American Institutions and Ecological Ideals

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"American Institutions and Ecological Ideals"

Journal article

By: Leo Marx

Date: November 27, 1970

Source: Marx, Leo. "American Institutions and Ecological Ideals." Science 170 (November 27, 1970): 945-952.

About the Author: Leo Marx (1919–) received his Bachelor of Science degree in history and literature in 1941 and his Doctor of Philosophy degree in the history of American civilization in 1950, both from Harvard University. From there, Marx taught at the University of Minnesota (1950–1958) and Amherst College in Massachusetts (1958–1977). At the time of his writing "American Institutions and Ecological Ideals" in 1970, Marx was a professor of English and American studies at Amherst College. The article was based on a talk presented on December 29, 1969, at the Boston, Massachusetts meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As of 2002, Marx was a senior lecturer and a William R. Kenan professor of American Cultural History Emeritus in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Marx's work has focused on the relationship between technology and culture in the United States over the last two centuries. His books include The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America; Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment; and Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.


Marx's "American Institutions and Ecological Ideals" appeared in the November 27, 1970 issue of Science magazine. In this article, Marx made the claim that American literature has, over the years, provided the only consistent outlet for what he called the "literary-ecological perspective"; that is, literature written from an ecological point of view. Within the article, Marx stated that American writers have been a consistent source for ecology-based writings. Early American writers such as James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1894–1864), Herman Melville (1819–1891), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Walt Whitman (1819–1892) have used the term "environment" to parallel what each particular writer, in his own unique way, predicted would happen to mankind and society in general. In their writings, Marx stated, each writer "measured the quality of American life against something like an ecological ideal."

On the other hand, Marx claimed that in the past, the scientific community did not publicly state their concerns for the worsening of the environment as effectively as the literary community. Even during the 1960s, when interest in ecology and the environment became popular with the public and the mass media, the scientific community did not state its opinions in response to the vocal ecologists and alarmist environmentalists. Recently, according to Marx, the scientific community has shifted toward the views of the literary community, opinions that point to declining environmental conditions brought about by humankind's expansionary, materialistic lifestyle.

The central concept discussed by Marx is "the maintenance of a healthy life-enhancing interaction between man and the environment." Marx stated that in order to accomplish this goal, all organisms must accept responsibility for maintaining, at least, minimum standards for a healthy ecological system in order to avoid elimination from that system. Unfortunately, according to Marx, humankind's expansionary lifestyle is degrading the environment and, along with it, the future of humankind. His viewpoint is now becoming more accepted both in the scientific and literary communities.

Seeing this degradation, Marx asks the question: "Can mankind reverse the deterioration of the physical world, especially given the dominant state of the nation's critical organizations and institutions along with the expanded role of technology overall in society?"


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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


Marx stated that there exists a distinct difference between the application of the words conservation and ecology. Conservation is used to represent the work of people such as naturalists, property owners, and sportspersons who are basically interested in caring for environments due to their own individual interests. As Marx stated, "In the view of many conservationists nature is a world that exists apart from, and for the benefit of, mankind."

On the other hand, Marx said that ecology is an idea that involves a much more complicated relationship between humankind and the environment, even between the interactions of all living organisms and their environments—all under a predetermined plan of making efficient use of resources under the direction of qualified scientists and technicians. Marx believed that conservationists are practical and well-trained technicians who always sound positive with respect to making efficient use of resources and solving humanity's environmental problems, while ecologists are radical sounding persons who have negative feelings with respect to the final outcome of the environment.

Marx stated his view that over the history of the United States the "seemingly unlimited natural resources and the relative absence of cultural or institutional restrains made possible what surely has been the fastest-developing, most mobile, most relentlessly innovative society in world history." Marx furthered his stance when he said the viewpoint of the average U.S. citizen was (and is today) that "the aggressive, man-centered attitude toward the environment fostered by Judeo-Christian thought: everything in nature, living or inorganic, exists to serve man." In addition, the U.S. system has ultimately supported industrial capitalism, which maintains the viewpoint: "limits to the environment are meant to be broken."

Marx declared, for example: "Who looks after the prime agricultural lands turned over to urban expansion: Why do not scientists, technicians, and engineers speak up to counter the wastefulness of this business climate. From there downward, American society—from state, city, village neighborhood and group, family, and child—are all striving to grow as fast as possible. When resources were believed to be inexhaustible—the ability to grow as fast as one was able—was seen as a good quality. But, today, with the knowledge that resources are not inexhaustible, people are ingrained with the energies to expand, grow, and multiply. And, with everyone expanding, scientists, technicians, and engineers are doing the same thing—but are not heeding the signs that they were trained to recognize."

Marx suggested that the literary and scientific views of America's environment have been recently converging. The literary view may be expressed with inspiring words and expressive poetry and the scientific view may be expressed with facts and figures, but the meaning is the same: that the self-exaggerating way of life caused by commercialism, materialism, and other monetary-based ideas has been put to use to unconsciously but, nevertheless, effectively degrade the environment, which will ultimately destroy humankind.

Within his essay, Marx proposed that the American Association for the Advancement of Science create a panel of the best qualified scientists of all the various disciplines in order to define the primary environmental problems confronting the United States, and then to make public recommendations based on their conclusions. Marx continued to say that during this process it is important to (1) actively involve all U.S. scientists, (2) make unbiased, rational investigations into the country's problems, especially without biases caused by associations with the various powerful education, military, private, and public organizations in the country, and (3) make positive improvements in the environment based on scientific conclusions. Marx concluded by stating that use of technology is not the problem, but the main problem lies within the ways that society has developed within the United States.



Marx, Leo. Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994.

―――――. Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

―――――. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Web sites

Albert H. Teich, Science and Policy Programs, American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Leo Marx: Chapter 1. Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?" 〈〉 (accessed November 14, 2005).

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American Institutions and Ecological Ideals