The Man at Work Collection--Studies in Sustainability

Installment Nine:  “From Lanterns to LEDs -- A Look at the Evolution of Sustainable Lighting”

By Deborah L Jackman, PhD, PE, LEED AP™

glass blowers making lantern mantles.jpg

Glassblowing, 1932,

by Hugo von Bouvard (1879-1959), oil on canvas

A Brief History of Lighting:

          It is easy for us to forget that humans have only had access to artificial lighting for about two hundred years.  Prior to the early 19th century when gas lamps began to be introduced into some major cities in the United States and Europe, people lived a very different life—a life whose rhythms were governed largely by the rising and setting of the sun.  A. Roger Ekirch, a historian on the faculty of Virginia Tech, writes of life before artificial lighting in his best-selling book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past [1]. Ekirch’s research reveals glimpses into a human culture awash in superstition and fear, with many people refusing to leave their homes at night, convinced they would encounter demons, witches, or even Satan himself.   In large cities, like London or Paris, street crimes, committed by roving gangs of thugs, were rampant after dark.  The street crime rate in cities is estimated to have been as much as ten times greater prior to 1800 than today, when adjusted for differences in population.  People’s patterns of recreation and sleep also varied greatly from today, with activities requiring light, such as reading and writing, confined largely to daylight hours, and hence, largely reserved for the upper classes, who could afford leisure time during the day.  While candles and torches have existed for centuries, such devices require constant tending and were the source of fires, which in a time of limited fire-fighting ability, were feared by people perhaps even more than the alleged demons lurking in the dark.  Furthermore, candles tended to be expensive and the working classes usually used tapers instead. (Tapers consisted of a reed dipped in animal fat which would burn for only short periods of time and which smoked excessively.)  Even those in the upper classes who could afford high-quality bee’s wax candles would have had to burn as many as 100 candles simultaneously to achieve the same illumination as can be achieved today with a single 60 Watt incandescent light bulb.  

          Human society began to change significantly starting in the mid 18th century as  oil lanterns came into common use. Oil lanterns allowed for a more controlled burn, better fire safety, and more predictable, longer lasting light levels.  Then, starting in the early 19th century, gas lamps began to be used in large cities.  Cities installed the infrastructure to supply gas derived from coal and oil into people’s homes via a system of pipelines.  In rural areas, oil lanterns were gradually replaced by kerosene lanterns.  The subsequent increased demand for kerosene spurred the growth of the oil and gas industry, with the most prized early product of oil refining being kerosene, rather than gasoline.  It was only later on, after the Model T was introduced in the early 20th century, that gasoline overtook kerosene as the most sought after product of petroleum refining.   Our subject painting, Glassblowing, depicts artisans blowing glass mantles for use in the manufacture of kerosene lanterns.  Kerosene lanterns persisted as a major source of artificial light well into the early 20th century in rural America, prior to the rural electrification programs carried on as part of the New Deal.

          The biggest leap in the development of artificial lighting occurred with the development of the incandescent light bulb.  Light is produced in the incandescent light bulb by passing electrical current through a tungsten filament in a vacuum. When heated by an electric current, the tungsten glows, producing light. The absence of oxygen in the evacuated space keeps the filament from oxidizing. While Thomas Edison is traditionally credited with the invention of the incandescent light bulb, it existed in various forms well before Edison.  Much of the early research on incandescent bulbs centered on finding a suitable material for the filament—a material that would glow or “incandesce”, which was able to be manipulated easily during the manufacturing process, and which was cheap and durable.  Edison did propose a number of improvements to the device, starting in the early 1880s.  However, his major breakthrough came in 1905, when he patented an improved ductile tungsten filament, very similar to what we use today. Whatever his role in the actual invention of the light bulb, Edison was indisputably the major force in its commercialization.   Incandescent light bulbs represented a huge improvement over earlier forms of illumination because they operated without an actual flame.  This reduced the fire hazard associated with the use of artificial lighting immensely--a feature of increasing importance as America became more urbanized, with higher population densities crowded into fire-prone urban housing units. 

