Review: Nature, the City, and the Origins of American Environmentalism

Benjamin Heber Johnson, Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) 311 pp. $40, ISBN: 9780300115505

By Alan Lessoff

Urban historians should take particular note of Benjamin Heber Johnson’s Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation, which returns the city to the center of U.S. environmental history. This approach is especially welcome since it has been decades since William Cronon and Samuel Hays showed the pervasive urban influence on how we see and shape the landscape. The very impulse to protect wilderness hinges on urban-based ways of perceiving, categorizing, and using land. Johnson draws on that approach to counter the still commonplace narrative that treats nature and the city as distinct and in opposition.

The first three chapters amount to a broad-ranging intellectual and cultural analysis, while the last three examine the specific policies and divisions that defined the views of conservation reformers. For Johnson, conservation was a web of thought and action in which influences, movements, and trends continuously interacted. It was shaped by everything from historic preservation to modernization of housing design to the growing demand for access to outdoor recreation to, more troublingly, eugenics, considered as a movement for the conservation of the white race.

Pinchot’s Inferno,” Udo J. Keppler, January 19, 1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By placing the ideas and quarrels of familiar figures as John Muir and Gifford Pinchot into a broad cultural and political context, Johnson underscores the inadequacy of dividing conservation reformers into wilderness preservationists on the one hand and technocratic resource managers on the other. In different ways, these reformers understood that they were engaged in a complicated effort to deal with the ways that industrial capitalism was wasting and destroying land, water, and animals. Muir, Pinchot and their contemporaries were mindful of George Perkins Marsh’s stern warning sounded as early as 1864 (Man and Nature) that “the rage for improvement” would end in barren waste.

According to Johnson, what stamped conservation as a distinctly progressive movement was the interplay, and frequently the conflict between, public sector and private interest initiatives, played out against growing doubts concerning the market as a force to advance the public good. Here, as with so many other lines of urban reform, the mindset of Henry George proved influential, for it was George who argued that monopoly capitalism had divorced urban populations from “the genial influences of nature.”

Dallas L. Sharp, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front, c. 1930, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For some conservationists like Dallas Lore Sharp, escape from malevolent capitalism represented by “the dark, gray city” (1911) might be found in the suburb, something of a compromise between city and countryside. But what of those who could not escape? Sanitary reformer and beautification activist Mira Lloyd Dock from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles minister Dana Bartlett, along with other conservationists, envisioned urban parks and spacious housing developments as a way to relieve urban residents’ isolation from nature. Their progressive vision of the “City Natural,” an updated version of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.’s “Arcadian” romanticism, sought not only to mollify working-class discontent, but also to promote socialistic and cooperative urbanism based on a garden city model.

51Uqxm48R0L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In affirming conservation as an urban-based movement, Johnson also emphasizes the degree to which the movement reflected a deep-seated anti-urbanism. Conservationists saw the ever-encroaching city as a threat to the natural world and considered methods of restraint. In dealing with such concerns, progressive conservationists at times embraced a wide variety of reforms including transportation planning, urban design, campaign finance reform, and expanded control of capitalism itself.

This excellent book deserves to become the standard history of the long-term origins of U.S. environmentalism. As we brace ourselves to deal with global warming, a worldwide ecological challenge tied to urbanized humanity, it makes sense to revisit these earnest if flawed reformers who understood the linkage between economic development, social justice, and environmental degradation.

Alan Lessoff is University Professor of History at Illinois State University in Normal, IL. From 2004 to 2014, he edited the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. His most recent book is Where Texas Meets the Sea: Corpus Christi and Its History (Austin, 2015).

Featured image (at top): A Glimpse of lake, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, N.Y., between 1905 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


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