The Printshop low resolution image.jpg

The Print Shop, oil on canvas by German artist, D. Heim, depicting a duplex printing press, converted from steam to electric power, ca. 1900.





The invention of the printing press is widely recognized as one of the most significant developments in all of human history.  With it knowledge and ideas could be widely disseminated, setting the stage for the Enlightenment, and helping to usher in the modern era.  Influential authors are responsible, in whole or in part, for initiating major societal movements including the Protestant Reformation (i.e., the Bible printed in the local vernacular), the abolition of slavery in the United States (think about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin), women’s suffrage in Britain and the U.S., and innumerable others, including the rise of the modern environmental movement. 


In this essay, we examine the contributions and impact of several notable American environmental writers spanning the period from the Early Republic through the 20th Century.  We will look briefly at the contributions of James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson in furthering the modern environmental movement.  Arguably, not only were these individuals responsible for starting the environmental movement within the U.S. but also globally.  Without their contributions, it is likely that the importance of environmental stewardship and sustainability would not be widely recognized or understood.  We will also consider what characteristics future works of literature will need in order to support environmental progress globally.  Who will the Rachel Carson of the 21st century be, and what form will her work take in our current digital age?

The Modern Environmental Movement and the Authors who Contributed to It:

The noted environmental scholar, Ramachandra Guha [1], describes two phases in the development of the modern environmental movement: the First and Second Waves. The First Wave was characterized by the development of intellectual thought centering on the need for and importance of environmental stewardship and protection.  The Second Wave was characterized by the popularization of environmental ideas and philosophies developed during the First Wave and their subsequent broad-based adoption by the general population.  The broad-based adoption of the notions of environmentalism by the general population was the catalyst within the United States that led the federal government to adopt laws and regulations to protect the environment through statutory means. From the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, the United States was the first industrialized nation to adopt comprehensive federal laws to protect the environment.  Other developed nations, especially those in Western Europe and Japan, soon followed.


The First Wave spans the approximate time period from the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century through the decade of the 1960s.  During this time, many authors and intellectuals wrote extensively in response to the observed degradation of the natural world as evidenced by rapid deforestation, uncontrolled hunting of such species as the American Bison and Passenger Pigeon, and the extensive burning of coal which generated smog in major cities like London, among other examples.  Some of the earliest authors writing in this genre were from Great Britain. For example, the great romantic age British poets William Wordsworth and William Blake wrote eloquently of the rural ideal.  However, starting in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a preponderance of the writings on nature and conservation--which are precursors to environmentalism as we now understand it--were American in origin.

There are a number of noteworthy American authors who in some way contributed to an appreciation of the natural world during this First Wave period.  However, this essay will feature several whose works most significantly influenced the nascent environmental movement during the First Wave--namely, James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.

James Madison (the fourth President of the United States) may not be as well known for his environmental sensibilities as he is for his political accomplishments but his contribution to the First Wave is significant nonetheless.  Like several other of America’s Founding Fathers (e.g., George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams), Madison was a landowner and a farmer.  His identity as a farmer predated his involvement in the American Revolution and politics and it profoundly shaped his world view.  In fact, Madison, along with the other Founding Fathers, based much of the philosophy of the American system of government on a vision of America’s citizenry being a nation of yeoman farmers and landowners.   A fascinating book that connects the agricultural roots of America’s founders to the system of government they advocated is Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners, The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation [2].  Madison, more than the other founders, understood the connection between agriculture and ecology.  While the likes of Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about proper farming practices and what crop varieties were preferred, Madison wrote the following in his famous 1818 address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle [3]:

“The earth contains not less than thirty or forty thousand kinds of plants; not less than six or seven hundred of birds; nor less than three or four hundred of quadrupeds; to say nothing of the thousand species of fishes. Of reptiles and insects, there are more than can be numbered. To all these must be added, the swarms and varieties of animalcules and minute vegetables not visible to the natural eye, but whose existence is probably connected with that of visible animals and plants.”

“On comparing this vast profusion and multiplicity of beings with the few grains and grasses, the few herbs and roots, and the few fowls and quadrupeds, which make up the short list adapted to the wants of man, it is difficult to believe that it lies with him so to remodel the work of nature as it would be remodelled, by a destruction not only of individuals, but of entire species; and not only of a few species, but of every species, with the very few exceptions which he might spare for his own accommodation.”

In these two paragraphs, Madison sets forth two principles that are foundational to the modern environmental movement: (1) the interconnectedness of all the species in a given ecosystem—both visible and microscopic, and (2) that man has no right to alter or destroy the natural ecosystem just to further his own objectives.  This second principle contradicts the earlier Puritan notion of man’s right to have dominion over the Earth.