            Perhaps the most amazing feature of the incandescent light bulb is its longevity.  In a world where technologies are launched, mature, and become obsolete over the period of a few years, or at most a few decades, incandescent bulbs have remained a viable commercial product for nearly 110 years.  They are cheap to make and easy to use. However, from a technical standpoint, they are very inefficient producers of light.  Of the electrical power consumed to operate an incandescent light bulb, only about 5% of it is converted to light.  The remaining 95% is converted to heat energy.  That means that the traditional incandescent light bulb is actually a much better heater than it is a light! Thus, in this era of increased awareness of the importance of energy efficiency, the venerable incandescent bulb is finally being phased out, in favor of alternatives which include Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) and Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs).

          Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) were first introduced commercially in the mid 1990s. They operate on the same principle as the more traditional tube style fluorescent lamps, except the tube is bent to fit into a space approximately the same size as a standard incandescent bulb.  Various chemical phosphors are excited by the electric ballast at the base of each bulb, and when excited, they luminesce, creating light.  CFLs became common place in the first decade of the 21st century, when various rebates and other purchasing incentives, coupled with education programs on how the use of CFLs would save consumers money on utility bills, provided many consumers with an incentive to purchase them as replacements for incandescent bulbs. They are much longer lasting and energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, but suffer from other shortcomings, which are discussed in greater detail below.

The newest type of artificial light source is the Light-Emitting Diode (LED).  LEDs are solid state semiconductor devices that emit a photon of a single wavelength (color) of light when an electric current passes through them.  Single LEDs have been in use since the 1970s as panel indicator lights on electronic devices.  However, it has only been in the last decade that LED based devices have been developed that can be used as replacements for incandescent light bulbs in task lighting applications. LED light bulbs are made up of many individual LED units in a variety of colors which combine to provide sufficient light intensity and color spectrum (collectively a white light.)  They are still quite expensive relative to both incandescent bulbs and CFLs, but show great promise to ultimately fully replace incandescent bulbs over the next years because of their good quality of light, their long life, and their energy efficiency.

Environmental Impacts of Artificial Lighting:                              

Before we look specifically at new developments in artificial lighting and at alternatives to the incandescent light bulb, we need to investigate some of the environmental impacts of artificial lighting.   This investigation informs the search for the best and most sustainable modern lighting systems.

1.    Energy efficiency--Nearly all Americans are aware of the government mandated transition that is currently underway to phase out incandescent light bulbs.  And most are also aware of the primary reason behind the phase-out--the need to become more energy efficient.  Indeed, energy efficiency is the major driver in many industries today, as society strives to become more sustainable by reducing the production of green house gases through greater energy conservation. Lighting consumes 22 to 25% of all electricity used in the United States and therefore represents a major opportunity for energy savings. As noted above, only 5% of the energy consumed by an incandescent light bulb is converted to light.  This is in contrast to compact fluorescent bulbs, which use only 25 to 35% as much electricity as incandescent bulbs to produce the same illumination and last 10 times longer [2].  Even more impressive are light emitting diodes (LEDs), which use 20% as much electricity as incandescent bulbs for the same illumination levels and last 25 times longer [3]. Clearly, on the basis of energy efficiency alone, the LED-based light fixture represents the way of the future.      

