Miles A. Powell


On his book Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation

Cover Interview of January 10, 2017

A close-up

Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced in writing this book was presenting a balanced depiction of the celebrated conservationist and nature writer Aldo Leopold. Few people have thought more deeply about the human relationship to nature, and he presented his ideas in beautiful, flowing prose. He played a key role in an early-twentieth-century wilderness movement that set aside vast swaths of federal land in a somewhat pristine state (at least if we disregard historical ecological transformations propelled by Native Americans). For species requiring large ranges, like the grizzly bear, this may have played a key role in their preservation.

Yet Leopold’s love for wilderness had a troubling upshot. His pursuit of unpeopled spaces engendered a disdain for human population growth that sometimes involved callous disregard for the worth of a life. Fearful of producing “more strain on an overcrowded range,” he questioned the wisdom of providing medical aid or agricultural assistance to vulnerable people in the developing world. Leopold exchanged these ideas with the ecologist William Vogt, who made similar arguments in his bestselling book, Road to Survival. Lacking Leopold’s subtlety and using more overtly misanthropic language, Vogt encountered criticism for rekindling fears of “yellow peril”—the prospect of the nonwhite races of the world (especially Asians) swamping white nations through greater reproduction.

Interestingly, Leopold’s opposition to human crowding appears to have informed and been informed by his investigations of animal populations. Leopold’s most famous game management study centered on the deer of the Kaibab Forest in Arizona. He believed that their population had irrupted due to state-sponsored predator extermination before the deer overgrazed the landscape, propelling their own annihilation. Leopold and Vogt likened the extermination of wolves and cougars in the Kaibab to the eradication of disease and hunger among people of the developing world. In both instances, human interference threw the balance of nature off kilter, setting the stage for future environmental exhaustion. Such assertions failed to recognize that, in many instances, increasing affluence and security actually brought about a leveling of human population growth.