The Automobile and the Environment

(Based on Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement,
and Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside)
bear looking into car
Are nature and technology opposites?
Cars lined up to enter Yellowstone in 1916
early cars lined up at Yellowstone gate
The automobile made it possible for people to explore American scenery

  • Yosemite was preserved for public use by a federal law in 1864 but initially turned over to the state of California to administer, Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the first national park, the National Park Service was created until 1916
  • National Forests were established in 1891, the Forest Service in 1905, but with the goal of protecting timber for future use
  • the idea of national parks arose partly as a protest against an increasingly capitalist culture--eg. don't cut down all the redwoods for timber or divert all the water from Niagra Falls to make electricity
  • Yellowstone and a few other early parks were served by railroads, but it was the automobile that popularized traveling to see natural wonders
  • during and after WWI there was an advertising campaign promoting the idea "see America first"--it became a part of being proud of being an American to see some list of famous sites
  • automobile tourism grew rapidly in the 1910s and 1920s (along with the necessary infrastructure such as motels and campgrounds)
  • as consumer culture became stronger Americans attached a higher value to doing something special with their leisure time and outdoor recreation boomed in popularity along with nature tourism
  • people quickly began to complain that when they went off in their automobile to get away from it all they found themselves surrounded by automobiles and tourist businesses
early automobile camping
what are National Parks for--are they for people to visit or are they to preserve nature?
  • Aldo Leopold, who worked for the Forest Service, was one of the first people to begin to talk about preserving wilderness, in a 1921 article on "The Wilderness and its Place in Forest Recreation Policy"
  • pointed out the tension between preservation and use
  • he defined wilderness as land with no "roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man"
  • should we preserve wilderness for its own sake free from human use? 
Similar issues arose when people moved out of the city wanting a more rural environment and quickly found themselves surrounded by roads and houses
rows of houses
  • concerns about this in the late 1950s focused on preserving open space--conservation areas within towns and suburbs
  • US cities and suburbs were growing by a million acres a year--starting in the 1960s the problem was often called urban sprawl
  • marshes were filled and hills bulldozed, some builders argued explicitly that when houses had yards there was no need for parks
  • conservationists fought to preserve open space and wetlands
  • the first federal wetlands-preservation law was passed in 1968
another example is building on floodplains
  • in the 1930s the federal government got into trying to prevent flooding in a big way, building dams and levees
  • in the 1950s and 1960s the damage done by floods was increasing despite these measures
  • why?
  • partly unintended consequences--if you prevent the flood from spreading out in one place it will be worse downstream
  • but the problem continued because more and more housing was being built on floodplains
  • the federal government provided subsidized flood insurance, so people continued to build even when warned
  • should we rebuild New Orleans when significant parts of the city are below sea level?
flooded houses

this page written and copyright  Pamela E. Mack
last updated 11/16/05