April 22: Noah Webster Calls for Environmental Sustainability (in 1817!)

 

On this day in 1817, Noah Webster’s visionary essay on environmental sustainability, which he modestly titled “Domestic Consumption,” was published on the front page of the Connecticut Courant.  Born in West Hartford, Connecticut and a graduate of Yale College, Webster is best known to history as the creator of the first American dictionary in 1806.  With the publication of “Domestic Economy,” he also became one of the first Americans to call for environmental conservation in order to prevent a man-made ecological catastrophe.

In his essay, Webster warned against the rapid and continuous deforestation of New England and called on its inhabitants to reduce the amount of firewood they used at home and to practice more sustainable forestry management.  After praising the beauty and healthiness of the New England climate at great length, and acknowledging that the region’s earliest settlers had made clear-cutting the primeval forests a top priority, Webster then warned that the demand for wood was now outstripping the region’s natural supply:

“In truth, our country cannot sustain the present consumption of wood for a century to come. We must either reduce the annual consumption within the limits of the annual growth, or that time will arrive when we must search the bowels of the earth for fuel.  …It is the ordinance of Providence that men should live within their means — we must come to this sooner or later — and adapt our manner of life to our circumstances.”

Webster also framed the need for environmental sustainability as a civic duty:

“We are not to waste and destroy, for the sake of present enjoyment; we must not strip the inheritance of [New England’s] wood and its fences and its timber, and leave it barren and impoverished to the next generation. We must not be so improvident as to render our country uninhabitable.”

This woodcut of New Canaan, CT, published in 1836 by John Warner Barber, shows a common early 19th century sight in New England: a field full of tree stumps with logs piled along the side of the road.

In addition to his dire warnings in “Domestic Economy,” Webster also included practical advice on how early 19th century households could practice long-term fuel economy and sustainable forestry.  His suggestions, written just over 200 years ago, sound surprisingly modern to the 21st century reader:

  • Plant more trees:  Farmers should plant new trees on their property equal to or greater than the number of trees they consume for fuel annually.  Town magistrates should more carefully track and manage the number of trees in their towns, and set aside areas for growing more in the future.
  • Reduce domestic fuel consumption: Build more efficient fireplaces; use modern iron stoves over large open kitchen hearths; encourage more efficient house layouts and construction in the future.
  • Be smarter in how you use fuel: Never burn green wood (green wood burns very inefficiently), and when felling trees for firewood, split logs to help wood dry faster.

Thankfully, around the same time Webster was fretting over a potential wood shortage, clever Yankees all over New England were discovering the advantages of using natural water power to drive their machines and fledgling factories — utilizing one of the greenest and renewable energies available in the 19th century to move the Industrial Revolution forward.