Concern for Our Planet: Progressive Era Environmentalism


I don’t think there is anyone in the 21st Century who isn’t aware and concerned about the effects of global warming on our planet. We’ve been hearing about it since the 1980s but, sadly, many people (including lawmakers) have been slow to do much about it. I’m guilty of this myself. But watching how my area of West Texas has become affected by climate changes in the past ten years (including more volatile weather during the spring months when tornado season hits and the heat wave we’ve been experiencing this year with most days over one hundred degrees), there is no doubt we are getting hit in the face with the consequences of modern human life and its toll on our planet.

The heat wave made me curious. After all, the Progressive Era was the doorway to our modern era in America, so I wanted to know how early 20th century Americans viewed environmental changes and whether they were aware of and concerned about the dangers. It turns out they were. In fact, there was an entire movement during the Progressive Era devoted to environmental issues. However, like the women’s movement, their focus was more on basic problems while the 21st century presents us with more complex problems.

As you may recall, suffragists’ first priority was to gain the vote. Their efforts were focused mainly on getting the 19th amendment passed (which happened in 1920). It was second and third-wave feminists who dealt with (and are still dealing with) the more complex issues of women’s reproduction rights, sexual harassment, equality in the workplace, and many more. 

With the environment, the more complex issues we’re dealing with today (such as carbon footprints, global warming, and recycling) weren’t on the agenda. Instead, environmentalism largely focused on conservation. These were issues such as making sure there were laws in place to preserve forests and timber for rural growth, poaching, and better access to clean water and sewage in big cities. Keep in mind the 19th century saw a lot of movement from rural areas to cities and growth in bigger cities, which made it necessary to put preserving natural resources and land on the agenda.

Photo credit: Theodore Roosevelt (third from the left) and environmentalist John Muir (second from the right) in “The Land of the Giants” at Yellowstone National Park, 1903, Harvard College Library: Adventure George/Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

We were lucky we had an ally in the highest form of government: President Theodore Roosevelt. I mention here how Roosevelt was a great outdoorsman, and he was also a responsible one. He had a great concern for the environment and, under his administration, there were laws passed to preserve natural resources and make sure big businesses didn’t exploit and drain our natural resources.

In my Adele Gossling Mysteries, Adele’s sidekick, clairvoyant Nin Branch plays the role of the environmentalist. She isn’t involved in the conservation movement officially (though as the series progresses, who can tell?) but she has a deep connection to the environment and to animals (in Book 4, the book I’m working on right now, she does no less than charm a lion!) and a great concern about natural resources. She knows the potency of the earth and also its gifts and uses that knowledge in Book 2 of the series.

Speaking of Book 2, A Wordless Death just came out last week! You can find out where here

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Author: tammayauthor

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.