit for extinction—a message justifying that year’s warfare against the indigenous people of the Great Plains, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn. At the New Orleans world’s fair in 1885, comparative displays of skulls showed how Indians, Eskimos, and other “lower” races resembled criminals or animals. The enormous fair in Chicago in 1893 displayed living American Indians and other indigenous people on a honky-tonk midway where they were continuously jeered and ridiculed. Anthropologists arranged the races along the walk in a supposedly evolutionary progression from the lowest to the best, at which point viewers emerged from the noise and chaos of the carnival into the quiet of a pristine new city, built for the purpose on an immense scale and painted pure white. The symbolism conveyed an idea of evolutionary ethics wherein white Americans could grow through racial purification from an animalistic, selfish nature to become higher, more cooperative beings.

These ideas had been developed at Ivy League and other universities, at museums of natural history and anthropology in New York and Washington, in learned societies and in scientific literature. When subsequent world’s fairs focused on the West, the link between natural resources, morality, and racism was drawn ever more explicitly. The great Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis came in 1904, a critical time for the West as Roosevelt’s conservation program hit its stride. Westerners sent pieces of the landscape to demonstrate its value: for example, from California part of the trunk of a giant sequoia, and from Alaska, ancestral totem poles removed from coastal villages. They sent live people, too. The mastermind of the fair’s anthropology department promised to “represent human progress from the dark prime to the highest enlightenment, from savagery to civic organization, from egoism to altruism. . . . The method will be to use living peoples in their accustomed avocations as our great object lesson.”

Authorities shipped to St. Louis indigenous people from Alaska and the Philippines, pygmies from Africa and giants from Patagonia, and many famous Native Americans, as well; my grandmother, age seven, encountered Geronimo there, a pathetic figure in an Apache chief’s regalia displayed on a platform. Given ten cents by her mother, she paid him for his autograph, which he painfully scratched in block letters on an index card, whereupon Geronimo took her dime to another booth for a piece of apple pie. Roosevelt and his daughter Alice (whom my grandmother also met at the fair) toured approvingly, the president having sent word ahead via William Howard Taft, then secretary of war, to have the Filipino savages dressed in properly modest clothing (they wore bright silk trousers until the fair’s Board of 
Lady Managers certified loincloths as acceptable and more in keeping with the exhibit’s authenticity). Native people camped out for display according to a plan designed to show the relationship of their racial types. Scientists extensively measured and tested these people while exhibiting them—their physical size, senses, abilities, intelligence—all of which, apparently, proved the superiority of whites. Some human specimens who died were sent for dissection; the brains of three Filipinos were collected by the Smithsonian.

By the time of the San Francisco fair in 1915, the racists had shifted focus from justifying white conquest over other races to efficiently using the natural resources the dominant culture had thereby obtained. As gardeners and foresters would thin weak genetic strains and nurture the strong, so eugenic campaigners called for planned racial improvement through sterilization of people deemed inferior, beginning with anyone with a disability, and encouraged breeding by the racially superior. In War Against the Weak, Edwin Black describes how the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged the formation of an American Breeding Association that included research on humans, with funding and support from the Carnegie Institution, the Harriman railroad fortune, and the founders of the Kellogg cereal company, among others. The former president of Stanford University convened the Second National Conference on Race Betterment at the San Francisco fair, and the Race Betterment Foundation mounted an exhibit, with pictures of its illustrious supporters, including Harvard University president Charles Eliot and Gifford Pinchot.

Pinchot had entered the eugenics movement during the Roosevelt administration, joining several of the president’s other friends. He solicited contributions from scientists and social activists advocating eugenics for a three-volume National Conservation Commission report to the president at the end of his term in 1909. Roosevelt transmitted the report to Congress with the statement that it was “one of the most fundamentally important documents ever laid before the American people.”

The report’s volume on “National Vitality, Its Waste and Conservation,” by a friend of Pinchot’s, Yale economist Irving Fisher, reads like a manifesto of the progressive political movement that Roosevelt sought to lead, and its words were echoed in the New Nationalism speech the following year. Ten multifaceted recommendations called for a national administration of public health; an end to air and water pollution; food and restaurant inspection; worker safety and child labor regulation; working hour restrictions; health and safety inspection of prisons, asylums, factories, and schools; antidrug and -alcohol laws; safe drinking water; enforcement of antispitting laws; improved sewage and garbage removal; pest control; building safety inspection; school nurses and health instruction; universal athletic training; healthful changes in clothing, architecture, ventilation, food preparation, and sexual hygiene; elimination of poverty, vice, and crime. And then, recommendation ten: “eugenics, or hygiene for future generations,” with forced sterilization or marriage prohibition for people with epilepsy or mental disabilities, and for criminals, the poor, and “degenerates generally.” The report called for the creation of a new social norm benefiting eugenically favored marriages, making “degenerate” marriages as taboo as incest. “The problem of the conservation of our natural resources is therefore not a series of independent problems, but a coherent, all-embracing whole,” it concluded. “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.”