2.    Toxicity and Resource Depletion—Energy efficiency is only one component of how sustainable a product is.  As we have seen in other essays in this series, the best way to assess the overall sustainability of a product is via a life cycle assessment of that product.  Life cycle assessment takes into account not only how much energy is consumed during the use of the product, but also how much energy is consumed during the manufacture of the product (i.e. embodied energy), and how much hazardous waste or toxic chemicals are generated during the life cycle of the product.  When one looks at incandescent, fluorescent, and LED lamps in the life cycle assessment context, the picture is more nuanced than when considering energy efficiency alone.  According to researchers Lim, Kang, Ogunseitan and Schoenung [4] both CFLs and LEDs are categorized as hazardous waste under current federal regulations when disposed of at end of life due to excessive levels of lead leachability and their high content of copper, mercury, and zinc.  Incandescent bulbs, in contrast, are not so classified.  Lim, et al., also looked at the level of resource depletion that occurs during the production of the three light sources.  They concluded that CFLs and LEDs have higher resource depletion and toxicity potential than the incandescent bulb due primarily to their high aluminum, copper, gold, lead, silver, and zinc content. When compared on an equivalent quantity basis (taking into account and correcting for their different lifetimes), CFLs were found to have 3 to 26 times higher potential impact than incandescents, and LEDs 2 to 3 times higher impacts than incandescents.  This group of researchers only looked at resource depletion and hazardous waste impact of the three lighting sources.  They did not do a complete life cycle assessment which would factor in the reduced energy impacts of LEDs and CFLs.

The most interesting result of my research into these impacts is that a data base search did not reveal any journal articles in which a comprehensive life cycle assessment comparing the three light sources and including both energy use (operational and embodied) and toxics generation potential was conducted. Clearly, this is an area ripe for additional research. Were the operational energy consumption of these three light sources factored into a comprehensive life cycle assessment, one can surmise that LEDs would be shown to be at least as or more sustainable than incandescents.  Even though they have a 2 to 3 times higher resource depletion and hazardous waste generation potential than incandescents, the avoided pollution (both in terms of green house gases and toxics emitted by power plants) of the lower energy consumption of LEDs would likely off-set their environmental downside.  The case for CFLs is less clear because while more energy efficient than incandescents, their up to 26 times higher potential hazardous waste and resource depletion impact would require a great deal of avoided pollution from their energy use to off-set these impacts.  When compared directly to LEDs, CFLs are clearly the inferior choice, having less energy efficiency and higher negative environmental impacts.  In any case, the sustainability profile for both LEDs and CFLs can be significantly improved if an effective waste management system for collecting used bulbs is developed.  This will require a significant amount of consumer education and a change in the behavior of the general public, who in many cases still dispose of spent CFLs in their general trash, despite being instructed not to.  Perhaps some sort of cash deposit system, like that that used to be in effect for beverage containers in the 1960s and 1970s, could incentivize consumers to properly recycle LEDs and CFLs.  

          3.    Light Pollution—Another negative impact of our use of artificial lights is that of light pollution.  Light pollution is the alteration of light levels in the outdoor environment (from those present naturally) due to man-made sources of light [5]. The increase of light levels at night is more than just a nuisance that produces unattractive glare or interferes with activities that require a dark sky, such as star gazing.  Inappropriate levels of light during the night have been shown to be damaging to a number of nocturnal species of animals who depend upon darkness as part of their normal life cycle.  It is also a danger to humans, whose circadian rhythms can be disrupted, leading to sleep disorders and general health problems. So serious has this problem become that scientists and concerned citizens have founded the International Dark-Sky Association, an  organization whose purpose is to educate people about and help to reduce light pollution [6]. An excellent article by Gaston, Davies, Bennie, and Hopkins [7] summarizes the current state of the efforts to reduce light pollution.  They first summarize the various forms of light pollution: 1) glare and over-illumination (caused by excessive brightness of a light source); 2) light clutter (excessive grouping of light sources); 3) light trespass (unwanted direct lighting of an area); and 4) skyglow (increased night sky brightness produced by upwardly emitted and reflected light).  They then proceed to analyze and discuss the various ways to reduce light pollution.  These include such measures as zoning ordinances which prohibit artificial light in certain environmentally sensitive areas; reducing the duration of lighting; reducing the intensity of light to minimum levels needed for safety and human activity; reducing light trespass and skyglow through properly designed directional lighting; and broadening the spectrum of lights used to more nearly mimic those found in nature.  In terms of the three types of lighting devices under consideration here, LEDs offer some distinct advantages related to light pollution as discussed in greater detail below. 

