Modern America is rooted in nature reform

Adam Rome

In the late nineteenth century, hundreds of American towns became congested, polluted industrial cities. The vast forests of the Great lakes were cut down. Millions of acres of grassland were transformed into farms and ranches. In response to these profound changes in the environment, citizens of many types organized to stop pollution, conserve natural resources, and preserve wild places and wild creatures.

“Their efforts led to many laws, institutions, and government agencies that still shape the American landscape,” said Adam Rome, a Center Research Fellow and Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University. “The environmental reforms of the period also had far-reaching political, social, and cultural consequences. To cite just one example, environmental activism was one of the principal ways women entered the public sphere in the years around 1900, and the energy of women in addressing environmental problems strengthened the campaign for suffrage.”

Rome is working on a book, Sustaining the Nation: Environmental Reform and the Emergence of Modern America, in which he aims to tell the story of the formative period of environmental reform—roughly 1865 to 1915--as part of the story of the emergence of modern America.

“In addition to changing the way scholars understand the history of environmental reform, this project will shed light on the political, social, and cultural history of the United States in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. I hope to demonstrate that the insights of my specialty—environmental history—are critical in understanding the emergence of modern America.”

Standard surveys of the period give little space to environmental issues, said Rome. “Though a few classic works about resource conservation and wilderness preservation addressed issues of great significance for political and cultural historians, much of the recent work on those subjects has sought to explain the roots of contemporary environmental problems, not to contribute to a deeper understanding of the historic transformation wrought by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.”

In what he describes as a “holistic” approach, Rome is analyzing the various forms of activism that prevailed at the time, including the conservation movement, wilderness preservation campaigns, anti-pollution efforts, and attempts to “green” the urban landscape. Most scholars have focused on only one form of activism, said Rome, even though at the time “many people participated in multiple reform campaigns. Activists in different causes often used similar strategies and made similar arguments. By analyzing similarities and differences among all forms of environmental reform in this period, I hope to make fresh arguments about their significance.

“Though some people argued between 1865 and 1915 for a new ethic to guide decisions about land use, the common denominator in the activism of the period was a sense that the vast transformation of the environment wrought by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration had unintended consequences that threatened the nation’s future. In different ways, most environmental reformers sought to sustain the nation materially and spiritually.”

Rome’s book The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge UP, 2001) received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, given annually by the Organization of American Historians for the best first book on any topic in American history.