George Perkins Marsh – the prophet of conservation
150 years ago, in 1864,George Perkins Marsh published the book that was to earn him the title of "Prophet of Conservation". In "Man and Nature, or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action" Marsh put forward the idea that human activity could, and did, significantly alter the appearance and productivity of the landscape, and even the climate of our planet.
He saw this as a recipe for the destruction of humanity:
"The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence… would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species." - Man and Nature, p. 43
Up to this time, no one had studied the earth as the home of humankind or described the interdependence of environmental and social relationships as Marsh did:
"The Equation of animal and vegetable life is too complicated a problem for human intelligence to solve and we can never know how wide a circle of disturbance we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble into the ocean of organic life." - Man and Nature, p.103
"Man and Nature" was well received and widely read, laying the groundwork for the conservation movement of the 20th century, inspiring the Arbor Day movement, the establishment of forest reserves and the national forest service.
Vermonter, lawyer, congressman, ambassador, linguist and sage, George Perkins Marsh was born in1801 in a wooden farm house on the property that is now Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. During exhaustive studies and extensive travels he realized the scope of human alteration of landscape in Europe, the Middle East, and at home in the United States.
George Perkins Marsh died in 1881 in office as U.S. Ambassador to Italy, leaving a collection of 11,000 books, which found their way to the University of Vermont via the good offices of Marsh's fellow Vermonter Frederick Billings, and a legacy of an environmental vision that, while firmly grounded in 19th century philosophy, carries a poignant relevance to the planet's present predicament.