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John Muir: The Living Spirit and Founder of the World Conservation Movement

by Graham White


Graham White
Director, Edinburgh Environmental Centre
Dunbar, Scotland
1996 May 22

The Rio Summit on the Environment in 1992 highlighted 'Sustainability' as the fundamental challenge facing all societies in the coming Millennium. How much of the world's natural resources can we sustainably exploit without irreparably damaging the planet's vastly productive systems? How many salmon or halibut can we take from the oceans before we exterminate the breeding stocks? How much timber can we sustainably cut from a forest each year and still have a forest in a hundred years time? These are not just mere academic questions. The answers will determine whether your children and grandchildren still have fish to eat, timber to build with and fuels to warm themselves in fifty years time.

But John Muir was addressing the issue of Sustainability as long ago as 1870, in his articles, books and political campaigns. And he did more than just write, he fought long and bitter battles to save the redwoods, the watersheds and the great rivers of the West and to create the national parks, the forest reserves and the whole infrastructure of American conservation.

In the United States, Muir has become a figure of almost mythic grandeur, revered, honoured and loved by millions who have been inspired by his books and achievements. But there is a danger that he may simply be consigned to the role of a mere literary and intellectual fossil, - a marble bust in some environmental hall of fame, of interest only to dusty historians and rummaging critics.

In Great Britain, and particularly in Scotland, Muir's spirit has galvanized a new generation of practical and political conservationists. In 1983 his example inspired the creation of the John Muir Trust under the patronage of the Prince of Wales; so far the Trust has purchased over 50,000 hectares of wild mountain land by raising over $6 million dollars. In 1996, the Trust launched the John Muir Award as an educational initiative which we hope will ultimately bring millions of children into the conservation movement as lifelong activists. In Dunbar, Muir's birthplace, his spirit is the force behind the planned creation of a $10 million national centre for environmental education and sustainability, to be called The John Muir Centre.

We believe that Muir should be disinterred from his present role as 'famous dead-white-male', to be resurrected and re-interpreted as the Living Spirit and Founder of the World Conservation Movement. For without such an environmental beacon there seems little hope for sustainability or survival of any of the world's natural systems. The John Muir Trust and Dunbar's John Muir Association invite all people of similar mind to help them drag Muir out of the library and put him back to work as the Environmental Zeitgeist for the coming Millennium - the educational role model and environmental hero for a new generation of children and conservationists throughout the world.


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