David Stradling, ed. Conservation in the Progressive Era: Classic Texts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. xii + 112 pp. $12.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-98375-2.
Reviewed by Gregory J. Dehler (Front Range Community College)
Published on H-Environment (May, 2005)
The Progressive Era Environmental Values
Part of the Weyerhauser series, Conservation in the Progressive Era is a collection of brief documents related to the conservation movement in the early-twentieth century. Some of the selections are familiar and oft used, such as pieces by Gifford Pinchot, George Knapp, and Ellen Richards. Others, including selections by Samuel Gompers and Mary Ritter Beard, are not as widely known or read. A brief introduction includes a historical sketch. There is a bibliographic essay at the end.
The documents explore five aspects of conservation, each one represented in the book by a section containing between three and five selections. The first deals with conservation as a national policy in its broadest meaning. An excerpt from Gifford Pinchot's The Fight for Conservation (1910) lays out the doctrines of conservation and the greatest good for the greatest number. A selection from Pinchot's boss, friend, and sparring partner, Theodore Roosevelt, gives more force to the ideas of conservation. The third piece of the section, a selection by William Smythe, focuses on the need for irrigation to improve national economic efficiency. Originally written in 1899, Smythe influenced the debate around water usage in the arid west and contributed to the passage of the Newlands Reclamation Act in 1902. As the fourth segment of the section, Stradling selected a 1911 editorial from Ladies Home Journal which was favorable towards conservation. The editorial is written as if a mother asked her son to explain the term and is couched in more common terminology and easily understood concepts than Pinchot or Roosevelt. The final two selections, one by George Knapp and the other by H. J. M. Mattes, speak against conservation. They both argue that conservation is a dangerous step away from laissez faire and that the conservationists represent more hysterical rant and fear mongering than constructive statesmanship.
Part 2 focuses on wildlife conservation, an important part of the shift in environmental values. George Bird Grinnell focuses on the role of sportsmen and hunting in protecting wildlife. The second selection is an article by Mable Osgood Wright, penned for Bird Lore magazine in 1904, reminding her readers not to lose focus on state and community action. Stradling also includes an excerpt from William T. Hornaday's Our Vanishing Wildlife (1913) as the third reading. In contrast to Grinnell's economic arguments, Hornaday makes an emotional and moral appeal to save wildlife before imminent demise. The final piece is a selection from an autobiographical sketch by David Merrill, a rural hunter. The piece is interesting in the way it shows how changes in wildlife policy, often generated by urban sportsmen, caused great change for the rural folk whose livelihood became illegal by new laws and regulations. In recent literature, Louis Warren, The Hunter's Game (1997), and Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature (2001), deal with this tension in a manner more sympathetic to the so-called market hunters than previous historians. For this reason, the Hornaday piece--which is tame compared to his other writings--could have been more effective if, instead, Stradling had chosen one of Hornaday's more bombastic criticisms of the "market hunter" or "game hog" as an immoral and selfish force standing athwart moral progress.
Entitled "The Utility of 'Conservation,'" part 3 ties conservation to broader themes. This is something of a hodge-podge and pushes the boundaries of conservation to illustrate how the concept and term could be applied to fields outside of the traditional realms of forest and wildlife. For this reason, the reviewer found this the most interesting section in the book. There are five selections. Samuel Gompers includes labor as a natural resource that needs to be conserved and regulated. He argues that businesses who despoil the environment treat their workers in the same vein. The second selection is an article by J. Horace McFarland printed in Outlook magazine in 1909. McFarland's piece speaks to the division of the environmentalists of the period into economically driven conservationists, who wanted to better manage resources, and preservationists, who wanted to save wildlands for spiritual and aesthetic reasons. McFarland's piece is a preservationist critique of conservation policies and the failure of policy makers to take into account physical beauty as a resource. Mary Ritter Beard's article concerning urban planning is the third selection in this section of the book. Beard reminds the reader that conservation was not solely confined to the rural areas. A piece from Irving Fisher ties conservation of resources into the "vitality" of a society (p. 66). Fisher argues that the poor management of resources leads to disease, poverty, and crime which will destroy any society. The last selection, by Ellen Richards, comes from her 1911 book, Conservation by Sanitation. She makes the point that cleaner water equates to better health and more efficient use of the human resources of a society.