More than a dozen legislatures passed eugenic laws over the next ten years, which, by 1970, had authorized forced sterilization of sixty-four thousand Americans with mental illnesses, epilepsy, disabilities, or criminal records, or who were simply poor. At least thirty states passed laws forbidding marriage of eugenically unfit men and women and twenty-eight outlawed interracial marriages, including six that put antimiscegenation in their constitutions. Those marriage laws stood until 1967, when a Virginia couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, validated their marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court—after a county sheriff had burst into their bedroom with a flashlight and arrested them, despite a District of Columbia marriage certificate hanging on the wall. Four states also prohibited sexual relations between Native Americans and whites.

Roosevelt was worried about the loss of a special American quality of strength and ingenuity that supposedly had evolved among whites on the frontier. As eastern European and Jewish immigrants flooded into the country with their big families, and with the birthrates of white Protestant Americans declining, he warned of impending “race suicide.” Roosevelt’s ideal American family lived on a farm with six white children—and less procreation represented a failure of patriotism and a moral flaw, a rejection of the basic responsibilities instilled in men and women by nature.  He dispatched Pinchot to study the problem with the Country Life Commission. Continuing that work, the American Eugenics Society, one of various such organizations to which Pinchot belonged, sponsored hundreds of Fitter Family contests at rural fairs, wherein couples would take intelligence and physical tests and submit to medical exams to become certified as worthy for breeding.

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.”

HOW DO WE MAKE SENSE of this behavior? How could progressives who worked for conservation, national health insurance, and the rights of workers adopt an ideology of hatred against the weak?

In some ways, the inconsistencies reflect the diversity of a temporary political coalition. A lot of money and establishment power backed the eugenics supporters—a list that included John Kellogg, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Alexander Graham Bell, and many eminent anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists, including the founder of the movement, Francis Galton, who was Charles Darwin’s cousin. Joining with them was smart politics. Roosevelt wanted women to stay home with large families; Margaret Sanger, the mother of Planned Parenthood, wanted smaller families and gender equality—but both were involved with the eugenics movement. A desire for power is hardly an excuse, however, especially for powerful opinion leaders such as Roosevelt and Pinchot, who constantly invoked moral authority for their policies.

Another excuse: Roosevelt and Pinchot believed in science and expertise, and eugenics seemed scientific. The idea that the races are fundamentally different came from the creator of taxonomy himself, Carl Linnaeus, who in 1735 categorized human beings as white, black, red, yellow, or wild (Homo sapiens ferus). In the 1850s, before the rise of eugenics, according to Sven Lindqvist in his book “Exterminate All the Brutes,” some European scientists declared the “inferior races” naturally destined for extinction, and reasoned that helping that process along could only be moral. While the true superiority of European colonial armies lay in their weaponry, not their genes or culture, this ideology promoted genocidal slaughter of people in Africa, South America, the South Pacific, and Asia, and the theft of land from the victims. Charles Darwin witnessed this kind of warfare in South America and abhorred it, but nonetheless toyed with the idea of evolutionary differences between races. Darwin’s followers extended his theories to identify racial heredity as the cause of crime and immorality, and thus to justify genocide as a way of cleansing the gene pool of vice.

The flaws in these theories were evident in Roosevelt’s day. The eugenicists’ own work supporting genetic claims of racial differences was flimsy and unsubstantiated. G. K. Chesterton, Clarence Darrow, H. L. Mencken, and other less famous writers grasped the errors and pointed them out. Pinchot’s own conservation commission report, in the volume written by Fisher, contained statements an intelligent person should have seen through, such as those that blamed the demise of American Indians and Hawaiian Islanders on their own sexual immorality—rather than the government-sanctioned violence and theft of land justified by the racists’ own theories.

