Episode 155: How the American Settler-Colonial Project Shaped Popular Notions of ‘Conservation’

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“Among these central ranges of continental mountains and these great companion parks…lies the pleasure-ground and health-home of the nation,” wrote journalist Samuel Bowles in 1869. “Mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life,” mused naturalist John Muir in 1901. “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst,” opined writer Wallace Stegner in 1983.

North American and European traditions of conservationism, especially those in the U.S., are endlessly celebrated in Western media, with figures like Teddy Roosevelt and John James Audubon placed at the forefront. They’re not without their merits, especially at a time when some of the world’s most powerful countries refuse to take action on climate change. What often goes underexamined or ignored, though, is the deeply racist, settler-colonial history–and very much still the present– that has informed the “conservationist” movement in the US and much of the North Atlantic.

What have been and still are the ecological and human costs, particularly for Indigenous and Black people in the US, of this settler-colonial ‘conservation’ movement? Why, in the American collective memory, is the ‘conservation movement’ often credited to powerful white figures of the 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the extreme environmental and social destruction that they helped caused? And why should there be a need for a settler-driven conservation movement when the original inhabitants of, what we now know as the US and Canada already very often already had systems of ‘conservationism’ in place?

On this episode, we study the racist origins of Western conservation movements, primarily in the United States; how the conservation movement and romanticization of nature have served the settler-colonial project; how these histories continue to inform certain currents of the mainstream climate activism of the present; and what an inclusive, decolonial understanding of environmental conservation can look like.

Our guest is UConn professor Prakash Kashwan.

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