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Consuming Nature

Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley, 1850–1950

Gregory Summers

September 2006
272 pages, 16 photographs, 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1486-8, $29.95

Book cover imageEnvironmental 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.

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.

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.

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 Empire

GREGORY SUMMERS is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.

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