Thursday, April 28, 2011

ASEH 2011 Conference Review, Day 2: Friday April 15

For the first session, 8:30-10:00, I attended a panel entitled, "The European Experience with Sustainable Practices in the Later Middle Ages." Not exactly Gilded Age or Progressive Era material, but I do teach a Western Civ I class and we just covered the Middle Ages, so this panel grabbed my interest. Richard Hoffman covered the ecological crisis of the 14th century and argued that we should drop the use of crisis and use the concept of a tipping point instead as a descriptive term. He further argued that much of the reason for famine and disease in the awful 14th century had less to do with overuse of land, as has been supposed by historians, and more to with climate change, rainfall pattern changes, and volcanic activity. In other words, factors well beyond anyones control. There is much here I can use in my class next time I teach it. The other panelists focused on the medieval laws regarding land use and the sustainability of the use of woodlands. Taken together they argue that there were some sustainable values, both enshrined in law and through popular practice. Thus, the panel can be said to have collectively argued that Middle Age era Europeans were better stewards of the land than previously thought.

For the second session, 10:30 to noon, I attended a panel entitled, "Protestantism and Environmental History." I selected this session for two reasons. First, Mark Stoll was presenting a paper and I find his study of the relationship between religion and environmentalism to be quite interesting. Second, in my dissertation on William Temple Hornaday (and the same will be true in my upcoming biography) I make the case that his religious upbringing left an indelible stamp on his worldview which, in turn, had a profound effect on his conservation ideology. Susan Bratton showed how both pioneer churches and more modern mega churches in Texas shaped their land. Neal Pogue described how the environmental movement lost the conservative Protestants (who leaned towards moderate conservation)in the early 1970s with neo-Malthusian calls for birth control and neo-pagan worship of the earth (as church going Christians often perceived it). Mark Stoll examined the religious roots of John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman to determine if there was a connection between their sect and nature philosophy. He concluded, yes, there is a strong connection. Burroughs the Baptist, for example, was not a conservationist largely because his religious heritage was one of individualism. The Baptist tradition did not look favorably to government or to collective action.

Then it was off to the bird watching tour of south mountain and Audubon Rio Salado Bird Preserve. We saw lots of things. Being partial to small songbirds, I think my favorite was a verdin.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

ASEH 2011 Conference Review, Day 1: Thursday April 14

I departed Denver in a snow storm and left barely enough time to get to the gate. It was only the start of a very hurried day.

The first panel I attended was "Science, Knowledge, and Nature." Panel is perhaps a misnomer because there was only one presenter, Michael Rawson. The other panelist had to cancel. If Rawson's name looks vaguely familiar, it might be because he was a Pulitzer prize finalist for his book, Eden on the Charles. His paper focused on the utopian works of the scientific revolution. He also focused on the lunar utopian books. That stunned me. I had no idea such a genre existed in the 17th century. But after the invention of the telescope imaginations turned to the moon which became a convenient location to displace visions of an ideal society. As I rushed to check into my room I wondered if this classifies as a form of science fiction, but I did not see Rawson for the remainder of the conference and thus could not ask his opinion.

After Rawson's panel, I attended the president's luncheon where Harriet Ritvo gave her outgoing address entitled, "Where the Wild Things Were." There was a controversy within ASEH when Arizona passed its immigration bill. Some members wanted to cancel or move the conference. As president Ritvo made the decision to stay in Phoenix, and this is probably why her address focused on immigrants. She did not speak of people, but of animal immigrants and their reception. It was very interesting and she has a very wry style packed with humor surrounding word play and usage. She covered such animal immigration issues as the English sparrow in the US and rabbits in Australia. She also compared and contrasted the experiences of camels in Australia (they flourished and are an enormous wild herd) and the US (they did not survive in the wild). In the end she concluded that there is a connection between the attitudes towards animals and such things as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and National Origins Act (1924). I agree and have thought so for a long time. Although Ritvo does not mention him, no one better exemplifies the connection between nativism and conservation as Madison Grant, author of racist books and wildlife protection legislation. There was something about purity that crossed the line for both humans and animals to many of these early wildlife conservationists.

