The Pathos of Politics (71) Environmentalism


Man has too long forgotten that the Earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste. ~ George Perkins Marsh

American diplomat and philologist George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882) published Man and Nature in 1864: one of the first books to chronicle the effects human were having on the environment. Contemporaneously, Englishmen John Ruskin (1819–1900) and William Morris (1834–1896) expressed concern about the impact of industrialization on the natural world.

The Earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant. ~ George Perkins Marsh

 Indian Teak

That every man may sit under his own vine, and under his own fig-tree, in thankfulness to thee. ~ John Evelyn

English gardener and writer John Evelyn (1620–1706) presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1662: “Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber,” addressed the depletion of timber resources in England in the mid-17th century. Evelyn advocated managing tree harvesting and ensuring replenishment through replanting, an idea implemented by Babylonian king Hammurabi in the 18th century bce, but long forgotten.

Forestry management developed during the 18th century in Prussia and France, but the first widespread example of conserving timber in modern times was in the teak forests of India in the early 1800s. Concerns about teak depletion were raised at the turn of the 19th century, when the British Navy was expanding shipbuilding to fight the Napoleonic Wars. A forestry officer was appointed in 1806 to preserve the teak forests by regulating harvest.

This promising start lasted less than 2 decades. In the 1820s, the power of laissez-faire economics coupled to complaints from private landowners brought the Indian teak conservation effort to an end.


Environmental movements began in England in the mid-19th century: addressing the foul air and water that was increasingly common, and encroachment of industrialization into rural areas. Animal conservation was also an issue.

 1863 Alkali Act

The first modern environmental law was the British Alkali Act of 1863, intended to regulate discharge of gaseous hydrochloric acid into the atmosphere. Hydrochloric acid is a byproduct of producing soda ash. Alkali – soda ash and potash – are vital chemicals in the making of glass, soap, paper, and textiles.

The traditional source of alkali in western Europe had been the ashes of hardwood trees. By the 13th century, deforestation had rendered further harvest uneconomical.

Potash was imported from Russia, Scandinavia, and North America, which had forests to burn. Soda ash was imported from Spain and the Canary Islands, where it was produced from the ashes of glassworts: plants which thrives in saline environments, such as salt marshes and seacoasts.


Late 19th-century environmental advocacy in the United States was more conflicted in its goals than in Britain. Some, such as Scottish American naturalist John Muir (1838–1914) wanted to preserve Nature. More materialist conservationists wanted to manage lands for human exploitation. American forester and politician Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946), the first Chief of the United States Forest Service, was one of them. Pinchot eschewed preserving Nature for its own sake.

In 1907, Congress succumbed to commercial interests and forbade the creation of more forest reserves in the western states. President Theodore Roosevelt designated 16 million acres (65,000 km²) of new national forests just minutes before his power to do so was stripped by Congress. These preserves were called the Midnight Forests.

Despite the Midnight Forests, Theodore Roosevelt subscribed to Pinchot’s philosophy: “to make the forest produce the largest amount of whatever crop or service will be most useful, and keep on producing it for generation after generation.” To the extent that conservation has been considered, this view dominated into the 21st century.

During the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt had many large-scale dams built and expanded the national forest system as a vehicle for exploitation. It was not until after 1st World War that scientific understanding of the impact that humans were having on the environment even began to develop.

There was no good news to report. Unawares, mankind passed the tipping point of a self-made mass extinction event in 1940 with the onset of 2nd World War.

Environmental destruction was in full swing by the end of the war. The effort was accelerated with the widespread use of toxic chemicals as if they were benign. An ancient craft, the chemicals industry exploded in both variety and production in the late 19th century.

In 1962, American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson  published Silent Spring, a book which told of the deleterious effects that industrial pesticides had on the environment and human health, especially DDT.

Fiercely contested by chemical companies, Silent Spring spurred a reconsideration of US pesticide policy, led to a ban on DDT, and inspired a movement that resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 by executive order of President Richard Nixon. The EPA was tasked with protecting human health and the environment from the externalities of corporate excess. It was, at least, a token gesture.