4.    Color Rendition—Color rendition refers to the appearance of various objects illuminated by a light source, compared to how those same objects appear in natural sunlight. Certain light sources with poor color rendition make objects appear unnaturally red, yellow or blue. In general, the best light sources for general use are those that mimic the wavelengths present in natural sunlight (a fairly broad spectrum).  In certain non-critical, limited applications, lights having poor color rendition (such as low pressure sodium lamps often found in underground parking structures) can be used, if their energy efficiency, cost, and durability outweigh color rendition considerations.  But, for most sustained activities involving humans, broad spectrum lights are more efficacious and healthier for occupants.  Color rendition has been quantified by lighting designers through the Color Rendition Index (CRI) [8].  A CRI of 100 is considered the perfect light source in terms of color rendition, with natural sunlight having essentially a CRI of 100.  One of the advantages of incandescent bulbs is that their color rendition is excellent (CRI approximately equal to 100).  At the other end of the CRI spectrum are specialty lighting sources, such as the yellow low pressure sodium lamps discussed above, which actually have a negative value of CRI, so poor is their color rendition.  CFLs have historically been criticized for casting a blue tint on objects, although some of the “warm white” CFLs that are available are designed to somewhat minimize this blue tint.  A typical CFL has a CRI of between 50 and 70.  A positive feature of LEDs is their CRI, which while not as good as incandescents, is an improvement over CFLs.  CRIs of between 80 and 90 are typical for today’s LED lamps.   

Future Directions for More Sustainable Lighting Systems:

          What are the future trends in lighting?  The first is clearly a drive toward increased energy efficiency.  For this reason, the most common lamp will be the LED.  As discussed previously, it is more efficient than the incandescent bulb, has fewer environmental impacts than CFLs, has a very long life, and has reasonably good color rendition.  It is currently quite expensive, but costs are projected to drop as manufacturing is ramped up and production volumes increase.   The CFL--the most common energy-efficient alternative to the incandescent bulb in use currently--will likely vanish once LEDs become more cost competitive.  Most lighting experts agree that the CFL is an interim technology.  It suffers from a number of shortcomings in addition to its negative environmental impacts and mediocre color rendition.  Additional shortcomings include a lack of directionality and poor dimming capabilities.  The “dimmable” CFLs currently on the market generally perform poorly, exhibiting a narrow range of light intensity modulation and an audible buzzing sound while in operation. Perhaps most surprisingly, and despite the current phase-out of conventional tungsten filament incandescent bulbs, other types of incandescent lamps will likely continue to be used for specialized applications.  For example, halogen lamps (a type of incandescent bulb which is somewhat more energy efficient than tungsten-based incandescent bulbs) will continue in production and will be the preferred lighting source where exceptional color rendition is needed, such as in art museums, photography studios, and for commercial displays.

According to nationally-recognized lighting designer James R. Benya [9], additional future lighting trends will include:  

o   More efficient luminaires–the luminaire is the technical term for the light fixture that the lamp (i.e. the bulb) is placed in.  New luminaire designs promote directional lighting and effective shading. Light is directed onto the required task, and shading to mitigate light pollution is incorporated into the design.  Energy is also conserved because overall levels of illumination can be reduced, with light focused more efficiently on task areas.  LEDs are particularly compatible with this new concept in luminaire design because they are highly directional and exhibit little light scatter.

o   Integrated use of daylighting – Obviously, the most sustainable form of light is sunlight.  It costs us nothing and has no negative environment impacts.  In fact, humans who work in a day-lit environment report a greater sense of well-being than those who work under artificial lights.  The problem with extensive use of daylighting in the past has been that it is ephemeral, with optimum light levels only lasting for a few hours at most, depending on building orientation.  The rest of the time, the space is either over-lit or under-lit.  Modern control systems that employ light sensors and automated shading devices can optimize light levels in a room.  When daylight levels are high, all artificial lights are automatically turned off, conserving energy, and are gradually turned back on, in modulated fashion, as daylight dwindles.  If daylight levels are too intense, automated shading devices are used to adjust light levels to optimum intensity.  Daylighting, coupled with advanced control systems, offers an opportunity to reduce the need for artificial lights dramatically, provided a building is designed with suitable architecture and with daylighting as a design objective.

