John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club and the inventor of the modern American conservation movement. He was instrumental in preserving some of our nation's natural wonders. And now, some top environmental thinkers say John Muir's legacy is stupid.
I was surprised to hear this, too! It seems rather harsh, at first glance. But the LA Times notes that a UCLA conference being held on Muir's legacy today is not full of unrestrained praise for him—it prominently features some bold thinkers saying that his way of thinking is "not useful any more."
These modern anti-Muirs are not developers or right wingers, but some of the top scholars and thinkers on sustainability and environmentalism in America. Their criticism is not so much that Muir was wrong in his day—after all, we wouldn't have all these nice national parks without him—but instead that his ethic of conservation of unspoiled nature has now become outmoded and elitist, in a time when Americans increasingly live urban lives. From the LAT:
To Christensen and others, however, Muir's notion that immersing people in "universities of the wilderness" — such as Yosemite — sends the message that only awe-inspiring parks are worth saving, at the expense of smaller urban spaces.
Critics also say Muir's vision of wilderness is rooted in economic privilege and the abundant leisure time of the upper class.
Does it? Does Muir's fondness for preservation really "send the message" that only national parks are worthwhile, and not urban parks? Does it not seem a bit small-minded to pretend that environmentalists and conservationists and advocates of green space should have to choose between conservation of natural lands and urban parklands? That seems rather like a false choice that opponents of preservation would love to have advocates of preservation believe they have to make, rather than a real choice that needs to be made in the real world.
Furthermore, yes, certainly, there is some level of economic privilege associated with being able to regularly visit our nation's national parks. But that's not the park's fault. Conservation of natural land is a gift that keeps on giving. Even if the poor of today are unable to enjoy our national parks, their children and grandchildren may be able to. The parks will still be there! To say that "it is not economically feasible for many Americans to enjoy our national parks" is not to argue against conservation—it is to argue for making the majority of American more economically prosperous. I would vote for socialist redistribution of economic resources over a move away from land conservation any day.
America has economic inequality problems. Is that John Muir's fault? John Muir was not a perfect man. Who gives a shit? He left this nation with a great gift: millions and millions of acres of preserved unspoiled natural land. What we do with it, and how we ensure that all Americans are able to share in it, is our problem. To the extent that John Muir's legacy is the awareness of the importance of conserving natural lands, it is as relevant as ever. (Go to any beautiful natural area that is being rapidly developed into condos and chain stores if you have any doubts about that.) Preserving the legacy of John Muir is not dangerous. Abandoning it is.