The origins of the American Environmental Movement can actually be traced all the way back to the nineteenth century when the American Frontier was beginning to close and man had conquered nearly all the blank corners of the map. Many think of the Environmental Movement starting with Rachel Carson and her famous book Silent Spring; but the foundations upon which modern environmental legislation and protection lies was laid down many years ago. Few famous Americans, from Authors to Presidents, have made the impact on how we view and understand nature as these four men. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862):
Henry David Thoreau was one of the first American authors to take a keen interest in the survival and protection of the natural world; but he was not just an author, he was also a naturalist, historian, philosopher, and a leading member of the Transcendentalist Movement. Perhaps his most famous work, Civil Disobedience, is an essay that advocates resistance to corrupt and fraudulent governments. Thoreau’s most famous work regarding nature was entitled Walden, or Life in the Woods; published in 1854, it recounted more than two years he spent in the Massachusetts wilderness at a cabin on Walden Pond. His work conjurs up our most primal and basic emotions as he explores how humans fit into nature. Thoreau’s later years were spent exploring and resurrecting the spirit of the American Wilderness; he traveled throughout New England and was reportedly very interested in the cultures of the Native Americans that once dominated the region. His lasting legacy also includes being one of the first Americans to recognize the need to protect nature and the natural processes of the land. Thoreau was perhaps the first true environmentalist that sought to protect nature from the destructive force that is man. Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946): One of the fore most experts on environmental science at the turn of the century, Gifford Pinchot is perhaps best known as the first Chief of the United States Forest Service, serving under President Roosevelt and later President Taft. He is less known however for a far more impressive accomplishment; Pinchot coined the term conservationism and was among the first to develop and practice methods of conservation when it comes to natural resources. After studying forestry in Germany, Pinchot returned to the United States to apply his knowledge to his homeland. Pinchot’s new knowledge allowed him to develop many new and sustainable forestry practices like selective cutting and the planting of new trees to keep forests both healthy and productive. Working with Roosevelt, the two were able to double the amount of forest lands that were controlled by the Federal Government to 151 million acres between 1905 and 1907. Additionally, Pinchot’s forward thinking and basic methods for conserving natural resources remain the cornerstone of many environmental programs and legislature even today. He is widely accepted to be the Father of American Forestry. John Muir (1838-1914): Most people know John Muir as the co-founder of the Sierra Club (along with Robert Underwood Johnson) which is the nation’s largest environmental group. Founded in 1892, it is Muir’s lasting legacy and continues to fight for the environmental causes he felt so strongly about a century ago. This Scottish-born writer and naturalist however, was a major opposing force to Pinchot’s idea of conversation, instead advocating ‘preservation of wilderness’. Muir and his followers were far more philosophical than conservationist counterparts like Pinchot and alter Presidents Roosevelt and Taft; they believed that nature should be preserved in its natural form to protect the dignity of the land. Muir’s biggest political fight came over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in California just north of San Francisco for hydro-electric power plant to power the city. Despite Muir’s persistence, the valley was eventually dammed in 1913 by an executive order issued by President Woodrow Wilson. Following the defeat, Muir became far less involved and a year later, he passed away. Muir was also well-known in his time for his wilderness adventures, often venturing into the wilderness for days or weeks at a time with little food or supplies. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919): Perhaps the most important President from an environmental standpoint was Theodore Roosevelt. Following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt became the youngest president ever to take office at 42 and he wasted no time getting to work. An avid outdoorsmen, naturalist, explorer and hunter, Roosevelt immediately aligned himself with the conservation movement and its leaders like Gifford Pinchot, who became one of his closest and most trusted advisers. Roosevelt immediately began setting aside land for National Parks, Wildlife Refugees, National Forests and just about everything else. BY the end of his second term, By the time he left office in 1909, Roosevelt had created 5 new National Parks, 51 Bird Reserves, 4 Game Preserves, 150 National Forests, 18 new U.S. National Monuments and established the United States Forest Service to regulate logging on Federal Lands. In all, it is estimated that the Roosevelt Administration set aside more the 230 million acres of land throughout the country to protect the America’s wilderness. Independent of all his accomplishments, Roosevelt was so important because he was the first president to put the environment on the National Agenda and in the process, solidified is place as one of the world’s first true environmental leaders.
The current movement, I think, is not a homogenous, hierarchical group. There is no set organization, with one appointed leader. One can argue President Obama and Governor Swcharzenegger are among the political leaders, Thomas Friedman is an economic leader, and Al Gore is a business leader in the green movement. There are many facets to the environmental movement, and it is being undertaken at the federal, state, local, and individual level. Moreover, I dont think it has, nor is currently a movement in which people identify a certain phrase, statement, or title to. It is not a single organization, but instead an attitude, and I think that is what makes it most effective.
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