A Place for Nature: The Industrial Origins of Modern EnvironmentalismEPA Grant Number: U915162
Title: A Place for Nature: The Industrial Origins of Modern Environmentalism
Investigators: Summers, Gregory S.
Institution: University of Wisconsin - Madison
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: January 1, 1997 through January 1, 2000
Project Amount: $102,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (1997) RFA Text | Recipients Lists
Research Category: Fellowship - Environmental History , Academic Fellowships , Ecological Indicators/Assessment/Restoration
The objective of this research project is to examine the origins of environmentalism in the United States, while examining the role played by technological and economic development in fostering a growing concern among Americans regarding the human impact on the natural world. This research project will examine whether technology and capitalism helped to facilitate the rise of environmentalism.
I approach this problem by examining the history of one region in particular, Wisconsin's Fox River Valley, where the pollution of the local Fox River became an issue of major public debate as early as the late 1940s. On the one hand, people's opposition to pollution stemmed from the declining condition of the river itself, which had grown increasingly contaminated over the years with effluent generated by the region's paper industry. On the other hand, however, local citizens also opposed pollution because they had begun to value the river in different ways than they previously had. The Fox River had been used primarily as a source of transportation and water power for industry, but by the mid-twentieth century, it also had served as a source of leisure, recreation, and scenic beauty for area residents. It was this shift in perspective that led many citizens to oppose the pollution of the river. My research project investigates why this perspective emerged. I have found that technology and capitalism played key roles. During the first half of the twentieth century, the Valley—similar to many parts of the United States—underwent a profound technological and economic transformation, which dramatically altered the daily routines of people's lives. I consider three components of that transformation: the advent of electricity, the construction of a network of paved highways, and the evolution of a consumer society. These three elements changed the essence of the human relationship to nature by creating the opportunity for people to appreciate the more pleasurable aspects of the region's natural environment. Few local residents, for example, considered the Fox River to be an important scenic asset until paved highways gave them a simple and convenient means of exploring the aesthetic beauty of the Valley's landscape. In this way, technology and capitalism helped facilitate the rise of environmentalism in the region.