Next I attended back-to-back panels on "Biography's Role in Environmental History." As a biographer myself, this topic strongly appealed to me. The individuals covered were Mira Lloyd Dock (a progressive era forester from Pennsylvania), Terry Tarleton Hershey (a Houston socialite and NIMBY activist), Bob Marshall (founder of the Wilderness Society), Ynes Mexia (botanist and explorer), Mary Treat (late 19th century nature education advocate), and the Romero family (early Hispanic pioneers in the Southwest). Of this group, Marshall was the only one I had heard of before. Barry Muchnick argued that too much attention has been given to Marshall's extreme physicality at the expense of fully exploring how other factors shaped his environmentalism. Also, that it puts some distance between Marshall and the average person who cannot relate to Marshall's legendary hiking ability. I think he has a good point, but he needs a good alternative, and, I imagine, one cannot escape Marshall's physicality entirerly. I was amazed by the works of Dock and Mexia because they achieved such success as women in male dominated fields. Discussions on sources was equally interesting. It left me wondering about many people are off the record so to speak because they did not leave enormous collections of documents behind. Then I think of William T. Hornaday (the subject of my biography) who created an enormous collection, but did so less for posterity and more for the younger of his contemporaries. In other words, as he nurtured and educated a younger generation of wildlife conservationists (Irving Brant and Rosalie Edge to name two) he used his scrapbooks and letters as an archive of sorts.

After this panel, it was off to the Cronon presentation that I covered in the last posting. All in all it was a busy, but enjoyable and enlightening day.

Monday, April 18, 2011

William Cronon's "The Riddle of Sustainability"

On Thursday evening (April 14) William Cronon gave a plenary address at the ASEH conference entitled, "The Riddle of Sustainability: A Surprisingly Shorty History of the Future." A professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Cronon is one of the most distinguished figures among environmental historians. In fact, he is the incoming president of the American Historical Association. Despite the fact that he has written several historical classics, such as Changes in the Land (1983) and Nature's Metropolis (1991), many people today might recognize him more for his recent political travails. He has been at the center of controversial political situation in Wisconsin and has been critical of the Republican Party. After he wrote an editorial for the New York Times, the Wisconsin Republicans filed a FOIA to obtain his e-mails. You can followup if you are interested, on Cronon's blog, Scholar as Citizen ( This most recent history was alluded to, but not dwelled upon.

In his lecture, Cronon opened up with a discussion of sustainability. The word sustain, has very deep roots, but sustainability does not. It is a very recent world. He discovered this through a search of Project Gutenburg. I think this is a great assignment for the Culturnomics team that I wrote about in an earlier posting. Cronon then addressed why it emerged so suddenly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He concludes that there were several factors. On the political level the Republicans ceded the environment and most conservation policies to the Democrats. Polls show Americans don't identify as environmentalists, even if they overwhelmingly support National Parks and clean water. In other words, there is something divisive about the term. Sustainability provides a bridge around that troublesome word and identification. Both right and left can meet in the sustainable middle. Second, rising concerns on global warming and the a 1987 UN report led many to look for a formula for having our cake and eating it too. Sustainability became a method to maintain prosperity while also avoiding resource depletion. It offers a very rosy scenario where it appears to be more a matter of tinkering than of really radical changes. Cronon cited Walmart's sustainability plan as an example to keep profits while still addressing resource use.

A couple of the audience members asked if corporate and political interests could really be trusted to carry on a socially just version of sustainability. Cronon seemed very optimistic. But on the way home I pondered less the questions than the direction of the questioners. They were on the left and critical of the corporate side of sustainability. On the other side, I recalled a recent National Review article referring to hybrid cars as "vanity" cars. It was a harsh criticism, but there is some justification in it to the extent that one can put solar panels on their roof, but one has to have a lot of money to lay out in order to do it. Not everyone can afford it, even with a credit and even if it will pay for itself in the end. This to me suggests that sustainability might not hold the edges. The left fears heartless corporatism, and the populist right perceives it as elitist feel goodism.

