Skip to main content
No. 595:
George Perkins Marsh

Today, meet the father of the environmental movement. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

George Perkins Marsh published a remarkable book in 1864. Its title was Man and Nature. When he put out a revised edition in 1874, he changed the title to explain his intentions. Now he called it The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature.

It was the first modern discussion of our ecological problems. We are not passive inhabitants of Earth, he said. We give Earth its shape and form. We are responsibile for Earth.

Marsh was born in 1801. He was New England upper crust -- the son of a U.S. Congressman. The Marshes were friends of presidents. He was a bookish schoolboy until he fell victim to a chronic eye problem when he was eight.

His eyes kept him from reading for years at a time. So he compensated. He developed a prodigious memory for things other people read to him. And if he couldn't read books, he could at least read nature. He developed an abiding love of animals, plants, and the world they occupy.

Few of us, he once said, could make as good a claim to personality as a respectable oak tree.

He took up law -- then politics. He wasn't very good at politics. He was too much the college professor -- a little bit pompous, a little bit withdrawn. But he was a fine organizer, lawyer, and businessman. When Marsh was 48, Zachary Taylor appointed him as minister to Turkey. In 1860 Lincoln made him his Ambassador to Italy. He held that post 'til his death in 1882.

He was a good diplomat. But we remember Marsh the scholar. He was a student of Scandinavian languages. As a philologist, he wrote an important book on the character of the English language. He was an art collector. As a scientist, he gathered reptiles for the Smithsonian. He was instrumental in the Army's attempt to use the camel in the American Southwest.

Finally, he wrote Man and Nature, and it was a work of love. He picked up the theme when he saw the damage Vermont farmers did by clearing their land. At first, he wanted to use a more radical title, Man the Disturber of Nature's Harmonies.

But he backed off. He wasn't one to sit by Walden Pond. We're destined to disturb nature's harmonies. We have to learn to do so as good stewards -- not as vandals.

So he ran the inventory of our assault on nature. He told of deforestation, canal building, and water pollution. He showed why the Sahara was advancing.

We were ill-disposed to hear his warnings in those days of American empire building. But we hear them today. We can no longer doubt Marsh's hard message -- 130 years later.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Marsh, G.P., Man and Nature. Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1965. (This is an anotated reprint of the original 1864 edition.)

Marsh, G.P., The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1976. (This is a straight reprinting of the 1874 edition.)

Marsh, G.P., The Earth as Modified by Human Action: A Last Revision of Man and Nature. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1885.

Marsh, G.P., Lectures on the English Language. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1859, 1884, 1887.

Marsh, G.P., The Camel -- his Organization Habits and Uses. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1856, (for material on importing the camel to America, see Chapters XVII, XVIII, and Appendix D.)

We meet George Perkins Marsh and his attempt to introduce camels into the U.S. Army again in Episode 807.