          With the passing of the Revolutionary generation, a new generation of American naturalists emerged.  This generation is epitomized by Henry David Thoreau, born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts.  Thoreau belonged to the Transcendentalist movement, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May Alcott) [4]. Transcendentalists believed that spiritual fulfillment was to be found through immersion in and study of the natural world, not through institutionalized religion. Thoreau’s most famous literary work, Walden, recounts the two years he spent living a primitive life in the Massachusetts woods near Walden Pond.  Walden, along with several essays he wrote late in life, advocate for Thoreau’s views on what is now known as ecology.   Thoreau’s other most famous literary work--the essay, Civil Disobedience--is also significant to the modern environmental movement.  Although Thoreau intended Civil Disobedience to be a critique on overly intrusive government and a treatise for how citizens should protest government actions they view to be unjust, his ideas of non-violent resistance were later used by activists such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King to promote social change.  Within today’s environmental movement, such organizations as Greenpeace employ Thoreau’s principles of non-violent resistance. 

          The Transcendentalist Movement deeply influenced another major environmental writer and advocate--John Muir.  Muir, born in Scotland in 1835, immigrated to the US with his parents as a child and was raised on a farm in Wisconsin.  He attended the University of Wisconsin Madison for several years, but never earned a degree because his choices of classes were too broad and eclectic to qualify as a concentrated major.  While at Madison, he studied chemistry, botany, geology, and various other subjects, which he later in life said may not have earned him a degree, but which prepared him ‘for his future wanderings’ [5]. After college, Muir traveled pretty much continuously for the next two decades.  Immediately following college he traveled for six years, visiting, in succession: Canada, Florida, Cuba, and New York.  It was during this time that he made his famous 1000 mile nature walk from Indiana to Florida. After a brief time in New York, Muir booked passage on a ship to California.  He ended up in the Yosemite area of California in 1868, where he lived in a primitive cabin for the next six years, studying Yosemite’s geology, wildlife, and botany, and reading and writing extensively. While in Yosemite, he struggled to survive because he was frequently unemployed and had no prospects for a career.  During this difficult time, Muir took solace in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in doing so adopted many of the philosophical beliefs of Transcendentalism, which were layered upon his existing scientific training and knowledge.  In the mid 1870s, Muir traveled to Alaska and was one of the first European Americans to explore Glacier Bay.  Several years later, he traveled to Washington state and spent time climbing Mount Rainier and writing Ascent of Mount Rainier.  In his mid 40s, Muir married the daughter of a California fruit ranch owner and  settled down, managing the ranch, and continuing to write and advocate on behalf of the wilderness, and especially on behalf of the Yosemite area.   He was responsible for Yosemite becoming a national park and he was the co-founder of the Sierra Club, an organization that still exists to advocate on behalf of environmental stewardship and responsible use of the Earth’s resources [6].  Muir’s views on the environment were characterized by a belief in preservation rather than conservation.  He believed that wild areas should be left undisturbed, rather than believing that it was proper to merely manage them in a sustainable manner.  In this view, he differed from other conservationists of his day, who argued for “responsible” use of natural resources, such as the selective cutting of timber in natural areas and limited hunting of game.  Perhaps Muir’s biggest legacy within the environmental movement was that he was among the first of America’s environmental writers who was also an activist.  He not only wrote about nature and about the need for preservation, but lobbied and organized effectively for change.  In this way, he was perhaps more like modern environmentalists than any of his contemporaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