Madison Grant, the founder of the Bronx Zoo and a groundbreaking conservationist, wrote one of the most influential eugenics books, The Passing of the Great Race, which would be laughable if it weren’t so revolting. In pseudoscientific language, Grant denies the very right to life of members of other races, using as evidence nothing more than his own prejudiced stereotypes. In Grant’s final analysis, white Americans were not racist enough: “They lack the instinct of self-preservation in a racial sense. Unless such an instinct develops their race will perish, as do all organisms which disregard this primary law of nature.”

This goal of creating a more racist society informed much of the cultural work of the institutions led by Roosevelt and Pinchot’s peers—not only the world’s fairs but the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, and others. Grant was an influential friend to the president and phrases and ideas from his writing crept into Roosevelt’s. Oddly, the improvement of the dominant race meshed with the New Nationalism’s utopia of a merit-based society. Without money or class to distinguish them, the sexual attraction between men and women would be guided only by natural selection. Those unbiased choices would automatically sort mates by the proper eugenic criteria, matching the best to the best—white to white, intelligent to intelligent, and so on. That this absurd notion was considered a basis for social policy reveals the extent of the collectivism envisioned in Pinchot’s brave new world.

The program Roosevelt advanced in his New Nationalism speech called for a stronger sense of national affiliation than ever before, a feeling of membership powerful enough to allow the federal government to regulate daily life, to curtail use of resources in favor of the future, and to redistribute income and inheritance to create economic equality. He asked for cooperation on a grand scale. In theory, the idea makes sense that racism could glue together a national identity capable of incorporating the rest of progressivism. To buttress a group’s willingness to cooperate, enhance the members’ sense of belonging and their hostility toward nonmembers—teach them that they’re special, superior, and under threat. Bind together an American majority by equating its white racial dominance with Americanism.

I’m not saying Pinchot or Roosevelt schemed dishonestly to increase American racism. Roosevelt’s philosophy could be inconsistent—he also spoke eloquently of the ability of nationalism to transcend race. The evidence suggests that Pinchot and Roosevelt rode along with the eugenicists rather than led their movement. But eugenic ideas slid frictionlessly into Pinchot’s worldview, a rigidly moralistic construct of conservation, efficiency, and merit. And that construct of ideas worked politically, for a while.

Eugenics thrived in America until discredited by the revelation of the Nazi death camps it had helped inspire. Grant’s book particularly incited Hitler, who wrote him a fan letter calling it his “Bible” before inscribing its hatred upon the flesh of millions of people.  (The same 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.) World War II’s horrors saved our country from going farther down the eugenic path, but Roosevelt died before that happened, and Pinchot’s life carried him in a new direction. By the 1930s Pinchot had become a champion of the poor and admirer of indigenous cultures, and he spoke out early against German anti-Semitism.

But words live on without their authors. The concepts of eugenics are far from dead today, as a quick Internet search will reveal. There’s a hangover for conservation, too. 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. We’re liberal and say the right things, but in the 1980s and ’90s, mainstream environmental organizations debated opposition to immigration, using arguments that differed in little but terminology from those eugenicists would have used. 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.

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 paper “The Tragedy of the Commons,” describing the grim fate faced by unmanaged natural resources such as open-access fisheries, influenced a generation of environmental thinking with its perspective that only a powerful, coercive state could save greedy people from themselves. But Hardin’s real concern was the doomsday prediction of Third World population growth (a prediction that has proven overblown and simplistic). In the 1970s he opposed humanitarian aid to poor countries, hoping to stop their population increases through starvation and disease, and opposed immigration to preserve America as an island of wealth and environmental quality. Hardin believed compassion was a weakness that was bound to be eliminated by natural selection.

In the 1980s, Hardin’s writings helped form an anti-immigration branch of the environmental movement, which shared many members with organizations that advocated for laws requiring the use of English only. Enough environmentalists shared this point of view to bring about a highly publicized national vote by members of the Sierra Club to oppose immigration in 1998. The proposal failed, but the existence of the debate suggests the durability of the links between racism, nationalism, and conservation. The connections don’t by themselves undercut calls for conservation or implicate anyone as prejudiced simply for wanting to protect nature. But they do illuminate the ethical hazards that come with the kind of power Roosevelt sought to accomplish his goals. Without justice and equality, conservation can become, rather than an intrinsic good, a part of a greater evil.

