Cherub-faced, with granny glasses and a slight paunch, George Perkins Marsh would today be called the ultimate environmental nerd—a real tree-hugger. However, Marsh was the first true environmentalist with the guts to stand up and say, “Hey folks, we are really making a mess of things here on Earth!” In 1864, he published Man and Nature, followed by a revised edition in 1874 entitled The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature. Taken collectively, these two books are widely regarded as the first modern discussion of our planet’s environmental problems.
Born in 1801 in Woodstock, Vermont, Marsh grew up in an egalitarian household full of the trappings of wealth and prosperity, and he attended the finest schools—Philips Exeter Academy, Dartmouth College, and Vermont Law School. Possessing boundless energy, endless enthusiasm, and immense intelligence, Marsh was definitely a Renaissance man.
During his eighty years, Marsh held many positions. At various times, he was a newspaper editor, lawyer, mill owner, sheep farmer, lecturer, politician, and diplomat. A master of linguistics, he knew twenty languages. Plus he wrote a definitive book on the origin of the English language and often was referred to as the foremost Scandinavian scholar in North America. Always using his creative mind, he invented tools and designed buildings—most notably the Washington Monument. In his “spare time,” Marsh served his country in several important capacities, including as a member of the US House of Representatives from Vermont (1843–1849), Minister to the Ottoman Empire (1850–1853), and Ambassador to Italy (1861–1882).
As we discussed earlier, the United States was dominated by rapid westward expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century. The California Gold Rush and the massive economic upheaval spawned by the start of the Industrial Revolution fueled this burgeoning expansion. No one felt much of a sense of environmental accountability to the American landscape until 1864, when Marsh published Man and Nature.
Man and Nature advocated a new way for evaluating human progress. Marsh realized that natural-resource use—for energy production, forest products, hydropower, fisheries stocks, and the like—was essential to sustain economic progress. But he also warned that unrelenting and unmitigated overuse of our natural treasures would lead to significant problems down the road.
Given his unique—at the time—understanding of Earth and its processes, Marsh was the first person to document systematically how human activity could have a cumulative and destructive effect on ecosystems and on the ability of those ecosystems to support human culture. Before Marsh came along, humans assumed that nature existed outside of human culture and was unchanged by human acts and works. Most appallingly, the basic belief was that nature was infinitely capable of providing the resources that human economy extracted from it. Marsh worked to change these basic beliefs, becoming the first person to suggest that human actions on Earth could be having negative effects on the world’s natural resources and climate.
To demonstrate his points, Marsh conducted extensive surveys of the benefits of natural forests, including their capacities to moderate local and regional climates. In this frighteningly portentous passage based on his research, Marsh writes:
“Even now . . . we are breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage. [As a result, our planet is] fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant. . . . Another era of equal human crime and human improvidence . . . would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the [human] species.”
We can only be left to believe that Marsh—writing more than 150 years ago—could see the handwriting on the wall for what we are now facing from the threat of climate change. Watching the “Doomsday Clock” (see chapter 21 for more on this) now ticking ever closer and closer to midnight, we can bear witness to the premonitory truth of Marsh’s words.
As earnest climate-change analysts, we all need to pay special attention to George Perkins Marsh’s beseeching writing about working toward a harmonious blend of human activities and ecosystem health. Even while the United States still contained an enormous bounty of natural wealth, Marsh emphasized that we should be paying close attention to the effects our actions were having on the planet and working diligently to improve the sustainability of our lifestyles. Marsh’s words can be used to eloquently drive home the point that concerns about climate change are not just some “new kids on the block.” They have, in fact, been around for a very long time.