John Muir and Gifford Pinchot represent the two strains of environmentalism in the United States -- and most of us think like both of them. We want nature pristine and undisturbed, but we also rely on its resources and understand the need to use care in extracting them.
The two rival strands of American environmentalism – nature untouched versus nature managed – can be traced back to John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.
Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, was a purist. Brought up in a strict religious household, he found spiritual uplift in wilderness, especially in the American West. The mountains and streams of the Sierra Nevada were his church; the forest was sacred. He wanted nature reserves left alone and believed the only resource humans should harvest from them was the restoration of the soul.
Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest Service, was pragmatic. The son of a wealthy developer of land and lumber, he saw forests and wild lands as assets to be exploited – albeit carefully and with consideration of the needs of future generations. Conservation, to him, was not about sequestration and prohibition. It was husbandry on a grand scale.
Let’s be honest. It is impossible to choose either philosophy exclusively. A cathedral of pines is at least as magnificent as Notre Dame. No skyscraper can compare to a mountainside bathed in sunrise. An alpine lake happened upon after a long hike; a sea of undulating prairie grasses; a waterfall – almost any waterfall – these are psalms for the human heart.
And how do humans get to experience them? Probably by burning nature’s hydrocarbons, drinking its water, and somewhere along the way employing its minerals and timber in support of life and livelihood. We may drive a hybrid, choose organic vegetables, and scrupulously recycle, but even the greenest of us has to admit that natural resources feed the superstructure of the civilization in which we live.