First along the River: A Brief History of the U.S. Environmental Movement

By Allen, Marcus T. | Journal of Real Estate Literature, January 1999 | Go to article overview

First along the River: A Brief History of the U.S. Environmental Movement


Allen, Marcus T., Journal of Real Estate Literature


Kline, Benjamin. First Along the River:A Brief History of the US. Environmental Movement. San Francisco: Acada Books, 1997, 166 pages.

Like the water level in a tidal pool, the environmental movement in the United States seems to move in a persistent pattern of ebb and flow. Benjamin Kline, a historian at San Jose State University, has written a chronological presentation of the environmental movement since its beginning around 1900 to the current climate of environmentalism in the United States. Unlike many environmental authors who champion their personal ecological causes, Kline's presentation is an objective accounting of our nations's evolving attitudes toward its natural environment. Although written as a history text, Kline's book is well suited for use as a supplemental reading text in real estate principles and investment courses, land-use planning curriculum, urban economics, and other disciplines that concern the built environment.

Kline begins his accounting by discussing the philosophical foundations of humanity's changing attitudes, values, and relationship to the environment. Judeo-Christian tradition holds that God gave humanity dominion over the earth and all beasts, winged things, creeping things, and fishes that live upon it. As Christianity became the predominant faith in Europe by the end of the sixth century, displacing paganism, most Europeans accepted the notion that nature was supposed to be harnessed for the benefit of humans because God decreed it so. During the middle ages and into the fifteenth century, Western society persistently struggled to use and exploit the natural environment. Through the eighteenth century, however, scholarship by scientists such as Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Copernicus, and Descartes shifted away from long held Biblical attitudes about nature and toward the notion that living things acted and reacted according laws or principles that could be observed and defined. Because humans are the only creatures that have conscious thought, humanity was still considered dominant, not because of God's will but because of its ability to reason and define nature.

Kline argues that when the first settlers arrived in the New World in search of a place free of religious persecution, they believed that they had a God-given right to occupy the continent and use its resources to support a new nation. By 1860, Euro-Americans had effectively conquered the Native Americans and much of the environment between the east and west coasts of North America. Still subscribing to the tradition of the earliest settlers, most Americans regarded the western frontier as an area of great opportunity destined to be tamed. Exploration and dominion of the North American wilderness continued to be a widely accepted objective (our Manifest Destiny). Frontier explorers and settlers believed that the environment existed only for their benefit and that by taming it they could easily provide for their limitless needs. Little thought was given to the idea that some of the continent's unique natural resources were being depleted at a rapid rate.

As the western frontier was conquered, it became obvious to some that the natural landscape was being forever altered in the name of growth and expansion. Writers such as Emerson and Thoreau in the late 1800s became representatives of the American Transcendentalist movement, which recognized the importance of harmony between humanity and the natural environment. Their writings drew attention to the dramatic impact of urbanization on the natural environment.

One of the first direct attacks on the view that nature existed to be tamed and conquered came in 1864 from author George Marsh. In his book Man and Nature, Marsh argues that the power to alter the natural environment carriers with it the responsibility to manage it effectively. By 1872, such warnings had caught the attention of the federal government, and the first publicly owner park in the world, Yellowstone National Park, was established by Congress. …

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