John Muir’s Environmental Philosophy

John Muir was a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, botanist, zoologist, glaciologist, and a strong preservationist in the United States. Muir believed that nature must be protected from the destructive hands of people. He fought for the preservation of nature, which led to the establishment of the national parks we enjoy today. This is why he is known as “The Father of National Parks”.

In this article, we will explore John Muir’s environmental philosophies, including what he believed about the human relationship with nature and how his beliefs differed from other environmental philosophers..

Background Information: What Is Environmental Ethics?

Summary: The Basics of John Muir’s Environmental Philosophy

John Muir is most famous for being a preservationist. This means that he wanted to protect nature from all human interference, including responsible use. In his mind, nature was something separate from humans, and human use would harm nature’s pristine, untouched state. 

Read more about preservationist philosophy: The Difference Between Conservation, Preservation and Restoration

Muir’s environmental ethics are ecocentrist, as he believed nature had intrinsic value separate from the value humans get from nature. In other words, because nature has its own inherent value, regardless of whether humans find use from it or not, nature must be protected.

However, Muir’s environmental philosophies are also somewhat anthropocentrist, as he did value nature for one value it brought to humans: emotions of happiness and wonder. This belief derived from Muir’s involvement in the transcendental movement of the mid 19th century, which emphasized the spiritual power of nature. Muir’s interpretation of transcendentalism heralded time spent immersed in nature as the ultimate spiritual experience.  

Let’s review some of John Muir’s beliefs that form his environmental philosophy.

All of life is connected 

John Muir believed that all life is connected. At a very young age, he had already developed his interest in the natural world, and continued to study the interconnection between plants, animals, and their environment as he grew.. Muir recognized the importance of these connections and how they maintain the balance of life on our planet, arguing that disrupting this link could disrupt the balance of life. Muir’s early biocentric ethical perspective, or the idea that all life is important and connected, served as a foundation for his life mission of protecting the natural world. 

This concept of the interconnectedness of life is perhaps best summed up in John Muir’s 1911 book, My First Summer in the Sierra: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Nature is divine and must be protected from the destructive hands of people 

Deeply influenced by transcendentalism, John Muir viewed the natural world as divine and untouchable, and argued that it must be preserved in its original state. He believed that humans are inherently separate from nature, and that  nature should be spared from the insatiable demand of human exploitation. This made him a strong preservationist, encouraging both political and social movements to preserve the natural world. In fact, Muir’s philosophy reached President Teddy Roosevelt, who worked to establish American national parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia, and the Grand Canyon.

While Muir’s belief that nature is divine and must be preserved in this pristine state was crucial to the founding of the National Parks System, it also led to some harmful policies when it came to people already living on this “wilderness” land: Indigenous people. Muir’s argument that land must be preserved separate from any human interference, combined with the creation of national parks, worked to push many Native Americans out of their traditional homelands.

Muir’s belief that humans are separate from nature is also where Muir diverges from other biocentrist and ecocentrist philosophers. For example, Aldo Leopold also argued that all of nature has intrinsic value and, like Muir, argued the best way to encourage people to protect nature is to have them see it. However, Leopold believed that humans are part of nature, and placed less emphasis on nature as a pristine landscape separate from all human interference. Instead, Leopold argued that “conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” 

Read more: Aldo Leopold & Environmental Ethics

The way to encourage people to protect nature is to make them see and experience its beauty

John Muir was undoubtedly  one of the greatest admirers of the wilderness. He not only dedicated his life to protecting it but also encouraged people to see the beauty of nature as how he sees it. He believed that in this way, people would be effortlessly inspired to protect the environment, for it is in human nature to protect what they love. In one of his letters to a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Ezra S. Carr, Muir said, “I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness,” emphasizing Muir’s unwavering commitment to making the public see the beauty and value of the natural world to save it from industrialization and urbanization.

The fight for preservation should always continue because it is a part of the universal war between right and wrong 

John Muir believed that the battle for environmental preservation was crucial and should continue indefinitely. He believed that nature is a place to recharge our mind, body, and soul, and must be protected to  serve as an important heritage for future generations. Although preservation may not always win over the needs of a growing nation dependent on natural resources, Muir believed that a sustainable approach to how people utilize natural resources should always be the next best thing to do. 

One of John Muir’s greatest legacies is the establishment of the Sierra Club, a non-profit organization that continues to promote environmental advocacies rooted in John Muir’s environmental philosophies and ethics today. 

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