Saving the Planet: The American Response to the Environment in the Twentieth Century

Saving the Planet: The American Response to the Environment in the Twentieth Century

by Hal K. Rothman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566632881
Publisher: Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
Publication date: 01/28/2000
Series: American Ways Series
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.34(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

Saving the Planet

The American Response to the Environment in the Twentieth Century
By Hal K. Rothman

Ivan R. Dee Publisher

Copyright © 2000 Hal K. Rothman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1566632889

Chapter One

Setting the Stage:
The Diverse Currents of the 1890s

In 1890 the industrial revolution and its aftermath were changing the very basis of American life. American raw materials increasingly fueled the world economy, American goods were achieving dominance in world markets, and American companies expanded their operations around the globe. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil led the way. Standard Oil controlled oil--from the well that brought it to the surface, to the canister in which retail customers purchased it--and domination of that crucial industry conveyed great social power as well as enormous profit.

Cities grew, defying the scale of earlier communities. As agriculture lost ground, rural Americans joined the incredible stream of immigrants who came to American cities in search of a better life. There was no way for political leaders to keep up with such growth, even if they had the ideas and tools to do so. Thirty thousand people called Chicago home in 1850; by 1880 the town had reached 500,000, and the growth continued, more than tripling to 1.7 million just twenty years later. The nation had a new size and scale, a glisten that came from steel and machine oil, a polish, a verve, a swagger. Americans could be proud when they looked at their nation, emerging from adolescence to maturity and parity with European powers.

The downside to growth and change was a sense of loss of what the author John Dos Passos later remembered as "the quiet afterglow of the nineteenth century." Agriculture experienced this loss more severely than any other segment of American society. Believing that ownership of land would bring wealth, most Americans dreamed of attaining independence by working their own plot of land. This sense of freedom had been impossible for most of their forebears in Europe. Especially groups such as African Americans, who experienced freedom as control of their personal as well as their social lives, coveted the freedom and self-determination of the self-employed agriculturalist. Thomas Jefferson's mythic yeoman farmer, the backbone of the ideal American republic, lived on in the hopes and dreams of millions of immigrants, freedmen and women, and everyone else who envisioned the farm as a bastion of American life. Government had encouraged such aspirations with the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 acres of the public domain to anyone who paid a filing fee and improved the land for five years, and with the Morrill Land Grant Act of the same year, which created universities with an agricultural mission. When the transcontinental railroad linked the nation in 1869, thousands went west in the hope that prosperity would accompany their newfound independence.

For most Americans, this equation of land with independence was at best a mixed blessing. At the very moment that large numbers acquired title even to rich loam, land ownership became less important than possession of even a small piece of the production mechanisms of American society. Although well-meaning and skilled individuals chose a future in agriculture, they could not overcome the fundamental redistribution of power and wealth that followed industrialization. Urban centers with their enormous steel mills, smelters, shipyards, and machine-tool factories dwarfed agriculture and turned it from the most important sector of the American economy to a producer of raw materials in a world of finished products. For many Americans, especially those who enjoyed privilege in the years before the Civil War, this change dislocated and distressed them, and over time created fissures in American society.

In the cities of the 1890s, even beneficiaries of the transformed American landscape showed signs of discomfort with the consequences of industrialization. Changing perceptions of what constituted a democracy anticipated a more closely regulated social order. In the 1870s Americans embraced the English social theorist Herbert Spencer, who advanced the concept of Social Darwinism and described the inequity that resulted from industrialization as "survival of the fittest." Spencer's assessment of the world Americans inhabited seemed to explain change and to justify the divisions it created in society--the incomparable wealth and the abject poverty that coexisted everywhere anyone looked. By the 1890s the nation no longer blindly accepted such pronouncements. Instead many Americans clearly recognized the flaws of industrialization, its enormous and unevenly distributed toll on society. More important, they no longer passively accepted Spencer's doctrine. A search for other philosophies to guide the American nation began in earnest. Writers and thinkers such as Henry George, author of an 1879 social reform treatise called Poverty and Progress, which advocated a tax on the unearned increase in land values to permit all Americans to live in comfort, and Lester Frank Ward, whose 1883 book Dynamic Sociology debunked Spencer's theories, challenged the smugness that once permeated industrial America. By the depression of 1893, the most severe economic decline to date, the number of Americans who felt the need for reform nearly matched those who continued to accept the social structure of industrialization.

