On September 30, 1847, Congressman George Perkins Marsh delivered a speech on agricultural conditions in New England to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. This powerful address gave voice to ideas that would become a catalytic force in the movement to conserve America’s natural resources. Marsh recognized the human capacity for destruction of the environment and advocated better management of resources and active efforts toward restoration of the land—innovative ideas for the period.
But though man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action.
“Address Delivered Before the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Sept. 30, 1847,” by George Perkins Marsh. Rutland, Vt.: printed at the Herald Office, 1848. p. 11. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
Born in Woodstock, Vermont, Marsh was a lifelong spokesman for the preservation and care of natural resources. A successful lawyer deeply learned in several fields, he read some twenty languages fluently and became an acclaimed philologist. Marsh also studied silviculture (the development and care of forests) and soil conservation. In 1842, he was elected to Congress, where he served four terms. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Marsh to serve as U.S. minister to Italy, a post he happily occupied for the rest of his life. While in Italy in 1864, Marsh published his pioneering book Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, analyzing the destructive impact of human activity on the natural world and arguing for the necessity of mitigating it. “[M]an is everywhere a disturbing agent,” Marsh wrote:
Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. The proportions and accommodations which insured the stability of existing arrangements are overthrown. Indigenous vegetable and animal species are extirpated, and supplanted by others of foreign origin, spontaneous production is forbidden or restricted, and the face of the earth is either laid bare or covered with a new and reluctant growth of vegetable forms, and with alien tribes of animal life.
Man and nature; or, Physical geography as modified by human action. By George P. Marsh. New York: Charles Scribner, 1864. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
Marsh’s book prophetically established some of the major themes of environmental thought into the twenty-first century and added to the momentum that the conservation movement was gaining in the United States. The writings of American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau promoted the idea that contact with nature, especially in its wildest state, was beneficial to the human spirit. Naturalist John Muir settled in California and began speaking out for the protection of wild lands, especially the Yosemite Valley. In 1872, Congress declared the Yellowstone region of Wyoming the world’s first national park.