luglio 2024
George Perkins Marsh (Woodstock, 15 marzo 1801 – Vallombrosa, 23 luglio 1882)


He was an educated, versatile man, geographer, politician, hydraulic engineer, US ambassador to Turkey and then to Italy. He was instrumental in the construction of Yellowstone Park and conceived the Marsh - Billings - Rockefeller National Park.


He is considered the first environmentalist in the USA, but his most important research was done in Italy.
In his book 'Man and Nature: The Earth's Surface Changed by Man' published in 1864. Marsh introduced the topic of possible climate changes that would occur as a consequence of forest depletion.

"The purpose of this book is to indicate the nature and, approximately, the extent of the changes induced by the action of man in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit, to show the dangers that imprudence may produce, and the necessity of precaution in all those works which, in large proportions interpose themselves in the spontaneous arrangements of the organic and inorganic world; to suggest the possibility and importance of the re-establishment of disturbed harmonies, and the material improvement of ruined and exhausted regions; and to illustrate incidentally the principle that man is, both in kind and degree, a power of a higher order than any other form of animate life that, like him, feeds at the table of generous nature".

He proposed urbanisation in line with nature. Many pages of his book are an extraordinarily topical text. His theories highlight the centrality of man in his relationship with nature, emphasising the negative aspects, but also the possibility of progress that can intervene in rebalancing the natural order.


He stopped to study the Vallombrosa area because he considered it a territory strongly influenced by the work of man. But his writings contain various examples, such as the size of Lake Tacarigua in Venezuela, which von Humboldt saw reduced due to the deforestation of the surrounding hills and which the agronomist Boussingault noted had returned to its previous size, according to the local Indians, apparently due to the liberation of the slaves, the end of plantation irrigation and the wars of extermination.

On the changes taking place in Italy, he wrote things that seem new, unfortunately.
"With regard to the geographical influence of forests, the attention of European economists and foresters has stopped on these three points: that is, on the action of forests on the permanence and regular course of natural springs or sources, on flooding by rivers, and on soil erosion and the transport of earth, gravel, pebbles, and even considerable boulders [... ] It must follow as a necessary corollary that the action of forests is as important in diminishing the frequency and violence of river floods as it is in ensuring the permanence and equability of natural fountains;
because every cause that promotes the absorption and accumulation of rainwater in the surface layers of the soil, so that it is slowly dispersed by infiltration and drainage, must contribute to stopping sudden river floods obstructing the rapid flow of water over the surface towards the natural drainage channels, and consequently preventing it from overflowing, which is what is known as flooding".

In the 19th century there were many floods caused by the course of the Po, particularly in the Polesine of Rovigo and Ferrara. They continued until the great rout of 1951 and beyond.


As often happens, these were the evidence of the lack of regulation of the land. A first law of 20 June 1877 regulated the use of forests, but only 'above the chestnut tree limit'. It obliged reforestation and prescribed expropriation in the event of default by the owners, but in the last parliamentary passage, expropriation became a mere possibility. It took time and other laws to arrive at Law 778 of 11 June 1922 on the protection of natural beauty and buildings of historical interest, the basis for later laws.

Treccani Encyclopaedia
Marzia Marchi article on a forerunner of environmentalism: G.P. Marsh
Economics and Green Finance
G.P. Marsh Institute.

And now let us read AI's contribution on Marsh's legacy.

1. Environmental conservation: Marsh is considered one of the first thinkers to recognise the importance of preserving the natural environment. In his book Man and Nature (1864), he pointed out the damage caused by human activity on the environment, including deforestation and soil erosion, and promoted the idea of the need for sustainable management of natural resources.

2. Human influence on the environment: Marsh was one of the first to understand the link between human activity and environmental changes. He highlighted how agriculture and deforestation could have significant impacts on the environment, including local climate change.

3. Human responsibility: Marsh emphasised human responsibility in the management of natural resources. He argued that human beings had to act as custodians of the environment and that conservation was a matter of vital importance for the future of successive generations.

4. Research and documentation: Marsh's methodology was based on scientific research and documentation of environmental changes. His work was based on detailed observations and empirical data.

5. Lasting impact: Marsh's ideas have had a lasting impact on environmental policy and legislation in the United States and other parts of the world. They helped shape the environmental conservation movement and the establishment of national parks and nature reserves.

In summary, George Perkins Marsh was a pioneer in the field of environmental conservation, and his teachings contributed significantly to promoting greater awareness of the importance of sustainable management of natural resources and human responsibility in addressing environmental challenges. His ideas are still relevant today in addressing global environmental issues.

November 2023
Folco de Polzer

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