In the years following the Civil War, Americans had come to regard their continent with new and different eyes. Much of the nineteenth century had been devoted to expanding the nation, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1805, and before the 1890s those terms had dominated national discussion. Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were preordained to control the vast temperate zone of North America, was a widely shared idea. In 1890 the Census revealed that a contiguous line of settlement of no less than two people per square mile now stretched from coast to coast. Drawing upon this information, a young historian from Portage, Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner, proposed what has come to be called the Frontier Thesis. Turner believed that the United States had been special because of its open land, a "safety valve" which could accommodate excess population. This frontier had been the crucible of democracy, Turner insisted, the catalytic factor in creating democratic institutions. It was the seed of what was best about the American nation. Without it, Turner mused, the nation ever after would be different, muted, transformed. Turner's idea struck a chord in American society. Theodore Roosevelt, on his way to becoming the figure who defined the age, wrote the young scholar that he had pulled from the air the great issue of the moment, that he had put his finger directly on the problem of the age.

Pronouncements like Turner's fed a growing sense of discontent in American society. Not only had the world changed very quickly, not only had the scope and scale of life been altered so greatly that even beneficiaries worried about its consequences, but the most basic traits of American society seemed at risk. If as Turner announced, the frontier made Americans unique, large questions followed. Without it, would the nation become another Europe, stratified, torn by strife, and, most essentially, lacking opportunity? Would Americans be able to find ways to prosper without the assurance that there was more--land, water, coal, copper--beyond the horizon? A crisis loomed. American institutions had functioned in one fashion until 1890. It was clear to many that if they did not change, the advantages of American society might dwindle and even disappear, leaving the great democratic experiment quite ordinary.

A broad segment of American society responded with the beginnings of a new ethos. Checks on growth and change were deemed essential. In an industrial society, Americans had to invent new systems for regulating themselves; the combination of social sanction and small-town practices that sufficed before the Civil War proved inadequate as cities grew and people lived anonymously, apart from a clearly defined social structure. A growing segment of the public felt compelled to reinvent the nature of American life. This sentiment gave rise to the idea of reform that came to possess American society as the nation sought to redefine its direction and shape its future in a manner different from its post-Civil War past.

Yet few mechanisms existed in American life that offered ways to initiate change. The ideas that underpinned democracy resulted from a preindustrial mercantile world. The rapid expansion of industry, the wealth it created, and the political power that flowed to it stifled the means of discussion that had fostered communication in American society. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century money dominated, and power and wealth were synonymous. Despite a growing and militant labor sector, the agrarian turmoil that spawned populism, and cities that seemed increasingly dangerous and even sordid, when the middle class felt uncomfortable it could turn only to individuals. Social institutions were devoted to other goals.

Efforts at reform began as discontent rather than action. Ordinary people looked around their world and saw problems; individually they conceived of solutions, and a few even began to implement them. Throughout the 1890s their efforts were diffuse, spread over the national landscape. Loose strands of reform moved through American society like an electrical current. Beginning with the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, a move to regulate business gathered momentum. At the same time reformers followed the lead of Jane Addams in launching the settlement houses that taught women the economic and cultural skills to climb out of poverty. Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, a look at life in the New York slums, and it attracted the attention of the middle class. In a changing society, Americans looked for ways to reconstitute order from the vast and chaotic change that was the legacy of industrialization.

Sensing itself disfranchised by the growth of industrial society, the old middle class provided the impetus for this change. These community leaders--clergy, shopkeepers, lawyers, and other professionals--who had guided society before the Civil War no longer served as a social and moral compass for the nation. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie, possessors of great fortunes who wore their wealth ostentatiously, replaced community leaders as the defining force in American society. Industrialization fostered a new set of signs and symbols, and the new configuration excluded the old leaders of the decentralized rural nation. As they looked to reassert themselves in national social and cultural life, the once powerful found their position diminished. They coveted the status they had once enjoyed and the prerogative that accompanied it, and sought ways to regain power and position.

The dislocating nature of change also made many Americans yearn for a simpler time. In this most common of human impulses, people of the late nineteenth century sought an idyllic moment in the past from which to begin to rebuild a present they could first comprehend and then tolerate. They wanted to make a world in which they were more comfortable, one that resembled what seemed to be the clearly defined constraints of the pre-Civil War period. In their view, nostalgic but also genuine, the problems of the antebellum world seemed simple and solvable, especially in comparison to the consequences of industrialization. In this effort to reshape the present along the lines of the past, the need for change combined forward- and backward-looking perspectives.

