- Historic Sites
The American Environment
THE PICTURE IS MORE HEARTENING THAN ALL THE LITTLE ONES
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
States, too, began to set aside land to protect what was left of the wilderness. New York turned five million acres—15 percent of the state’s land area—into the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, to remain “forever wild.”
In the 1870s Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior, began moving for the preservation of federally owned forests. Born in Europe, where forests had long since become scarce and thus precious, and where forest-management techniques were far more advanced than those in this country, Schurz and many others helped create a new concern for America’s fast-dwindling woodlands. By the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency, almost sixty million acres were in the forest reserve system.
Today hundreds of millions of acres in this country enjoy various levels of protection from development, and more are added every year. But while the parks and reserves created by this movement are national treasures that have greatly enriched the quality of life, their creation was predicated on the part of the ancient paradigm that still survived. That part held that the natural world and the human one were two separate and distinct places. And it was still thought that each had little effect on the other.
It was George Perkins Marsh, lawyer, businessman, newspaper editor, member of Congress, diplomat, Vermont fish commissioner, and lover and keen observer of nature, who first recognized the folly of this unexamined assumption. Growing up in Vermont, he had seen how the clear-cutting of the forests and poor farming practices had degraded the state’s environment.
Marsh observed in 1864, “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent.” Nobody listened.
In 1864 he published Man and Nature , which he expanded ten years later and published as The Earth as Modified by Human Action . Individual instances of human effect on the natural world had been noted earlier, but Marsh, like Darwin with evolution, gathered innumerable examples together and argued the general case. He decisively demonstrated that the impress of humankind on the whole world was deep, abiding, and, because it was largely unnoticed, overwhelmingly adverse. “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” he wrote. “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.”
Recognizing that technology, energy use, population, food production, resource exploitation, and human waste all were increasing on curves that were hyperbolic when plotted against time, he feared for the future. “It is certain,” he wrote, “that a desolation, like that which overwhelmed many once beautiful and fertile regions of Europe, awaits an important part of the territory of the United States … unless prompt measures are taken.”
Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species provoked a fire storm of controversy in the intellectual world of his time when it was published in 1859. It changed humankind’s perception of the world profoundly and immediately. But Man and Nature changed nothing. Published only five years later, it met with profound indifference, and its author sank into the undeserved oblivion of those who are out of sync with their times. As late as 1966, when the science of ecology he was instrumental in founding was already well developed, so commodious a reference work as the Encyclopaedia Britannica made no mention of him whatever.
Perhaps the difference was that Darwin’s ideas had only philosophical, religious, and scientific implications. Marsh’s ideas, on the other hand, had profound economic consequences. An America rapidly becoming the world’s foremost industrial power did not want to hear them, even though as early as 1881 the mayor of Cleveland could describe the Cuyahoga River as “an open sewer through the center of the city.”
In fact, the seeds of the country’s first great man-made ecological disaster were being planted even as Marsh wrote.
In the 1860s railroads pushed across the Great Plains and opened them up to settlement by connecting them to Eastern markets. On the high plains toward the Rockies, as hunters slaughtered bison and pronghorns by the millions, ranchers replaced them with cattle, which overgrazed the land. Then farmers began moving in.
World War I greatly increased the demand for wheat, while the tractor made plowing the tough, deep sod of the high plains a more practical proposition. The number of farms in the area east of the Rocky Mountains burgeoned in the 1920s, taking over more and more of the ranchland.