It appears that John Muir (1838 – 1914) was not a perfect human being after all. Despite his huge contributions to conservation in the USA with lasting legacies to this day, it seems he was a product of his time. He was, in other words, mired in the social attitudes prevalent in his day. In passing I note that some of the pioneers of the women's suffrage movement in the UK were similarly so caught up. Not even they were perfect, being, in effect, no better than they should have been. Most people weren't, of course; that's the nature of contemporary prevalent social attitudes.
Muir stands accused of thinking badly of the indigenous peoples of North America and of people of color. He was also, it seems, friends with the eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn. Michael Brune, the executive director of the conservation charity that Muir founded, the Sierra Club, is quoted in the Times thus:
"Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about black people and indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club."
What are we to make of this? Shall we shun the Sierra Club or the John Muir Trust? Call for their disbanding? Cease to mark John Muir Day? Take down all statues of him? Wipe his contribution from the conservation record? Concrete over Yosemite? Some might call for somesuch actions, but I'm not one of them. Shall we think just a little (or a lot) less of Muir's contributions to conservation as we weigh what he achieved on the scales of moral justice? Some will, perhaps. But why should we? Such contributions (which we value) stand no matter how abject the rest of his life might have been. So do we need to think a little less of the man, taken in the round? Well, yes, perhaps we do; but surely only a little, given how great his contributions were, and when he was born. He might have lived a better life had he arrived on Earth in 1958 (rather than 1838), but then Yosemite might well have been wrecked by the time he got to see it.
I read a lot about Muir last year as there is a chapter in the forthcoming book by Paul Vare and myself about him [*]. None of this controversy was evident in what I read, including on the Sierra Club website. The chapter examines Muir's life (from Dunbar to California) in the context of the theory of significant life experience, exploring to what extent his upbringing and early experiences contributed to what he was able to achieve. They all did, of course, in the sense that the child is father to the man. Brune notes that his views evolved later in his life which suggests that experience managed to overcome an upbringing which was one in which obedience and the fear of God was beaten into him by his religious father and his pedagogue.