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Consuming Nature: Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley, 1850-1950

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Overview

Environmental debates often pit the protection of nature against economic growth. But as Gregory Summers reveals, environmentalism has unsuspected roots in consumerism that extend deeper than our present-day dilemmas. In Consuming Nature, he tells of an early confrontation that set the stage for Silent Spring, pushing the dawn of environmental politics back several decades.

Summers takes readers to Wisconsin's Fox River Valley more than fifty years ago to recount how technological and economic progress contributed to residents' growing opposition to the industrial pollution of the river. On the one hand, there was the Wisconsin paper industry-long the largest employer in the area but also largely responsible for polluting the Fox River. On the other hand, there was the burgeoning demand for outdoor recreation among local residents, which put the river's recreational and aesthetic benefits on an equal footing with its industrial potential. As a result, many citizens felt that paper mills no longer deserved carte blanche to dump their waste.

This shift from an industrial to consumer society eventually showed up in a small Green Bay courthouse. There attorneys for the Izaak Walton League confronted Adolph Kanneberg, a long-time conservationist now defending the paper industry, with charges that the Fox River had been defiled. But Summers ranges well beyond this courtroom battle. Drawing on prominent national figures, from Frederick Jackson Turner and Theodore Roosevelt to Joseph R. McCarthy, he shows how this local drama was playing on a much larger stage. Wisconsin's showdown over water quality, in fact, was being repeated throughout the country in similar disputes involving urban sprawl and the destruction of wilderness, as Americans struggled to balance their use of nature against the need to protect the environment.

By exploring the evolution of electricity, highways, farming, and retail trade, Summers tracks the widening separation between production and consumption over a hundred years, a transformation that helps to explain the polarized character of modern environmental politics. He reveals that the redefinition of nature upon which environmentalism relied was the product of the very forces it opposed, a dilemma whose origins lay in the unexpected connection between the efficient use of natural resources and the growing movement to value nature in its own right. In this way, Summers shows that modern environmentalism is among the most important legacies of a consumer society.

Ultimately, by framing the human relationship to nature in terms of production and consumption, Summers fosters a better understanding of the philosophy of the modern environmental movement.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A well-organized and exceptionally well-documented study that is an important contribution both the regional history and to environmental history."—American Historical Review

"By examining people's everyday relationship and their appetites for the various representations of wilderness, historians like Summers have yielded narratives that relate all kinds of people to the environmental movement, as well as to 'the corridors of power.'"—History Compass

"Simply put, this book is an important addition to the literature. Summers has produced a unique and fresh perspective on the roots of modern environmentalism. As such, this book should find a wide audience not only in Wisconsin but also among environmental historians and, indeed, anyone concerned about the future of the natural world."—Reviews in American History

"Summers helps us understand America's transition from a producer to a consumer society. He also sheds light on important aspects of modern environmentalism, particularly the way, for most Americans, the connection between the large-scale manipulation of nature and the consumption of various goods and services became largely hidden."—Annals of Iowa

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700614868
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 9/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 270
  • Product dimensions: 6.16 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

Introduction: A River of Paper?

1. The Voice of Industry

2. Working with Nature

3. The Renewal of Progress

4. The Consumer's Metropolis

5. Enjoying the Great Outdoors

6. "Pollution Concerns You!"

Conclusion: The Meaning of Nature

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index

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