The last quarter-century has been a vintage period for social movements in the United States. Our passions and energies have been engaged by questions concerning civil rights, peace and sexual equality—and especially by a diverse group of issues that we have come to call environmental. Environmentalism has occupied more of us, cost us more, made more work for us than any other social reform movement of our time. In 1976 alone the country spent $34.8 billion on pollution control—some $90 million a day. Of that total, $17.7 billion was expended in response to Federal environmental legislation. State and local agencies spent more than $7 billion. Supplying equipment and services for environmental work projects is now a $15-billion-a-year private industry. Some 100,000 of us work for public environmental agencies (75,000 in the Federal government), and about 1.5 million men and women are employed in the private environmental industry. There are some 200 private organizations with specific environmental programs, ranging from the America the Beautiful Fund to Zero Population Growth, Inc. About four million Americans belong to these special environmental interest groups. Finally, there is a great body of environmental laws and regulations, the majority created in the last decade, which significantly affects the daily life of each one of us.
Materialism aside, it is difficult to conceive of anything, except perhaps theology, of more speculative interest than environmentalism, dealing as it does with our relationship to the very air, water and land. As environmentalists (many of whom have been active in other reform movements) are quick to point out, if we cannot relate harmoniously to these planetary elements, if we cannot make secure the physical foundations of life, then all matters involving social affairs become trivial.
While what is now called the environmental movement is largely a phenomenon of the last decade, we are not the first Americans to be faced with environmental problems, or to be environmental activists. Just as concerns about civil and women's rights have been with us for decades, so have environmental ones. As a matter of historical interest and as an essential means of understanding the nature of the contemporary movement, it is worthwhile to consider our environmental roots.
As soon as they set foot in North America, European settlers were confronted by formidable environmental difficulties. The immense continent had too many trees, too much brush, too many swamps, too many raging rivers, too much desert, even too much wildlife. You cannot have, say, Omaha, Neb. and all it implies and 30 million free-ranging buffalo and all they imply. There was simply too much wilderness, and it was incompatible with what was then—and is now—regarded as civilization.
Almost unanimously, American pioneers found the wilderness difficult, dangerous and disagreeable. Beyond the obvious practical considerations, this opinion was shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition, which held that the wilderness was an abomination for man and in the eyes of God. Both common sense and semi-Biblical exhortations indicated that the duty of man was to tame these "deserts," turn them into "fruitful gardens," and use their natural resources. There was a corollary to this exploitative premise, succinctly stated by the ferocious Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather. "That which is not useful," thundered Mather, "is vicious."
The principal technique for making the wilderness habitable for increasing numbers of white men was, in the context of the times, an obvious and sensible one. It was to skim off the valuables closest to hand and when they were gone to move westward looking for more. In the 18th and early 19th centuries a man would commonly clear five or six farmsites in his life, each new one usually somewhat to the west of previous clearings. If the land played out in the Potomac Valley there was the Missouri Valley waiting to be plowed. If beaver disappeared in the Adirondacks there were more in Idaho. To the west of the pine forests of Maine were those of Michigan and beyond them those of Oregon.
Convenient as this use-it-up-and-move-on technique was, there were early indications that it would prove to have drawbacks, that it might be counterproductive in terms of profits, pleasure and the quality of life. In contemporary terms, unrestrained exploitation and consumption began to create difficulties. As the difficulties became more obvious and severe, there emerged a complex of principles and practices that it was hoped would solve them. These conservation concerns have been with us throughout most of our history.
Protecting natural resources from excessive exploitation was the first instance of conservation in America. Immense and fertile as the wilderness was, it shortly became apparent that Europeans commanded a technology formidable enough to overharvest a variety of useful and profitable products, especially timber and wildlife. Within a few years after the first settlements, some of these resources were in short supply here and there because they were being used faster than the wilderness could renew them. In response, even before 1700, colonists in New England, New York and Pennsylvania began to exercise legal restraints on private greed. They adopted ordinances that regulated timber cutting, encouraged reforestation and set limits on taking deer and other game. Throughout the next two centuries more and more complex preservationist regulations were formulated, but they were often only feeble restraints on the get-it-now-Jack-and-get-moving practices. Conservation regulations were passed piecemeal, state by state, even county by county, and often not until after irreparable damage had been done.
Utilitarian conservation problems—for example, the local disappearance of deer—were easy to identify and suggested obvious responses: stop killing so many of them. Ecological problems, which also commenced with the first settlements, were less easy to diagnose and address because they had to do with the immensely complicated total system that contained all resources, useful or "vicious." Though the word ecology was not coined until the 1870s, the central ecological principle had in fact been operative forever. It is that all aspects of planetary life, from one-celled plants to many-celled mammals, are ultimately connected to one another by a web of cause-and-effect relationships. If one strand is severed—or even jiggled a bit—the disturbance will inevitably be felt and will cause changes throughout the web.
American pioneers had a great capacity to bring about changes in the natural system. Seldom did they assess their activities in ecological terms, or consider how their jiggling affected the web of life. (Even today we are only minimally able to predict what the ecological consequences of very simple environmental actions will be.) However, quite soon it became apparent that the settlement of the continent was causing enormous changes in the natural system.