IT WAS IN AN IMPROBABLE PLACE that I first learned about these troubling connections. I was attending a cultural heritage week in a tiny Alaska Native village in Prince William Sound doing research for my book The Fate of Nature. In a garage, a carver and counselor from the village of Port Graham, Jim Miller, was teaching teens to work with wood, leaning over his knife in a folding metal chair while chatting about the meaning of their Chugach culture.

Miller brought up the Nazis in one of our first conversations. He didn’t distinguish between Nazi genocide and the genocide against Native Americans. In the eugenicists’ world, Jews and Eskimos each were merely a lower rung—writing in 1915, Henry Fairfield Osborn, an influential president of the American Museum of Natural History, used the supposed impossibility of educating Eskimos as a basis of his scientific argument that northern Europeans represented a higher step in evolution. Jim struggles against this ideology every time he consults photographs of traditional art to inform his carving; anthropologists stripped the region of the originals a century ago and took them to big city museums. Jim also encounters this ideology in his counseling practice, with men and women who have internalized the lessons of inferiority and carry on the oppression against themselves, through depression, self-destructive anger, and alcohol abuse. Miller believes community healing depends on reclaiming personal value.

The racists remain his adversary every day, even in the village clinic where Jim works and where we later talked about eugenics. “We think that’s history,” he said, “but what’s the trickle-down? In this building there is very free and easy access to birth control. Any type of birth control you can imagine, and if you still find yourself pregnant, there is free abortion. There’s no polite way to say it—to cut down on breeding. It’s not just accessible, it’s promoted. Kill your baby. And when you talk about values changing, when you no longer see your children as a blessing, that is some really bad stuff.”

I felt uncomfortable. I support free birth control and legal abortion. I had to stop and think. It’s true the eugenicists debated how to promote family planning among the inferior but not the dominant races. It’s true free family planning services often focus on poor and minority communities. Historians have documented—as neither Jim nor I then knew—that some of today’s major organizations for population control grew directly from the eugenics movement, like branches on a family tree. As Jonathan Peter Spiro points out in his chilling book Defending the Master Race, “the organizers of Planned Parenthood, the Population Reference Bureau, and the Population Association of America were all former eugenicists. Similarly, the first director of the Population Council (the organization funded by John D. Rockefeller III to promote family planning in the Third World) was eugenicist Frederick Osborn.”

Good motives inspired this population-control work—to save nature and improve human existence.  But the eugenicists had precisely the same motives. I wouldn’t charge family planning advocates with racism, but I’m not a victim of genocide. Victims shouldn’t have to analyze the motives of their oppressors. Once our scientists and philanthropists unleashed this monstrous hatred, it lived and transmuted uncontrolled, deforming society itself, and now, somehow, the descendants of slaves and displaced Indians are partly responsible for our redemption—by forgiving us and by loving themselves.

Many Alaska Natives remain hostile to environmentalists, despite often sharing their goals. Some environmentalists’ elitism, purism, and good-versus-evil worldviews still reflect the attitudes of their intellectual ancestors. Norms live in the culture like genes, manifesting themselves unexpectedly, the way a child’s big ears appear from an ancestor of whom no picture or name remains. We’ve forgotten the fathers of eugenics, but not their moral tone, as pure knights of conservation fighting the corrupt and degenerate wasters of nature.

Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech helped introduce that rhetoric, with language that has not lost its inspirational ring:

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.

But the politics of division can’t help the Earth now. Nature is endangered by threats that come from no specific villain or location. The oceans grow warmer and more acidic, marine mammals are contaminated, dead zones spread, plastic debris flips from wave tops to beaches and into the guts of birds. No one is innocent.

Categories won’t help us—nation, race, good, and evil—for they have little to do with humanity’s need to fit within a global ecological niche. Power won’t help us either. Power itself is a good deal of the problem, as coercion divides the people who must ultimately work together. Besides, the powerful have never instigated the kind of social transformation we now require. The solution has to come up from the people, through persuasion, enlightenment, and the creation of new norms, until the powerful are swept irresistibly along in the new social reality. 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.

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. 

Orion publishes six thoughtful, inspiring, and beautiful issues a year,
supported entirely by our readers – we're completely ad-free!

Please consider donating to help us continue to explore the future of nature.

Charles Wohlforth is a lifelong Alaska resident and the author of The Whale and the Supercomputer, which won the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology. This article is adapted from The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth, a 2010 publication of Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press, and is used by permission.

Book  Image

→   Purchase from

→   Purchase from an independent bookstore

Article Resources