The Human Environment: Grappling with the Complex History behind America’s Best Idea

by | Jun 17, 2021 | Justice

America has seen its share of environmental turmoil in the past five years. Our interns, the average age of whom is 20, entered early adulthood just as the struggles of Flint, Michigan, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the burning bush of California swept mainstream media. It would be easy for us to assume that US institutions are at their weakest point in decades.

The National Park system, however, is strong. There are 423 National Park sites, 63 of which are National Parks proper. These locations provide opportunities for visitors to learn about the environment, appreciate historical sites, and enjoy the great outdoors. The story of the National Parks is a complex one: from the Congressional establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 to the 1916 creation of the National Park Service, countless individuals have been instrumental in the advancement of what has come to be known as “America’s best idea.”

But how should a generation of leaders treat these accomplishments when so many involved were also champions of racist and colonialist philosophies? Can their contributions to society be measured without regard to their detractions? And what can privileged members of society do to make meaningful change when so much damage has already been done?

Madison Grant

These are some of the questions that Turning Green interns gather to answer in our weekly Diversity, Equity and Inclusion discussions. May 17th kicked off 8 weeks of hard work, reflection, and learning as the new group of nearly twenty student interns logged in remotely to begin working on a range of Turning Green programs. Intern Karina Zimmerman led the first DEI discussion on May 24, which encouraged the group to reflect on this article about the history of racism in the environmental movement.

“Disappointed, but not surprised” seemed to be the overall tone of our initial reactions to the narrative of Madison Grant, conservationist ally to Theodore Roosevelt and known white supremacist. These are the histories we should be taught in schools, but rarely are: it doesn’t reflect well on the country’s institutions to reveal how deeply ingrained white supremacy is in every aspect of our society. It may sound like an exaggeration, but it would be naïve to argue otherwise: even when an individual’s accomplishments in a field are seemingly unrelated to their political affiliations, their beliefs inform the decisions they make. 

Consider Grant, who wrote in 1909 about environmentalism that humanity’s mastery of the planet gave us “the responsibility of saying what forms of life shall be preserved.” By taking note of his other works, namely “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History,” readers will understand that Grant’s motivation to control and manipulate natural resources parallels his similar desires around race. 

Society is not a vacuum in which any decision can be made without context; thus, acknowledging Grant’s faults along with his contributions allow for a more complete understanding of both the individual and the society which molded him. However, because our schools don’t teach these narratives, no understanding can be reached without a great deal of labor. A big portion of this labor includes unlearning basic assumptions about the way systems of power and privilege work.

During our discussion, interns were encouraged to come up with other examples of racism in the environmental and sustainability movements. One such example is the (false) assumption that everyone has equal opportunity and exposure to the resources necessary to lead sustainable lifestyles. For example, urban Black communities often lack access to supermarkets and grocers, instead relying on smaller corner stores and bodegas for food, which don’t offer acceptable organic or vegetarian options. Similarly, the cost of organic or zero waste household materials is simply too high for many families to afford.

Hazardous assumptions like these persist even further in specific academic fields. I shared my personal experience of taking economics classes where professors teach the Malthusian myth that the population is growing too fast to be supported by the current food production system. But it’s patently untrue: the theory assumes that resources are already distributed efficiently, while we know that the upper 6.5% of the global population is responsible for 50% of the world’s consumption and emissions.

While assessment of personal assumptions is one step of the process of righting past wrongs, it is society’s institutions that need to change. A system built on oppression will not function without it. Until systemic transformation occurs, the responsibility is on organizations like Turning Green to acknowledge, mitigate, and be proactive in counteracting inequity and injustice in the environmental movement. As interns and student leaders, we will continue to work to ensure Turning Green programs, communications, websites and materials are more inclusive and universal in terminology, feature diversified resources, and center BIPOC voices. After all, the future isn’t truly sustainable if it isn’t respectful, accessible, and relevant to all.



Penguin State of the World Atlas


  • Max Hancock

    Max Hancock is a sophomore at Frostburg State University in rural Western Maryland. He is a senator on Student Government and holds the position of Vice President of Finance of the Frostburg chapter of Pi Lambda Phi. Max is a Quantitative Economics major with minors in both Geography and Sustainability Studies. His career path will take him into Appalachian resource economics, a field plagued by the exploitation of both workers and the environment. The flow of money has a massive impact on the way humans interact with natural resources: an unavoidable truth of life on the edge of Fracking territory. When not participating in activism, Max likes to raise aquatic plants and fish and play Dungeons and Dragons.