Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley, 1850-1950
Environmental debates often pit the protection of nature against economic growth. But as Gregory Summers reveals, environmentalism has unsuspected roots in consumerism that extend deeper than our present-day dilemmas. In Consuming Nature, he tells of an early confrontation that set the stage for Silent Spring, pushing the dawn of environmental politics back several decades.
Summers takes readers to Wisconsin's Fox River Valley more than fifty years ago to recount how technological and economic progress contributed to residents' growing opposition to the industrial pollution of the river. On the one hand, there was the Wisconsin paper industry-long the largest employer in the area but also largely responsible for polluting the Fox River. On the other hand, there was the burgeoning demand for outdoor recreation among local residents, which put the river's recreational and aesthetic benefits on an equal footing with its industrial potential. As a result, many citizens felt that paper mills no longer deserved carte blanche to dump their waste.
“Summers helps us understand America’s transition from a producer to a consumer society. He also sheds light on important aspects of modern environmentalism, particularly the way, for most Americans, the connection between the large-scale manipulation of nature and the consumption of various goods and services became largely hidden.”
—Annals of Iowa
“By examining people's everyday relationship and their appetites for the various representations of wilderness, historians like Summers have yielded narratives that relate all kinds of people to the environmental movement, as well as to ‘the corridors of power.’”
—History CompassSee all reviews...
“A well-organized and exceptionally well-documented study that is an important contribution both the regional history and to environmental history.”
—American Historical Review
“Simply put, this book is an important addition to the literature. Summers has produced a unique and fresh perspective on the roots of modern environmentalism. As such, this book should find a wide audience not only in Wisconsin but also among environmental historians and, indeed, anyone concerned about the future of the natural world.”
—Reviews in American History
“Consuming Nature is a first-rate environmental history of the Fox River Valley of central Wisconsin. But Summers’ larger goal is to demonstrate how industrial and agricultural change combined with the emergence of large-scale technological systems like highways and electrical networks to produce modern American consumer culture, thereby creating the material and cultural conditions out of which modern environmentalism would eventually emerge in the mid-twentieth century. The result was a transformation in American ways of thinking about nature that has shaped our politics ever since.”
—William Cronon, author of Nature’s Metropolis
“Raises large, provocative questions about contemporary environmentalism and its ambivalence about economic progress.”
—Donald Worster, author of Rivers of EmpireSee fewer reviews...
This shift from an industrial to consumer society eventually showed up in a small Green Bay courthouse. There attorneys for the Izaak Walton League confronted Adolph Kanneberg, a long-time conservationist now defending the paper industry, with charges that the Fox River had been defiled. But Summers ranges well beyond this courtroom battle. Drawing on prominent national figures, from Frederick Jackson Turner and Theodore Roosevelt to Joseph R. McCarthy, he shows how this local drama was playing on a much larger stage. Wisconsin's showdown over water quality, in fact, was being repeated throughout the country in similar disputes involving urban sprawl and the destruction of wilderness, as Americans struggled to balance their use of nature against the need to protect the environment.
By exploring the evolution of electricity, highways, farming, and retail trade, Summers tracks the widening separation between production and consumption over a hundred years, a transformation that helps to explain the polarized character of modern environmental politics. He reveals that the redefinition of nature upon which environmentalism relied was the product of the very forces it opposed, a dilemma whose origins lay in the unexpected connection between the efficient use of natural resources and the growing movement to value nature in its own right. In this way, Summers shows that modern environmentalism is among the most important legacies of a consumer society.
Ultimately, by framing the human relationship to nature in terms of production and consumption, Summers fosters a better understanding of the philosophy of the modern environmental movement.