Historical Roots Running out of Wilderness Running into Opposition

Thoreau (1817-1862) showed that a sense of wonder and inspiration could be found in "raw" nature, which human beings had traditionally regarded as chaotic, foreboding, or downright dangerous. He relied on personal experience, monitoring seasonal changes in the plant and animal life around him, writing accounts of his trips to the mountains and rivers of Maine, and spending extended periods of time living in a primitive cabin on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He made no apologies for flouting society's conventions. Instead, he offered his eccentric lifestyle as an example of how an appreciation of the natural world could enhance human existence. Nor was he afraid to challenge society's rules, outlining the virtues of "civil disobedience" in a famous essay about a night he spent in jail over a matter of conscience.

The natural world of Thoreau's day needed little defending, in spite of the polluting factories of the industrialized northeast United States. The rest of North America contained vast amounts of unclaimed, unsettled land. Wilderness might be daunting, but it appeared to be inexhaustible, and our technology at the time did not seem to have the potential to exhaust it.

It was a century after Thoreau's death that the passion he embodied would evolve into a much more aggressive form of action. This evolution formed a response to the immense economic growth in North America during the period following World War II. People sought bigger houses and more cars, causing cities and road systems to sprawl across the landscape. The accumulation of material wealth exacted a price on the natural world, a toll that became increasingly visible during the 1950s.

By the 1960s, environmental degradation was becoming obvious even to those who did not pay much attention to the natural world. The air and water in many places had become badly polluted, often by industrial wastes as well as by the garbage generated by rapidly growing urban centers. In 1966 some eighty New Yorkers died when warm summer air raised the city's smog levels past what many people could tolerate. A year later an offshore oil rig in California fouled beaches with millions of gallons of spilled oil. In 1969 the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, spontaneously burst into flames, so choked had it become with unstable chemical effluents.

Likewise boaters on Lake Erie had been encountering huge patches of floating algae, which were being fed by large volumes of industrial and agricultural runoff, especially phosphorus. The algae, in turn, robbed the lake bottom of oxygen, rendering the water incapable of sustaining fish life. In the early 1960s, scientists began measuring phosphorus levels dozens of times

Marion and Barney Lamm became known as the "Sacrificial Lamms" after they voluntarily closed their prosperous fishing lodge on Salt Lake, Ontario, to protest the coverup of mercury contamination. Mercury levels twenty-eight times the upper federal limit were found in lake fish and Minimata Disease was found in local Ojibway Indians. The Lamm's twenty-year fight to protect the Ojibway is chronicled in fifty-nine boxes of documents now housed at the Harvard University Library.

higher than a typical, unpolluted lake. Their findings—coupled with the evidence of dead fish piling up on Erie shores—made for strident news stories citing local residents and politicians who declared the lake to be "dying." In a foreshadowing of public outcries to come, a Cleveland car dealer named David Blaushild collected one million signatures on a petition to save the lake. He submitted the document to the Ohio governor's office in 1965, setting in motion a vigorous international campaign.

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