After this lecture the conferences panels tended to focus more on sustainability. I did not. Hornaday was so convinced that most American wildlife directly faced mass extinction that any discussion of ecology (or proto-sustainability) was way too premature. The slaughter of wildlife had to stop or there would be nothing to sustain or manage. It was that simple to him.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Our Vanishing Wildlife, 1913

I just returned from the American Society of Environmental History in Phoenix, Arizona, where I delivered a paper on William Temple Hornaday's Our Vanishing Wildlife. As you may recall from my last posting, Hornaday was the director of the Bronx Zoo. But, he was also a very influential wildlife conservationist. I will post more about the conference throughout this week, but will begin by posting my paper. I did not go crazy with sourcing, let me know if you have any questions!

Gregory J. Dehler, Our Vanishing Wildlife: William T. Hornaday’s Case for Wildlife Protection. Delivered at the American Society of Environmental History, Phoenix, Arizona, Saturday April 16, 2011.

Throughout the Fall of 1912 William Temple Hornaday, whose day job was director of the Bronx zoo, labored his nights away on a conservation book that became Our Vanishing Wildlife. “As a matter of fact,” he wrote to fellow conservationist Henry Shoemaker of Pennsylvania in September 1912, “I am tired enough all the time but after I have written at my game protection book as long as I can keep awake, I am too tired to do anything but to go to sleep.” (Hornaday Papers, Widlife Conservation Society) The book that the sleep deprived Hornaday produced was a unique contribution to the literature and print culture of the progressive era conservation canon. His book differed widely from any existing work on the subjects of conservation or wildlife. Previous books by wildlife conservationists, like T. Gilbert Pearson’s Stories of Bird Life (1901), to cite one example, sought to gain sympathy for animals with sentimental portraits. Books that mentioned wildlife conservation more directly tended to incorporate the advocacy material into texts focused more broadly on the larger topics of hunting or zoology. An excellent model of this style is American Duck Shooting by George Bird Grinnell (1910). Despite the fact that he was a forceful advocate of conservation for over thirty years, Grinnell buried the subject of conservation at the end of his book. One has to wade through 582 pages of material on ducks, geese, swans, and how to hunt them until getting to the twenty page conservation section where he championed many of the same laws Hornaday would demand three years later. Our Vanishing Wildlife differed even more sharply from the generalized conservation works. Gifford Pinchot’s Fight for Conservation (1910) and the Charles Van Hise’s Conservation of Natural Resources (1910), for example, do not mention wildlife at all. Although this is a small sample of its contemporary literature, it is representative and demonstrative of the uniqueness of Our Vanishing Wildlife as a book devoted exclusively to wildlife and its conservation. Hornaday’s book also differed markedly in tone and style, resembling more the voice and techniques of the muckraking journalist than the conservationist or scientist.

In this paper I will examine the message of this unique contribution to the print culture of the environmental movement and the techniques used to convey it.

He told his readers in the very first sentence of the book: “The writing of this book has taught me many things. Beyond question we are exterminating our finest species of mammals, birds, and fishes according to the law!” (Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, ix) His first sentence and the first of many exclamation points. As much as he might have claimed to have learned during the research of the book, the truth is that he formed most of his underlying arguments and theses as to the causes of wildlife decline, the seriousness of the situation as he saw it (which was apocalyptic in nature), and the reforms he deemed necessary to reverse it, all formed in his mind long before he sat down to write the most famous of his one dozen books. As early as his 1887 monograph, “The Extermination of the American Bison”, published as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Report, Hornaday studied the deadly forces driving the buffalo to extinction. He concluded that the forces behind extermination were the demands of the market and the constantly improving firearms and transportation technologies. The difference between Our Vanishing Wildlife and “Extermination of the American Bison,” is that Hornaday applied the same formula to every species, not just one, in 1913. This rationale for the decline of wildlife cast Hornaday in a decidedly Malthusian frame of mind, complete with the requisite gloom and doom pessimism that forecast mass extermination. He explained it in Our Vanishing Wildlife thusly: “There is not a single state in our country from which the killable game is not being rapidly and persistently shot to death, legally or illegally, very much more rapidly than it is breeding, with the extermination for the most of it close in sight. The statement is not open to argument; for millions of men know that it is literally true. We are living in a fool’s paradise.” (Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, p. ix)

Hornaday wrote Our Vanishing Wildlife to raise the alarm and awaken his fellow citizens from their fool’s paradise. To do this, he appealed to both the heads and hearts of his readers with a blistering barrage of facts, page after page, in a strident and moralistic prose, laden with exclamation points. A Sierra Club reviewer wrote, “Its burning and indignant pages remind me of the zeal of the old anti-slavery days when the force of great moral convictions won the day against greed and wrong.” (quoted in Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement, 150) No one who read this book would be able to claim they did not know the nature and scope of the danger facing American wildlife.

