Inventing Ecology: From George Perkins Marsh to Aldo Leopold


Earlier class emphasized tie between conservation movement and progressive era politics: especially how ideology of seeing the executive branch of government (esp. personified by Theodore Roosevelt) as representative of "the people" versus the "special interests" gave executive branch unprecedented power in land use management; whereas earlier federal government's principal policy was getting public land into private development as quickly as possible, whether timber & stone act, homestead act, grants to railroads, after turn of the century government retains ownership of land and leases development rights subject to regulation of new executive branch administrative agencies, such as the US Forest Service.  This gave increasing weight to the view of scientific experts in natural resources to determine "maximum sustainable yield"; under Gifford Pinchot gospel of efficiency that natural resources should be used efficiently and not wasted.  Set up economic basis to conservation of natural resources; it made good economic sense over the long term.


But just as more decision-making power was put into the hands of scientific experts at the turn of the century a new view of the relationship of humans and nature arose: that of ecology.  Understanding history of ecological view of nature asd it developed in 20C is as important to environmental history as understanding biblical, capitalist, and romantic views of nature that arose in 19C.   Will discuss emergence of ecology as two interrelated developments--an interrelation especially evident in the writings of Aldo Leopold--ecology as science and ecology as ethics.  Then will discuss implications of this view for traditional American ideas of progress (both FJ Turner & Aldo Leopold lived in Wisconsin--how do their ideas relate?).  Can ideas of stewardship and biotic community work in a liberal society based on individualism and economic opportunity?


The central tenet of ecological view of nature--that humans are part of natural community and that morality includes not only human-human relationships but also human-animal, human-plant, even human-rock relationships; that all of nature, including humans, are part of a single whole;  can be found in Thoreau.  Thoreau considered plants and animals part of his "community" at Walden pond.  We can also find a biocentrism in John Muir--though his later writings, for public, political persuasion, argued wilderness use for humans as therapy and scenery.


But the first scientific brief for interrelationship of humans and nature and ecological thinking was George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature: Or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864).  Marsh lived in Vermont, did detailed studies of "watersheds" and how human deforestation in Vermont caused soil erosion and other changes.  Let's look at what Marsh said:


(interrelationship of animal and vegetable life too complex for humans to solve; that we can never know how wide a disturbance we produce in harmonies with nature)



Second mid-19C scientist important to development of ecological ideas in America was Charles Darwin--after all, his Origin of Species and theory of evolution saw humans as part of animal world;  Darwin's ideas of natural selection adapted to "social darwinism" and survival of fittest, but in fact his own views of human society stressed evolution of ethics--that in "higher species" ethical concerns more highly developed and stewardship for those lower on evolutionary ladder form of civilization.   NOTE that there was body of law governing abuse of spouses, children, slaves, and domestic animals in 19C--that white men were stewards for those less powerful and while they existed for use, we must not injure their welfare.  (In Great Britain SPCA founded 1824--laws against bear-baiting 1835, cock fighting 1849, vivisection without anestetics 1876; in US SPCA founded 1866, laws much later.


First scientific use of term ecology comes from German biologist and Darwin disciple Ernest Haeckel in 1866, to describe how organisms interacted with each other and with their total environment.  This idea picked up by chemist Ellen Swallow in 1910, and more influentially, by biologist Frederick Clements of the University of Nebraska in 1916.  Note how in work of Clements metaphor of community to describe non-human relationships--a plant "community"--had strong moral overtones.  No one likes to break up a community.  If plants are part of our community then we are interdependent and have mutual obligations.  Clements coins term "biotic community" in 1939.   Also in 1916 work Clements idea of plant succession on prairies, in which "climax" vegetation was like a single mature organism, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Compare how Nebrasan Clements develops theory of plants settling and maturing just as Wisconsin's Turner describes the settlement and stable climax of human communities on the frontier.


Contrast: while Clements used humanistic metaphors such as community, British botanist Arthur Tansley used physics metaphors--coined term "ecosystem" in 1935.  Idea that the purpose of a species to perform its role in the system.


Another British scientist important to development of ecology as system idea not mentioned directly in Merchant, Major Problems in Environmental History (but cited in Lindeman excerpt on p. 453 and in Worster essay in Merchant on pg 468) is Biologist Charles Elton, who coined term "food chain" and "ecological niche" in 1927.  Note the changes in how organisms are classified--not according to what they look like, but according to what it eats.  


"Science" of ecology followed Elton and Tansley in measuring the ecosystem like an economic or phyiscal system, highly quanitified in terms of energy imputs and outflows using biochemistry and thermodynamics.  With rise of biochemistry, plain nature study went out of style in biology, as ecology becomes a technical, "hard" science.


Key is that this science was respected (perhaps because of its proponents efforts to root discipline in numbers), and by 1940s textbooks such as Principles of Animal Ecology made idea of holism and interdependence of species scientific "fact".   Key figure was Eugene Odom who advanced view that there was a "balance of nature" that humans are part of and ought not upset. These facts had public policy implications as early as the 1930s-- Donald Worster's Dust Bowl describes how Presidential Commission on Future of the Great Plains in 1936 argued that the "dust bowl" was a human-made disaster stemming from failing to heed the lessons of "ecology". (Though it would not be until 1962 and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring that scientific ideas such as food chain and web of life were extended in popular way.)


Essential achievement of ecological scientific vision was to assert a biological basis to the "community" which humans and other organisms shared, in contrast to Thoreau and Muir's more transcendental spiritual/religious holism.  (NOTE THAT THESE TWO NOT OPPOSED).






1949 not only year Principles of Animal Ecology published but also Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac.  Leopold's book had been rejected by a number of publishers and from 1949-60s sold only a few thousand copies.  Book did not become popular until after Rachel Carson and modern environmental movement.


While other scientists developed ecology in qualititative direction, Leopold examined science of ecology's implications for human society and ethics. Here are some questions to consider as you read Leopold in relation to earlier course readings:

1. How, if at all, does Aldo Leopold's idea of "thinking like a mountain" differ from the environmental philosophy of a Henry David Thoreau or John Muir? Where do these writers agree and disagree in their view of the relationship of humans and nature?

2. William Cronon argues that part of the "trouble" with ideas of wilderness preservation popularized by writers such as John Muir is that they lead environmentalists to neglect the needs of the mass of Americans who live in urban areas. . What, if anything, can the "Land Ethic" that Aldo Leopold proposes in Sand County Almanac offer the residents of what Lewis Mumford called "the intolerable city?"

3.. In 1910, Gifford Pinchot outlined "the principles of conservation" (The Fight for Conservation, pp. 40-52). In 1948, Aldo Leopold proposed a "Land Ethic" in part as a critique of existing conservation practices. Where, according to Leopold, did the fight for conservation go wrong? Do you think his land ethic idea would work any better as a conservation tool? Could either approach have averted environmental catastrophes such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s?