o   “Just enough light levels”-- Recent advances in understanding human physiology have allowed us to know how much light is needed for various tasks.  Any light in addition to required levels is wasted energy. Hence, we can design around the optimum levels needed for various tasks, and can eliminate excess wattage.  To allow for differences in light levels needed by different individuals, due to variations such as age, visual acuity, etc., task lighting can be designed with adjustable controls, so that occupants can dim or increase light levels to accommodate individual preferences.

o   Infrared sensors (IR) and/or motion sensors for outdoor lighting -- The use of outdoor path and security lighting contributes to light pollution, even if it is properly shaded to minimize light trespass.  One technique that will become increasingly common in the future will be to integrate IR or motion sensors into the control systems for outdoor lights.  When people are not present, such systems will be turned off completely.  This will further reduce light pollution and also save energy.  LED life is not adversely affected by on/off cycling like incandescents are, so there is no  downside to turning them off as much as required.

     Public recognition of the need for sustainable lighting systems is as critical as having the technology required to implement them.  As education about the importance of sustained periods of darkness to Earth’s ecology and to human health increases, public interest in better designed and controlled lighting systems will increase.  Many counties and municipalities have already incorporated light pollution codes into their zoning ordinances. For example, Cochise County, Arizona, has a particularly detailed and comprehensive Light Pollution Code on their website, .  Many other areas are promoting voluntary light reduction campaigns, coupled with education about the need for reduced and/or better designed lighting.  The Hudson Highlands area of New York state provides a good example of such a voluntary approach, .   While we will never return to the periods of deep darkness experienced by our ancestors before the advent of artificial lights, the world of the future will most likely be somewhat less brilliantly lit than the developed world of the late 20th and early 21st century that many of us are used to.  Even the most light-polluted city in the United States--Las Vegas, Nevada, with its lighting excesses (e.g. the infamous Las Vegas Strip)--has recently installed new LED streetlights, designed to save energy and reduce glare.   That says it all.

I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.

Og Mandino

References and Further Reading:

  1. Ekirch, A. Roger (2006), At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. W.W. Norton and Company.  ISBN-10: 0393329011.
  2. United States Department of Energy (October 17, 2013), Fluorescent Lighting.   Retrieved from .
  3. United States Department of Energy (July 29, 2012), LED Lighting. Retrieved from .
  4. Lim, S., et al, “Potential Environmental Impacts from the Metals in Incandescent, Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL), and Light-Emitting Diode (LED) Bulbs,” Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 47, No. 2, January, 2013.
  5. Hollan, J., “What is Light Pollution, and How Do We Quantify It?Darksky2008 Conference Paper, Vienna, August 2008.
  7. Gaston, K., Davies, T., Bennie, J., and Hopkins, J., “Reducing the Ecological Consequences of Night-Time Light Pollution:  Options and Developments,” Journal of Applied Ecology,  Vol. 49, p. 1256-1266, 2012.
  8. Guo, X. and Houser, K.W., “A Review of Color Rendering Indices and Their Application to Commercial Light Sources,“ Lighting Research and Technology, Vol. 36, No. 3, p. 183-197, September 2004.
  9. The Energy Center UniversitySM Short Course , Lighting and Daylighting: Design, Controls, and Technology, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, October 2, 2013. 


      In the Summer of 2014, look for Installment Ten of this series.  The issues surrounding making the world’s fisheries sustainable will be explored using the work Fishermen Hauling in their Nets at Sea by French artist Georges-Jean-Marie Haquette as inspiration.                        

The Printshop low resolution image.jpg

The Print Shop, oil on canvas by German artist, D. Heim, depicting a duplex printing press, converted from steam to electric power, ca. 1900.





