Crisis of the Wasteful Nation, a new book from the University of Chicago Press.

Crisis of the Wasteful Nation is a reinterpretation of American conservation policy and thought in the era of Theodore Roosevelt from the 1890s through to World War I, focusing on the presidential years, and from an international and transnational perspective.

While Roosevelt is known as a great advocate of nature protection through national monuments, wild life refuges and national parks on the one hand , and as an agent of American empire and world power on the other, the two themes have never been put together. Doing so throws light on Roosevelt as an individual and a president of great importance, but this is not another biography of a justly famous president. Rather, it contextualizes Roosevelt in a reinterpretation of American conservation policy and thought, and throws light on US imperialism in a seminal era. For the former, the emphasis on the clash between preservation and conservation is resolved by looking at the wider context of Roosevelt’s program in the search for a sustainable long term future for the United States and for the world. Terms such as “habitability” and “foresight” are key to understanding these developments.

The argument is that Rooseveltian conservation (inspired by Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and their coterie of officials, intelligentsia and reformers in civil society) was made in a turn of the century engagement with the wider world. Conservation had 19th century antecedents, but concern quickened after 1898 in the midst of an encounter with competing empires, through awareness of the developing struggle for resources among them, and in the context of alarm that appeared in many different countries about the same time over the seeming acceleration of the destruction of nature. The book speaks therefore to issues of great concern in our own world, but for which historical perspective is sadly lacking. This is also the first attempt to show the global significance and reception of Rooseveltian conservation, and to show how Roosevelt’s conservation program connected in various ways with those of other (white) settler societies such as Australia, and, perhaps more surprisingly, with elements of parallel conservation movements across continental Europe.

For the empire theme, the book shifts interpretive emphasis from the Open Door policy in the Progressive period to a hitherto unacknowledged neo-mercantilist stress upon the corralling of resources. It makes resources a key point rather than exports alone, and ties in with previously under-analyzed high tariff and trade reciprocity policies in this respect. The book also advances the idea of American empire as a social formation comprised not only of naval bases and island colonies to safeguard strategic interests and global market access (the classic seaborne empire), but also an inland empire of resource conservation, and a (white) settler empire that created common ground in Roosevelt’s thinking with ideas of a wider Anglo-American hegemony, as American power grew.

This project also contributes to a reinterpretation of Progressivism. The book argues that conservation became close to the central concerns of Progressivism, and gave substance to an otherwise wooly concept with disparate followings and objectives, thus shaping a more coherent but still incomplete Progressive program towards the end of TR’s presidency. It argues therefore for Progressivism as a process, not a thing, and Roosevelt’s policies as the product of changing historical conditions and experience.

Finally, the book analyses how Roosevelt captured and exploited, even fanned, new waves of anxiety over the future of the American republic. These were anxieties responding, I argue, not simply to an “end” of the frontier alone, but to the acquisition of a formal empire and world-power status from 1898. This awareness was shaped in an encounter with the tropical world (a point previously neglected by historians), but an encounter shared with the experience of European empires. This study thus contributes to an emerging historiography on environmental alarmism and anxiety. The book charts the rise and fall of this alarmism in its Progressive incarnation, and pinpoints the role of presidential leadership in channeling these fears and opportunities for action or inaction. This is not, therefore, a story of inevitable progress in “reform” or “conservation”, nor of the past simply cast as a mirror image of the present, but a story of historical contingency. The past does not repeat itself though it may, as Mark Twain is said to have quipped, rhyme. Its relevance to our current global environmental situation should be obvious.

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