When it came to dealing with facts, Hornaday was in his element. To use the parlance of the 21st century, he was a policy wonk fully at home in the details of issues. Now he unleashed his encyclopedic store of information on a hitherto unexposed public. He hit his readers with the official number of game killed in Louisiana over a the course of a year, states that allowed the eating of wood duck, the number of hunting licenses issued in 1911 (1,486,228), the amounts of money each of the states spent on enforcement and propagation, copies of commendable wildlife laws, detailed accounts of feather sales figures from the London market, numbers of shotgun shells sold annually (775 million), just to illustrate with a small sample the type of data he employed to make his case for conservation. Then there were a variety of lists, including lists of extinct species, endangered species broken down by state, birds around the world being exterminated for the millinery industry, magazines and newspapers friendly to conservation, compilations of laws needed by state, etc. All of these precise numbers supported his argument that market forces and technology were driving wildlife to extinction with all the power and certainty of an enormous and amoral killing machine.

Despite his criticism of some of the latest firearms technology Hornaday was no Luddite. On the contrary he employed the latest publication techniques, Our Vanishing Wildlife included dozens of photographs to accompany the text. He further advanced his case for conservation with cartoons charts, graphs, and maps to demonstrate and visualize his arguments. In a way it was as close to a powerpoint presentation as one could get in January 1913.

Reviewers attributed the successful appeal of Our Vanishing Wildlife to this powerful use of his graphic material. The reviewer for The Auk wrote: “It is gratifying therefore at a time when the support of the entire country is necessary to the success of this movement to find a work such as Dr. Hornaday’s which in originality of illustrations and method of presentation, compels the attention of everyone whose hands it finds its way.” (W.S. “Hornaday’s ‘Our Vanishing Wildlife’” The Auk 30 (July 1913 443) In a more popular periodical, American Review of Reviews, George Gladden wrote of Our Vanishing Wildlife, “It is by all odds the most comprehensive and convincing presentation and discussion of the subject that has ever been produced.” (GG, “A Champion of WL” ARoR 48 Dec 1913 p. 698)

Hitting his readers with page after page of facts, graphs, charts, and graphic photographs he presented a forceful argument for the conservation of wildlife on moral grounds, which is to say humanity had a moral responsibility to protect wildlife from wanton destruction and unnecessary extinction. Not content to rest on emotional and moral strictures alone, Hornaday threw in the kitchen sink and appealed to the pocket book of every single American with a critical chapter dedicated to the amount of noxious insects birds consumed. Hornaday outlined his reasoning thusly: “The logic of the situation is so simple a child can see it. Short crops mean higher prices. If ten percent of our vegetable food supply is destroyed by insects, as certain as fate we will feel it in the increased cost of living.”(Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, p. 208) Citing the 1904 Department of Agriculture Yearbook, he claimed that waste from insects cost the economy over $750 million at a time when the GDP was a little over $33 billion. He used this line of reasoning to argue for support of the Weeks-Mclean bill, a sweeping proposal that would grant federal protection to all migratory birds. Of course, Hornaday had not discovered the connection between birds and insects. Like all the other facts in Our Vanishing Wildlife he pulled it from another source. In this case, pamphlets produced by the Biological Survey, but his genius was using it as a key message of Our Vanishing Wildlife and as the central point on which to rally the broad support of farmers, hunters, nature lovers, scientists, and urban consumers in favor of a controversial conservation measure.

