An optimistic look at how humans are showing greater respect for the natural world.
“There is deep agreement across western nations that we are all connected to the Earth,” writes Outwater (Water: A Natural History, 1996, etc.), “and that the natural world must be respected and preserved for the future.” Beginning with Native Americans, the author details Americans’ interactions with a continent whose bounty seemed limitless and ripe for exploitation. Unlike European settlers, tribal communities revered nature’s gifts and sought to balance human and animal needs. Outwater believes that their relationship with nature “echoes the sustainable balance we are trying to create today.” In a spirited, fact-filled history, the author chronicles changing attitudes and practices over many centuries. As a response to the Industrial Revolution, Romantic philosophers, poets, and artists “embraced nature as a spiritual force.” With industry sullying the environment and fomenting diseases such as tuberculosis, clean air and water were seen as curative. The rise of science, technology, and intercontinental trade inspired a vogue for collecting and classifying nature. “In Victorian times,” Outwater notes, “studying nature and building a personal natural history collection was seen as an appropriate way to praise God.” Public collections—zoos, museums, botanical gardens—attracted curious visitors, and tourists flocked to natural wonders such as Niagara Falls and Yosemite. Investigating nature and appreciating its aesthetic qualities, however, competed with the exploitation of waterways, forests, and land to serve increasing populations, the rise of cities, and westward expansion. To provide a picturesque experience of nature for city dwellers, landscape architecture—a term first used by Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted—combined traditional gardening with city planning. Although Outwater recounts many instances of detrimental environmental policies—e.g., Ronald Reagan’s head of the Department of the Interior called the environmental movement “a left-wing cult”—she offers, in an appendix, a list of major environmental laws enacted from 1964 to 1973 that have led to significant protections. In many cases, restoration has occurred more quickly than anticipated.
A cheering assessment of the future of the planet.