The invention of the printing press is widely recognized as one of the most significant developments in all of human history.  With it knowledge and ideas could be widely disseminated, setting the stage for the Enlightenment, and helping to usher in the modern era.  Influential authors are responsible, in whole or in part, for initiating major societal movements including the Protestant Reformation (i.e., the Bible printed in the local vernacular), the abolition of slavery in the United States (think about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin), women’s suffrage in Britain and the U.S., and innumerable others, including the rise of the modern environmental movement. 


In this essay, we examine the contributions and impact of several notable American environmental writers spanning the period from the Early Republic through the 20th Century.  We will look briefly at the contributions of James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson in furthering the modern environmental movement.  Arguably, not only were these individuals responsible for starting the environmental movement within the U.S. but also globally.  Without their contributions, it is likely that the importance of environmental stewardship and sustainability would not be widely recognized or understood.  We will also consider what characteristics future works of literature will need in order to support environmental progress globally.  Who will the Rachel Carson of the 21st century be, and what form will her work take in our current digital age?

The Modern Environmental Movement and the Authors who Contributed to It:

The noted environmental scholar, Ramachandra Guha [1], describes two phases in the development of the modern environmental movement: the First and Second Waves. The First Wave was characterized by the development of intellectual thought centering on the need for and importance of environmental stewardship and protection.  The Second Wave was characterized by the popularization of environmental ideas and philosophies developed during the First Wave and their subsequent broad-based adoption by the general population.  The broad-based adoption of the notions of environmentalism by the general population was the catalyst within the United States that led the federal government to adopt laws and regulations to protect the environment through statutory means. From the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, the United States was the first industrialized nation to adopt comprehensive federal laws to protect the environment.  Other developed nations, especially those in Western Europe and Japan, soon followed.


The First Wave spans the approximate time period from the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century through the decade of the 1960s.  During this time, many authors and intellectuals wrote extensively in response to the observed degradation of the natural world as evidenced by rapid deforestation, uncontrolled hunting of such species as the American Bison and Passenger Pigeon, and the extensive burning of coal which generated smog in major cities like London, among other examples.  Some of the earliest authors writing in this genre were from Great Britain. For example, the great romantic age British poets William Wordsworth and William Blake wrote eloquently of the rural ideal.  However, starting in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a preponderance of the writings on nature and conservation--which are precursors to environmentalism as we now understand it--were American in origin.

There are a number of noteworthy American authors who in some way contributed to an appreciation of the natural world during this First Wave period.  However, this essay will feature several whose works most significantly influenced the nascent environmental movement during the First Wave--namely, James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.

James Madison (the fourth President of the United States) may not be as well known for his environmental sensibilities as he is for his political accomplishments but his contribution to the First Wave is significant nonetheless.  Like several other of America’s Founding Fathers (e.g., George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams), Madison was a landowner and a farmer.  His identity as a farmer predated his involvement in the American Revolution and politics and it profoundly shaped his world view.  In fact, Madison, along with the other Founding Fathers, based much of the philosophy of the American system of government on a vision of America’s citizenry being a nation of yeoman farmers and landowners.   A fascinating book that connects the agricultural roots of America’s founders to the system of government they advocated is Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners, The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation [2].  Madison, more than the other founders, understood the connection between agriculture and ecology.  While the likes of Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about proper farming practices and what crop varieties were preferred, Madison wrote the following in his famous 1818 address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle [3]:

“The earth contains not less than thirty or forty thousand kinds of plants; not less than six or seven hundred of birds; nor less than three or four hundred of quadrupeds; to say nothing of the thousand species of fishes. Of reptiles and insects, there are more than can be numbered. To all these must be added, the swarms and varieties of animalcules and minute vegetables not visible to the natural eye, but whose existence is probably connected with that of visible animals and plants.”

“On comparing this vast profusion and multiplicity of beings with the few grains and grasses, the few herbs and roots, and the few fowls and quadrupeds, which make up the short list adapted to the wants of man, it is difficult to believe that it lies with him so to remodel the work of nature as it would be remodelled, by a destruction not only of individuals, but of entire species; and not only of a few species, but of every species, with the very few exceptions which he might spare for his own accommodation.”

