Miles A. Powell


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

Cover Interview of January 11, 2017


By drawing associations between white American vigor and the nation’s wild lands, these conservationists set the stage for an enduring divide between the U.S. environmental movement and the country’s poor and nonwhite people. This is unfortunate because most environmental activists today almost certainly do not share the racial views of their predecessors. Indeed, many environmental organizations are now seeking ways to diversify their membership and broaden their support base.

These historical legacies are difficult to overcome, though. When the Sierra Club toyed with adding immigration restriction to its agenda in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it faced accusations of racism and xenophobia. Most of the advocates of this policy were likely acting on a perceived correlation between human population growth and increased environmental impact. According to this perspective, the backlash they encountered would have seemed perplexing and surprising. When these proposals were placed in the context of the history described above, though, the reaction made perfect sense.

With Vanishing America, I do not seek to devalue the immense accomplishments of the historical actors under scrutiny. These conservationists foresaw the danger facing many of the nation’s birds, fish, game, and plants, and articulated sophisticated arguments for their preservation. They helped achieve important and necessary reforms that likely prevented the extinction of the American bison, California condor, and other iconic species. I do, however, hope that by revealing American conservation’s often exclusionary and racist past, this book will help set the stage for a more inclusive and effective environmental dialogue moving forward. It’s time for a new environmental movement, one involving a wider range of voices, and devoted to preserving a broader vision of nature.