Growing reform sentiments took on many guises. When it encountered business, reform was hard-nosed and pragmatic. The Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act both addressed economic concerns, though without meaningful enforcement mechanisms. But efforts to solve social problems, to bring morality to bear on the questions of the day, revealed an idealism that approached utopianism as well as much evidence that people saw reform as a way to implement their own prejudices.

If Americans alive in 1860 looked closely at their country in 1890, they scarcely recognized it. Vast cities, teeming neighborhoods filled with people speaking foreign languages, industries belching smoke, railroad lines consuming huge expanses of urban areas, and shipyards of colossal scale seemed to crowd the nation. Animals once common had disappeared or were disappearing; the buffalo, or American bison, had been reduced to a relict population, unable to survive without human intervention, and the passenger pigeons that once filled the skies were poised for extinction. Even Native Americans, once seen as a threat to the nation, were perceived as casualties of expansion, inspiring a well-intended if tragic effort to save them by teaching them cultural practices such as agriculture and domestic work. Huge chunks of forest from Michigan to Minnesota had been cut for timber; the northeastern states seemed almost bare of trees as a result of voracious harvesting. Land had been cultivated, people settled almost everywhere, and the continent, once regarded as wild and infinite, seemed tame and finite, controlled by the power of humanity and the forces of industry and technology.

The United States had fancied itself nature's nation long before the end of the nineteenth century. When Americans began to fashion a national identity, what stood out about their nation was the expansiveness, beauty, and sublime nature of the land they inhabited. The Adirondacks, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the wilds of Virginia all offered nature as glorious as the grand political experiment of democratic nation-building. The derisive comments of Europeans such as the Comte Georges de Buffon, who in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson mocked what he perceived as the inferior physical nature of the New World, only spurred Americans' pride in their natural treasures as the equivalent of European culture. From James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales to Charles F. Lummis's A Tramp Across the Country and the work of John Burroughs, from the Hudson River School of painters to the glorious landscapes of Thomas Moran, Americans fashioned an identity that elevated their natural world to a position of preeminence. When Americans looked at nature, they saw a validation of their national experience that they loudly insisted--and secretly hoped--Europe could not match.

The fusing of reform currents and love for America's surroundings occurred in fits and starts throughout the 1890s, but never came to fruition. Like other manifestations of reform, most achievements remained independent of any structured national organization. Individuals thought in the compartmentalized terms of their own concerns. People who favored the protection of forests saw themselves sharing goals and objectives with those who advocated the management of water resources. Supporting the creation of a national park hardly predicted wide involvement in similar causes. Even those who sought to preserve the prehistoric past did not see a commonality of purpose with others who held similar feelings about animals and birds.

John Muir came to embody the urge to preserve, though his personal interest in wild nature far exceeded his passion for the historic or cultural past. Born in Scotland in 1838 and raised on a farm in Wisconsin, Muir was the archetypal first-eneration American. His father used the boy's labor as a resource to build the family farm in the manner that typified the age, and in Muir's case capped it off with a dose of Calvinism that made for a dour household. Daniel Muir even forbad John's mother to sing her children the songs of the Scottish Highlands she so loved. It was a hard life of work, without joy or often even laughter. John Muir showed a preternatural talent for mechanical invention and began a successful career in factory management until one day in 1868 when a sliver of a file shot into his eye and blinded him. His other eye went sympathetically blind, and for weeks Muir could not see. During his blindness the young man experienced an epiphany. He suddenly realized that the meaning of life involved the works of God, not the attempts of humanity to shape the universe. When his sight returned in both eyes, he determinedly devoted himself to nature. Walking from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico and boarding a steamer for California, he headed for the wilds of Yosemite, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to revel in, admire, and worship wild nature.

In Yosemite, Muir became the first genuine American advocate of the preservation of nature for its own sake. He developed an ethic of respect for the physical world that took its shape from the religious fundamentalism of his upbringing and replaced reverence for a deity with worship of nature as God's purest handiwork. Muir lived in a cabin with running water--a river ran through its center--and spent weeks and months in the high elevations of Yosemite, sleeping under the stars and greeting the change in seasons with a delight that seemed to many eccentric if not absurd. He climbed trees in thunderstorms so that he could be closer to his Creator. He lived in the rain and cold without cover, traveled with only the most basic tools and provisions, and generally made himself as close to nature as an individual could. His pronouncements on the beauty of nature and spiritual value spoke loudly in a culture where the costs of change were high. Muir became a celebrity while living in Yosemite and continued on to a career as writer, mountaineer, scientist, and the leading advocate of the preservation of wilderness for its own sake.