          The last of the First Wave environmental writers we will explore is Aldo Leopold. Leopold, born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, was drawn to the outdoors as a child, where he avidly hiked and catalogued species of birds, plants, and animals that he observed in the wild. Upon hearing of a new college program in forestry started at Yale University in 1900, the 13 year old Leopold decided on a career in forestry.  He ultimately entered that program at Yale in 1905.  Upon graduation from Yale, he worked for the US Forest Service, primarily in Arizona and New Mexico for the next 15 years, where he developed the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, and helped to establish a wilderness designation for the Gila Wilderness Area, the first such wilderness area set-aside in the US Forest Service system.  The Forest Service transferred him to the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924 to serve there as its associate director.  He was subsequently appointed to a professorship in Game Management at the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1933.  While living in Madison and teaching there, he bought an eighty acre farm in central Wisconsin where he spent vacations and weekends.  It was on this farm that the inspiration for Leopold’s seminal environmental work, A Sand County Almanac [7], was born. Leopold worked the land on the farm to help restore its natural ecosystem because the farm had been logged and overgrazed at the time he purchased it.  He used his observations of the farm’s ecosystem along with his past experiences in forestry as inspiration for the essays in A Sand County Almanac.  Through these essays, Leopold reveals an environmental philosophy that includes a “wilderness ethic” similar to Muir’s.  He believed that wild places should be valued for their own sake and left undisturbed whenever possible rather than “managed.” This view put him into opposition with the utilitarian conservationists of the early 20th century such as Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt.  The utilitarian conservationists advocated that nature be conserved so that it could be enjoyed by man through hunting and other recreational activities. Leopold also advocated for the “land ethic,” a concept which encourages the management of wildlife habitats by both public and private landowners.  Leopold believed that adequate conservation of ecosystems could not occur just by managing public lands, and that private landowners, educated in the basics of ecology and the scientific principles of land management, needed to embrace these principles if sufficient conservation was to occur.  A Sand Country Almanac was almost never published because Leopold finished it only a month before he died.  His family was instrumental in its subsequent publication in 1949 [8].  In some sense, Leopold can be viewed as a bridge between the First and Second Wave environmental writers because his writings did engage large numbers of readers who were already outdoor enthusiasts.  However, the larger population remained generally unaware of the importance of his works until they were re-popularized after the Second Wave had arrived.


          In moving from the First Wave to the Second Wave of environmentalism, we move from a period in which environmental writing and thought were largely the realm of intellectuals and academics to a period when environmentalism was embraced by large cross sections of the American populace.  This represents a significant paradigm shift because it was a necessary precursor to the major federal environmental regulations passed in the late 1960s and 1970s, e.g., the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund legislation, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Environmental scholar and activist Martin Branagan asserts that without grassroots support fundamental environmental reform is not possible [9].  Thus, without the shift from the First Wave to the Second Wave of the environmental movement, our current level of environmental protections and reforms would not have occurred.  The environmental writer who almost single-handedly ushered in the Second Wave was Rachel Carson.


          Rachel Carson, born in 1907, held an MS degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins and worked for two decades in relative anonymity as a science editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  During this time, she also did freelance journalism for a number of popular publications such as the Atlantic Monthly, primarily on topics related to the oceans and the ecosystems of the sea.  She first became nationally known for her best-selling books on the oceans--The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea.   The Sea Around Us garnered her the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1952.  For some time, she had been reading research studies and reviewing anecdotal accounts of the impact of pesticides on the natural world.  She became convinced that synthetic pesticides, especially DDT, were responsible for significant environmental damage, including the decline of a number of bird species.  At the encouragement of E.B. White, then the editor of The New Yorker, she embarked on an investigative journalism project to document pesticide impacts.  Silent Spring, published in 1962, was the result of her efforts.  This book, which contains an allegorical account of an American town without birds and other wildlife, captured the imagination of the American public like no book on the environment up to that point in time.  So impactful was Silent Spring that Carson was invited to testify before Congress in 1963 on the dangers of pesticides.  DDT was banned shortly thereafter, and the major pieces of environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s that continue in effect to the present day, e.g. the Clean Water Act, are directly attributable to popular and political support created by the publication of Silent Spring. It seemed that the only entities not enthralled with Carson’s work were a number of the major chemical corporations who produced DDT and other synthetic pesticides.  These companies spent large sums of money trying to discredit Carson and to smear her reputation, accusing her of junk science, and warning the American public that without pesticides, America would soon be so overrun by insects that we would be unable to grow enough food to feed our population [10].  Despite these scare tactics, the modern environmental movement in America was born.  Silent Spring was translated into a number of languages and also helped to ignite the world-wide environmental movement.    


The Future of Environmental Action and How It might be shaped through Literature:

          By certain narrow measures, our environment today is in much better condition than in 1962.  Through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Superfund legislation, and a host of other regulatory actions, both in the US and abroad, we are now required to clean up many of the damaging by-products we generate in our daily lives before they enter the environment. Municipal and industrial waste water treatment is now the norm in the developed world; Lake Erie, a ‘dead’ lake in the 1960s, now supports a thriving Walleye population.  In the developed world, air emissions of toxic chemicals from power plants and other industrial sources have been significantly reduced. Recognition is beginning to dawn on the governments of China and India that air pollution threatens their peoples and economies, and in the near future air pollution controls like those used in the West will likely become more commonplace.  New pesticides and herbicides must undergo testing protocols before being allowed on the market to demonstrate they are safe.  There are many other similar examples.

