mornings in the unknown future. Who shall repair this now. And how the future
too quickly. The permanent is ebbing. Is leaving
—Jorie Graham, “Sea Change”
Conserving This, Conserving That
Just a few lines from jorie graham's poem “sea change” evoke anxiety about unpredictable futures that arrive too soon, in need of repair. The abrupt departure of a sense of permanence may provoke the desire to arrest change, to shore up solidity, to make things, systems, standards of living “sustainable.” Having worked in the environmental humanities and in science studies for the last decade and having served as the academic cochair of the University Sustainability Committee at the University of Texas, Arlington, for several years, I have been struck by how the discourse of sustainability at the turn of the twenty-first century in the United States echoes the discourse of conservation at the turn of the twentieth century, especially in its tendency to render the lively world a storehouse of supplies for the elite. Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt's head of forestry, defined forests as “manufacturing plants for wood,” epitomizing the utilitarianism of the conservation movement of the Progressive era, which saw nature as a resource for human use. By the early twentieth century Pinchot's deadening conception of nature jostled with other ideas, such as those of aesthetic conservation and the fledgling science of ecology. Pinchot was joined by the Progressive women conservationists, who claimed, as part of the broader “municipal housekeeping” movement, that women had special domestic talents for conservation, such as “turning yesterday's roast into tomorrow's hash.” Many Progressive women conservationists not only bolstered traditional gender roles but also wove classism and racism into their conservation mission, as conservation became bound up with conserving their own privileges. The anthropocentrism of the Progressive women conservationists is notable. As a participant in the First National Conservation Congress stated in 1909, “Why do we care about forests and streams? Because of the children who are to be naked and bare and poor without them in the years to come unless you men of this great conservation work do well your work.” During their conventions the discourse of conservation was playfully and not so playfully extended to myriad causes, including conserving food, conserving the home, conserving morals, conserving “true womanliness,” conserving “the race,” conserving “the farmer's wife,” and conserving time by omitting a speech (Alaimo, Undomesticated Ground 63–70).