Blogs > Cliopatria > Gregory Summers: Review of Lawrence M. Lipin's Workers and the Wild: Conservation, Consumerism, and Labor in Oregon, 1910-1930

Sep 5, 2007 10:14 pm

Gregory Summers: Review of Lawrence M. Lipin's Workers and the Wild: Conservation, Consumerism, and Labor in Oregon, 1910-1930

Lawrence M. Lipin. _Workers and the Wild: Conservation, Consumerism, and Labor in Oregon, 1910-1930_. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 248 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03125-0; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07370-0.

Reviewed for H-Environment by Gregory Summers, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

To judge by its title alone, Lawrence Lipin's new book, _Workers and the Wild_, might easily be overlooked by environmental historians. It is a study of Oregon in the 1910s and 1920s, a comparatively small place over a relatively narrow period of time. But like many good regional histories, the book offers more than its title suggests. It is a well-researched and important study dealing with key issues in U.S. environmental history, and it deserves a wide reading by scholars in the field.

Specifically, _Workers and the Wild_ helps to fill two significant gaps in the literature of American environmental history. First, building on the work of Richard White, Karl Jacoby, and others, it examines the relationship between work (or class) and nature, in this case looking specifically at the history of labor unions and their attitudes toward the preservation of wilderness. Second, the book is one of a growing collection of works that points to the early twentieth century as a crucial, but previously overlooked period in the evolution of American environmental politics. In particular, it examines the growing influence of consumption on the way people valued nature and its resources. When executed as skillfully as it is by Lipin, the study does much to explain the complex character of the wilderness debates which developed in the United States by the mid-twentieth century.[1]

Lipin's argument is straightforward. Prior to World War I, union activists in Oregon tended to view disputes over the proper use of nature from the perspective of producers. As a result, they often favored the continued development of resources over efforts by so-called elites to preserve them for recreation. By the 1920s, in contrast, as workers themselves gained better access to the great outdoors--through shorter workdays and the growing affordability of automobiles--they began to adopt a consumer's view of nature, expressing greater sympathy for the protection of fish and game, and even the preservation of wilderness.

Few environmental historians, perhaps, will be surprised at the shifting patterns of working-class behavior toward the environment that Lipin describes. But few scholars have chronicled the story with as much detail as Lipin provides. For example, noting that "environmental politics have often been class politics" (p. 15), Lipin first turns his attention to the single-tax movement in Oregon, a union-led effort (derived from the writings of Henry George) to shift the state's tax burden to its land in order to compel owners of idle resources to put them to use. Although the effort failed, it nonetheless makes clear that labor in Oregon in the early 1900s had "an implicit cultural understanding about the proper use of nature, one that eschewed preservation for productivity, which properly unleashed would be the basis for a more perfect republican society" (p. 27). This stance led inevitably to other conflicts, such as opposition to conservation laws aimed at protecting fish and game, or resistance to the construction of scenic highways that seemed meant to serve only urban elites and out-of-state tourists. As long as the majority of working-class citizens lacked the time and wherewithal to enjoy fishing, hunting, pleasure driving and other leisurely pursuits, they were likely to distrust efforts to safeguard such experiences at the expense of more productive uses of the state's resources.

Enter the automobile, which according to Lipin, "had a revolutionary effect on the way that Oregon labor activists spoke, thought, and wrote about nature" (p. 98). The more access workers had to the state's forests, streams, and coastal areas, the less inclined they were to resist the preservation of game and landscapes that they could now enjoy themselves. Lipin insists, however, that labor did not simply roll over, seduced by the attractions of consumerism. Instead, they often altered their goals, incorporating such objectives as greater leisure time and non-productive uses of nature (aesthetic beauty) into the standard of living they sought from their work. Ironically, by abandoning their traditional producers' perspective, urban unions even succeed in forming stronger bonds with rural farmers, who had long distrusted the impact of the single-tax on their own land use. In this sense, Lipin argues, "the rise of the working-class sportsman may well have been a transitional moment in the development of a more consumerist labor movement" (156).

Whatever the impact on labor unions and their objectives, the consequences for environmental politics in the United States could not have been more significant. By the 1950s, workers, like all Americans, would find themselves increasingly torn between choosing "the economy" or "the environment" in natural resource policy, a dilemma created in part by the powerful influence of consumerism. By bringing together the insights of labor and environmental history in a single analysis, Lipin has made an outstanding contribution to both fields.


[1]. On work and nature, see the following: Richard White, "'Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?': Work and Nature," in _Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature_, ed. William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), 171-185; and Karl Jacoby, _Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). On the significance of the early twentieth century in environmental politics, see Paul Sutter, _Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement_ (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002); and Gregory Summers, _Consuming Nature: Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley, 1850-1950_ (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006).

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