The History of Environmentalism in America – David Koch

First, a few disclaimers. I will be talking mostly about Modern era history, starting with the 1800’s. I will start by outlining 4 stages of Environmentalism, then talk a little about what came before those stages, then give some detail about each of those four stages.


          The four stages of Environmentalism in America are:

  1. Pragmatic Utilitarianism Conservation – Took place in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, focus on conserving materials (trees for lumber) for human use. (anthropocentric ethic)
  2. Aesthetic/Ethical conservation stage – Took place in early 900’s, largely a response to the utilitarianism, save land because it’s the right thing to do for nature. (biocentric ethic)
  3. Pollution and response – Took place in mid-1900’s, high levels of pollution in the post-WWII industrial era and finally it got so bad there had to be a response to clean up the pollution.
  4. Global – Taking place now, started in late 1900’s into early 2000’s. There are two parts to this one. The most important environmental issues we are dealing with are global in scope and around the world we see important ties between environmentalism and social progress.



          Before these stages in America we lived mostly in what is called a frontier ethic. Basically, the population levels were low enough in enough of the country that there weren’t many serious concerns about access to natural resources. In particular, finding trees to cut down and convert to lumber for building was easy and getting the lumber to markets was not too difficult.

          Before this in the rest of the world we have often seen that the fall of civilizations often depended on whether they ignored the environment. The over-use of resources often lead to the demise of  societies. For example, the Mayan civilization met their end during a drought. There is some evidence that the drought may have been caused in part by changes to the local climate caused by how much land they were farming. Their dependence on this heavy agriculture meant that when the agriculture fell apart from the drought that the organized Mayan society itself fell apart as well. There is some evidence that a similar thing might have happened to the Anasazi in the American Southwest. In ancient Greece there is also evidence that the land was being over-farmed, causing soil erosion issue. Plato himself was known to complain about the high erosion rates.


 Pragmatic Utilitarianism

          In the mid- to late-1800’s resource use, especially lumber use, became strong enough that there were serious concerns about there being enough forest. This prompted the setting aside of land to keep as forests. This thinking was set up by the book “Man and Nature” written by George Perkins Marsh in 1864. By 1872 Yellowstone Park was set aside and by 1873 the National Forest Preserves were established. The National Forest Preserves established the framework that would eventually result in the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and National Wildlife Refuges.  Two of the major players at this time were Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. Gifford Pinchot would later head the Forest Service, which was established in 1905.




Aesthetic Conservation

          Not everyone was in favor of only setting aside natural areas for human use. They thought that we should also set aside some areas simply because they are beautiful or because they are good homes for animals. Among those people was John Muir, who started the Sierra Club in 1892 to help organize that response. In this era, in 1916, the National Park Service was also established partly as a response to the Forest Service and as a way to manage some lands for aesthetic use and not productive use. Prior to this the parks were managed individually, the Park Service gave some common management to the federal park lands. Aldo Leopold is also part of this era. He talked about having a land ethic and setting aside wilderness areas. His book “A Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949, the farm on which he focuses a lot of his writing in the book was purchased in 1935.



          During and after WWII there was a large increase in industrial activity in the U.S. This activity was poorly regulated and lead to many severe pollution problems. Thick smog from coal burning was a major part of these issues, but one that seemed to have really awoken the public response to the pollution issues was the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio in 1969. A book written a few  years prior to this also played an important role in awakening the pollution response, that book is “Silent Spring” written by Rachel Carson in 1962. All of this ended up making 1970 a very important year with regard to pollution regulation. In 1970 we passed the Clean Air Act, the EPA was established, Earth Day was started, and OSHA was established. Shortly after this, in 1972 the Clean Water Act was passed and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed.



          We are currently in an era where global concerns of two different sorts are the most important environmental concerns.

          Our biggest environmental concerns are now global in nature. In particular, the concerns about Global Warming are very serious and overwhelm almost everything else. However, there are other important global concerns, like: overfishing in the world’s oceans, overpopulation of people, biodiversity loss, and access to clean, potable water. These concerns will all require the coordination of multiple countries for their solution. There is an example of how a global environmental concern can be overcome with the agreement of all the countries in the world. In the 1980’s we realized that the ozone layer was becoming thinner and that the problem was due to the use of CFCs. In 1989 the global community passed the Montreal Protocol, which banned the use of CFCs and we are currently seeing significant improvements in the ozone layer.

          We are also recognizing that around the world there are important connections between environmental protections and social justice and social progress. Some of these connections have been outlined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment published by the UN in 2005.


          I would like to make one final note about environmental issues. Thinking about them too much can cause one to despair and become depressed because they seem impossible to overcome. It is important to recognize that they can be overcome and in the past some serious issues have been overcome. Progress is often slow, but it can happen. To maintain my sanity, I find it important to focus on past successes. I also find it important to recognize what I can do and do that and to not let myself be too concerned or troubled by things that are outside of my scope of potential action.