Cherub-faced with granny glasses and a slight paunch, George Perkins Marsh would today be called the ultimate environmental nerd—a real tree-hugger. But don’t let his overly sophisticated look fool you, Marsh was the first true environmentalist with the guts to stand up and say, “Hey folks, we’re really making a mess of things here on Earth!” In 1864, he published Man and Nature which was 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 replete with all the trappings of wealth and prosperity and attended the finest schools—Philips Exeter Academy, Dartmouth College, and Vermont Law School. Possessing boundless energy, endless enthusiasm, and immense intelligence, Marsh was a true Renaissance Man.
Throughout his 80 years, Marsh had many careers as a lawyer, newspaper editor, sheep farmer, mill owner, lecturer, politician and diplomat. A Master of Linguistics, he also knew 20 languages, wrote a definitive book on the origin of the English language, and was known as the foremost Scandinavian scholar in North America. He also invented tools and designed buildings including 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 US was dominated by intense westward expansion in the second half of the 19th Century. This growth was fueled by a combination of the California Gold Rush and massive economic upheaval spawned by the start of the Industrial Revolution. No sense of environmental accountability could be found anywhere on the American landscape or in the overriding political spectrum of the day until 1864 when Marsh published his book, Man and Nature.
A true environmental landmark, Man and Nature espoused 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 big 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 as well as on the ability of those ecosystems to support human culture. Prior to Marsh, humans assumed that nature stood outside of human culture, was unchanged by human acts and works, and was infinitely capable of providing the resources that human economy extracted from it. As revealed in his writings, Marsh smashed this very wrong-headed logic to smithereens and—in so doing—actually became the first person to suggest that man’s actions on Earth could be causing negative effects on the world’s climate.
To exemplify his points, Marsh conducted extensive surveys of the beneficial effects of natural forests, including their capacities to moderate local and regional climates. In this frighteningly portentous passage based on this 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 Part Three for more on this) now ticking ever closer and closer to midnight, we can bear witness to the deep and sad truth of Marsh’s words.
As serious 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 US still harbored an enormous bounty of natural wealth, Marsh empathized 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 prose 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.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger, published by Prometheus Books.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America”— provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.