          In a broader sense, however, the world faces environmental problems that are global and so fundamental in nature that they must be addressed if Earth, as we know it, is to survive.   Greenhouse gas emissions linked to global climate change, potable water shortages worldwide, deforestation, and overfishing of the oceans are just a few of the severe impacts we face as a planet.  Unlike the environmental battles in the 1960s and 1970s which were focused on narrow issues and geographically limited in scope, today’s environmental problems can only be effectively addressed on a global scale and they will require significant changes in how man interacts with the planet.  Wealthy multinational corporations with vested interests in the status quo along with dysfunctional political systems in many nations hamper direct action. 

     Given the scope of world environmental problems, is it even plausible that environmental writers can be drivers for fundamental reform?   The answer to this question is uncertain, but were such writers to emerge, their work would need to possess these characteristics:

  • ·       It would engage readers on both a rational and emotional level, as have all transformative literary works of the past.


  • ·       It would build a persuasive case against the modern materialist mind-set.  Humans cannot continue to use earth resources at the rate they are. It is unsustainable to try to support a life-style like that experienced in the U.S. during the 20th century.  This does not mean humanity must return to the Dark Ages, but it will require that we refocus our interests in a direction that does not promote rabid consumption.  It also means that we will have to make maximum use of energy conservation, renewable energy sources, water conservation and reuse, sustainable wildlife, forestry and farming practices, and materials reuse and recycling on a global scale.   The challenge will be for writers to frame this new paradigm in a way so that it is perceived as positive and even enjoyable rather than as sacrificial.  
  • ·       It would appeal to a broad spectrum of religions, cultures, and types of government. Not only do we live in a diverse world, but society seems to be becoming increasingly fractious, with the spirit of cooperation and civil discourse increasingly rare.  There is pressure to demonize the “other.”  The mass media, rather than helping to correct this, has been complicit in fostering it through sensational journalism and reporting.  The effective writer will have to make the case that there is more that connects us as humans than divides us.  He will also have to build the case that it is in the best interests of all to cooperate in addressing global environmental concerns.    


  • ·       It would build the economic case.  Those who argue against the sorts of paradigm shifts needed to ensure a sustainable future for planet Earth and its inhabitants often use arguments based on economics.  They claim such changes are too expensive.  They claim such changes will result in the loss of competitive advantage of one nation over another.  They claim such changes will result in diminished economic status for all.   The economic case must be made persuasively that the ultimate costs of doing nothing will dwarf the costs of any changes we implement now.  Such economic arguments are well developed within academia, but they need to be presented in an accessible and engaging way.


  • ·       It would promote grassroots action.  Governments and corporations tend to favor the status quo unless constituents and customers argue for change.  Even in non-democracies such as China, citizen pressure can foster change.  


  • ·       It would be presented using media that effectively engage 21st century minds and which takes full advantage of the digital revolution. Smart phones, Facebook and other social media sites, graphic novels, interactive computer gaming, the Internet, e-Books….  There is a lengthy list of new media and devices through which writers can reach their audiences.  The transformative environmental writer of the future will have to engage people using these media.


     Ever since Gutenberg, major social changes have been catalyzed through literature.   While 21st century environmental challenges are daunting, they, too, can be addressed through building a global consensus.  It is fortunate that such a consensus can be promoted through literature:

The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.



References and Further Reading:

  1. Guha, Ramachandra, Environmentalism: A Global History, Longman Publishing, 2000.  ISBN 0-321-01169-4.
  2. Wulf, Andrea, Founding Gardeners, the Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-26990-4.
  3. Madison, James, “Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, 12 May 1818,” The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, Volume 1: 4 March 1817-31, January 1820, edited by David B Mattern, J.C.A. Stagg, Mary Parke-Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
  4. Witherwell, E., and DuBrulle, E., “The Life and Times of Henry David Thoreau”, published by the Thoreau Library, for the 150th anniversary celebration of the publication of Walden, 1995.
  5. Holmes, S.J., Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography, University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. ISBN 10: 0299161544.
  6. “John Muir”, Wikipedia, 
  7. Leopold, A., A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River, republished by Ballantine Books in 1986, ISBN -10: 0345345053.
  8. Meine, C., Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 1988.  ISBN 0-299-11490-2.
  9. Branagan, M., “Environmental Education, Activism, and the Arts,” Convergence, Vol. 38, No. 4, 2005, p.33-50.
  10. Griswold, E., “How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement”, The New York Times Magazine, September 21, 2012.


Coming in early 2014 is Installment Nine of this series:  “From Lanterns to LEDs – A Look at the Evolution of Sustainable Lighting,” an essay inspired by the painting Glassblowing by Hugo von Bouvard.