The Weeks-McLean law was only one of many sweeping legal reforms he proposed in Our Vanishing Wildlife. Some aimed at hunting practices, such as an end to spring shooting and limitations on the use of pump and automatic shotguns. Other suggested reforms targeted the deadly grip of the market. He advised states to adopt New York’s model laws to prohibit the sale of game meat and plumage feathers, for example. To improve the chances of these laws being adopted the New York Zoological Society, who printed Our Vanishing Wildlife, sent copies gratis to important lawmakers. As Hornaday recounted to his friend former President Theodore Roosevelt: “The book has now gone to every member of every legislature now sitting in the United States, and every member of Congress. It will also go to every governor, Supreme Court Judge, game commissioner and state game warden.” (WTH to TR, 2/3/13, Theodore Roosevelt Papers) When Hornaday testified before the House Ways and Means Committee at the end of January 1913 on behalf of clause banning the importation of plumage for upcoming tariff revision, he referred Congressmen to specific pages in Our Vanishing Wildlife so they could read along in their copies. Wildlife protection advocates in the Congress appreciated the assistance they received from Hornaday. Senator George McLean, who led the successful fight in the Senate for the Weeks-McLean migratory bird protection bill that passed in March 1913, wrote to say: “The book arrived in the nick of time, and it put a fourteen-inch hole through the hull of the enemy side to side.” (Hornaday, Thirty Years War for Wildlife, 164)

Hornaday did not believe statutory solutions were enough to achieve the total reform he sought, especially considering the low level of enforcement of existing laws. He reminded readers in both the photographs and the text of Our Vanishing Wildlife that many of the seemingly excessive kills were indeed legal. He targeted the consciences of every American, aiming to instill a sense of moral responsibility in each of his fellow citizens. He wrote in the introduction, “We are weary of witnessing the greed, selfishness, and cruelty of ‘civilized’ man toward the wild creatures of the earth. We are sick of tales of slaughter and pictures of carnage. It is time for sweeping Reformation; and this is precisely what we demand.” (Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, p. x) Because he considered the market to be the decisive force driving wildlife towards extinction, more than hunters bore responsibility for the results. Anyone who ate game meat, wore feathered hats, or purchased fur products shared equal responsibility with the greediest market hunter. It is hard to gauge the effect this moral scolding had on his readers. Hornaday received letters from readers of all his books and there is nothing exceptional to suggest Our Vanishing Wildlife had a disproportionate impact on his readers. On the other hand, there are a few notable individuals. The most influential of whom a young forester recovering from Nephritis on his parent’s farm in Iowa named Aldo Leopold. Although his biographers disagree to the extent Hornaday’s moral message impacted Leopold, they do agree that it was an important, if immeasurable, influence upon the man who shaped the entire post-Word War II attitude toward the environment. (see for example, Curt Meine, Aldo Leopold and Julianne Lutz Nelson, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The First Escaped Snake

The recent escape of the Egyptian Cobra from the Bronx zoo certainly captured the attention of the newsmedia. Frankly I was surprised that this story would have so much appeal considering the multiple catastrophies in Japan and the kinetic military action in Libya. Maybe the idea of a killer snake lose in the nation's largest city had a suitably Biblical echo. Or, maybe, it was just a fun story, a break from the more serious stuff. Whatever it was, the story took on a life of its own as someone even tweeted as the snake. In the end it will probably turn out to be good for business at the zoo as seeing the prodigal snake might be the little extra incentive to boost gate receipts this summer.

The first thing I thought about when I heard of the escape was the story of the very first snake escape at the Bronx Zoo. Having written a masters thesis and PHD dissertation (and currently working on a biography for a university press) on William Temple Hornaday, the first director of the Bronx Zoo, I recalled the account from 1899, before the zoo even opened to visitors. Hornaday arrived at work in the morning to discover that a very long black python had escaped. With so many animals arriving on a daily basis to prepare for the grand opening, it was no surprise that there would be a few mistakes. In this case some carpenters inadvertently left a hole in the python crate. (Duh!) Hornaday, who had a nose for news, ordered the staff to keep quiet. It neither inspired confidence in the management of the zoo, nor a feeling of safety in local residents to have a 16 foot deadly snake on the prowl. Instead of informing the newspaper men, he organized his staff into a grand snake posse and searched the grounds of the zoo high and low. Fortunately, they recovered the snake later in the day under one of the buildings. Only later, did he share this account with the public.