In an America increasingly obsessed with nature as a vestige of the nation's greatness, Muir's experiences--and the elegant way he wrote about them--carried deep symbolic meaning. Self-trained, he won respect as a scientist for discovering that glaciers were alive; his folksy approach to science helped mitigate the widespread social tension between folk wisdom and emerging professionalism. He imbued nature with the spirit of the deity in a fashion that the people of the late nineteenth century could welcome. He seemed descended from Natty Bumpo, the latest in a straight line of American literary heroes who took their knowledge directly from the natural world. In the 1880s and 1890s Muir spoke for nature with a clarity and simplicity that few other advocates of any cause displayed. He became an American folk figure, capable of persuading people far different from him of the need to preserve pure, untrammeled nature.

From Muir's work and from the many individuals who shared at least some of his convictions emerged an organization that defined the loose affiliations and often contradictory impulses that became the conservation movement: the Sierra Club. The prototype for the first generation of conservation organizations and the most powerful voice in early conservation, the Sierra Club was founded in 1892 in California by Muir and other influential Californians. At its founding the club contained both a strong preservationist wing and a powerful group that advocated utilitarian conservation. Sierra Club members came chiefly from the upper classes, people with intact fortunes who could afford to think of nature for its beauty and not for the wealth it might provide. Although Muir's passionate fundamentalism about wilderness preservation derived from a near-religious experience, he was a self-taught man of letters and science who, until he married at the age of forty-two, often teetered on the edge of poverty by choice. Most of the other founders of the Sierra Club not only were affluent, they were educated civic and social leaders as well. Robert Underwood Johnson of the Century Magazine, one of the bellwether periodicals of the early twentieth century, played an instrumental role in founding the organization. Stanford University president David Starr Jordan was also a founder, as was attorney Warren Olney, later the reform-oriented mayor of Oakland, California, and the scientist Joseph LeConte, a University of California professor who shaped the teaching of science throughout the state. The early Sierra Club had power, standing, influence, access to wealth, and a worldview that shared the ideas of the time and mirrored its dominant ethos.


Excerpted from Saving the Planet by Hal K. Rothman Copyright © 2000 by Hal K. Rothman. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Part 1 INTRODUCTION: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AND ITS MANY VISIONS 3 Chapter 2 From conservation to environmentalism—continuities and contradictions. Part 3 SETTING THE STAGE: THE DIVERSE CURRENTS OF THE 1890s 11 Chapter 4 Industrialization and reform. John Muir, the Sierra Club, and the preservation of nature. Federal legislation. Part 5 PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATION 34 Chapter 6 Theodore Roosevelt and the new approach to conservation. Addressing water pollution. Gifford Pinchot and scientific forestry. Implementing Progressive conservation. The Hetch-Hetchy controversy. Part 7 CONSERVATION AS BUSINESS AND LABOR POLICY 60 Chapter 8 Jazz Age values. Water in the West. New Deal projects. Effects of the Great Depression. Part 9 THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF CONSERVATION 85 Chapter 10 Post–World War II social changes. The problems of growth. Conservation revived. The Echo Park Dam battle. Part 11 THE RISE OF AESTHETIC ENVIRONMENTALISM 108 Chapter 12 The mood of the 1960s. Calls to action. Perils of atomic testing. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb. Environmentalism as a new center of consensus. The Santa Barbara oil spill. Part 13 THE LIMITS OF QUALITY OF LIFE 131 Chapter 14 The dangerous bargain between industry and its workers. A legal revolution. The federal response to environmental concerns. Environmental Impact Statements. The Alaska Pipeline. Earth Day. Toxic wastes. Part 15 BACKLASH: FULL STOMACHS AND EMPTY POCKETS 158 Chapter 16 Impact of the oil crisis and the Vietnam War. The Sagebrush Rebellion. James Watt. Swelling ranks of environmental groups. Reagan administration policies. The Wise Use movement. Part 17 A NEW ENVIRONMENTALISM 184 Chapter 18 Three Mile Island. Hazardous waste and Love Canal. New grassroots activism. Dumping in Nevada. Part 19 A Note on Sources 206 Part 20 Index 210

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