Part 4 is made up of four selections focusing on urban pollution, mainly smoke. Early historians focused on the timber, wildlife, and water resources. Only in the late 1980s did significant attention shift to urban pollution thanks to the works by William Wilson, Martin Melosi, and David Stradling. No student of the progressive era should have been terribly surprised by this, considering the importance of the urban middle class to reform. A speech by Charles Reed in April 1905 makes up the first reading of the section. Reed outlined the economic costs of smoke, from goods ruined to lost worker production due to illness. Reed argues that there is a strong connection between the physical and moral environments; one cannot be clean if the other is dirty. An article from Mrs. Ernest Kroeger dated 1912, in American City magazine, makes up the second selection. Kroeger spoke to the need to enforce regulations and prosecute violators. Herbert Wilson's, "The Cure for the Smoke Evil," another selection from American City magazine (1911), addresses the need for smokeless combustion of coal. Wilson's article differs from the others in that he looks at problems more from the technocratic and economic perspective than from the social aspects. The final selection, by Ernest Ohle, is a fragment of one of his writings from the Association of Engineering Societies journal dated 1915. Even more technocratic than Wilson, Ohle speaks to the need to address the specific inefficiencies in the coal burning power plants of the era.
Part 5 contains three selections and deals with the most divisive issue within the environmental movement during the progressive era--Hetch-Hetchy--which pitted utilitarian conservationists against aesthetic preservationists. The fact that the valley in question was inside a national park greatly added to the controversy. At the time, no one doubted that San Francisco needed a better water supply than the system in place. The first article, by Warren Olney, argues in favor of damming the Hetch-Hetchy valley. He argues that this is not a case of anti-environmentalists trying to turn back the clock, but a pragmatic decision based on meeting the needs of the citizens for cheap and plentiful water. Olney uses the progressive argument that placing the dam at Hetch-Hetchy under city management was a much more tolerable situation than having it held hostage by a private corporation. E. T. Parsons authored the second piece writing against the dam project. Both articles originally appeared in the same issue of Out West magazine in July 1909. Similar to the reasoning that many environmentalists use today in discussions over drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Parsons argues that a violation of protected status sets a dangerous and unnecessary precedent. Parsons also used arguments familiar to his contemporaries, in claiming that flooding Hetch-Hetchy would deprive the workingman a local and fairly cheap place of natural escape. The final selection is an excerpt from John Muir's The Yosemite (1912). Muir gives a very graphic account of the valley's beauty and natural wonderment and rails at the "devotees of ravaging commercialism" for wanting to destroy it. The excerpt closes with one of the most famous of Muir quotes: "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man" (p. 101).
As a whole, Stradling's selections offer some insights into the discussion of environmental values during the progressive era. First, both sides of an argument spoke the same common language. They compared costs, wrote of economic interests, and addressed the dichotomy between an individual right and the needs of the larger community. Some of the pieces use the same reasoning on both sides of the argument. Second, quality of life issues were always near the top of priorities. Even if couched in economic terms, they were thinking and talking of quality of life issues. One of the biggest strands of thinking in the progressive era was that the environment shaped those who lived in it. This thinking led to the creation of urban parks, better sanitation, public libraries, prohibition, and the vice crusades all aimed at increasing quality of life for the individual and the community. Finally, there is a timeless quality to the issues that the progressives confronted. Clean air, water, the sanctity of space, and wildlife would be prominent issues for the rest of the century and into the next.
Stradling's selections are well chosen. Throughout the book he mixes the pro and the con, the technocratic and the popular, and a wide-cross section of topics. For this reason and its brevity, Stradling's collection is well suited for the classroom. Anyone with an interest in the environmental values of the progressive era should read this work as well. It will be time well spent.
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Gregory J. Dehler. Review of Stradling, David, ed., Conservation in the Progressive Era: Classic Texts.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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