In these two paragraphs, Madison sets forth two principles that are foundational to the modern environmental movement: (1) the interconnectedness of all the species in a given ecosystem—both visible and microscopic, and (2) that man has no right to alter or destroy the natural ecosystem just to further his own objectives.  This second principle contradicts the earlier Puritan notion of man’s right to have dominion over the Earth.

          With the passing of the Revolutionary generation, a new generation of American naturalists emerged.  This generation is epitomized by Henry David Thoreau, born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts.  Thoreau belonged to the Transcendentalist movement, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May Alcott) [4]. Transcendentalists believed that spiritual fulfillment was to be found through immersion in and study of the natural world, not through institutionalized religion. Thoreau’s most famous literary work, Walden, recounts the two years he spent living a primitive life in the Massachusetts woods near Walden Pond.  Walden, along with several essays he wrote late in life, advocate for Thoreau’s views on what is now known as ecology.   Thoreau’s other most famous literary work--the essay, Civil Disobedience--is also significant to the modern environmental movement.  Although Thoreau intended Civil Disobedience to be a critique on overly intrusive government and a treatise for how citizens should protest government actions they view to be unjust, his ideas of non-violent resistance were later used by activists such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King to promote social change.  Within today’s environmental movement, such organizations as Greenpeace employ Thoreau’s principles of non-violent resistance. 

          The Transcendentalist Movement deeply influenced another major environmental writer and advocate--John Muir.  Muir, born in Scotland in 1835, immigrated to the US with his parents as a child and was raised on a farm in Wisconsin.  He attended the University of Wisconsin Madison for several years, but never earned a degree because his choices of classes were too broad and eclectic to qualify as a concentrated major.  While at Madison, he studied chemistry, botany, geology, and various other subjects, which he later in life said may not have earned him a degree, but which prepared him ‘for his future wanderings’ [5]. After college, Muir traveled pretty much continuously for the next two decades.  Immediately following college he traveled for six years, visiting, in succession: Canada, Florida, Cuba, and New York.  It was during this time that he made his famous 1000 mile nature walk from Indiana to Florida. After a brief time in New York, Muir booked passage on a ship to California.  He ended up in the Yosemite area of California in 1868, where he lived in a primitive cabin for the next six years, studying Yosemite’s geology, wildlife, and botany, and reading and writing extensively. While in Yosemite, he struggled to survive because he was frequently unemployed and had no prospects for a career.  During this difficult time, Muir took solace in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in doing so adopted many of the philosophical beliefs of Transcendentalism, which were layered upon his existing scientific training and knowledge.  In the mid 1870s, Muir traveled to Alaska and was one of the first European Americans to explore Glacier Bay.  Several years later, he traveled to Washington state and spent time climbing Mount Rainier and writing Ascent of Mount Rainier.  In his mid 40s, Muir married the daughter of a California fruit ranch owner and  settled down, managing the ranch, and continuing to write and advocate on behalf of the wilderness, and especially on behalf of the Yosemite area.   He was responsible for Yosemite becoming a national park and he was the co-founder of the Sierra Club, an organization that still exists to advocate on behalf of environmental stewardship and responsible use of the Earth’s resources [6].  Muir’s views on the environment were characterized by a belief in preservation rather than conservation.  He believed that wild areas should be left undisturbed, rather than believing that it was proper to merely manage them in a sustainable manner.  In this view, he differed from other conservationists of his day, who argued for “responsible” use of natural resources, such as the selective cutting of timber in natural areas and limited hunting of game.  Perhaps Muir’s biggest legacy within the environmental movement was that he was among the first of America’s environmental writers who was also an activist.  He not only wrote about nature and about the need for preservation, but lobbied and organized effectively for change.  In this way, he was perhaps more like modern environmentalists than any of his contemporaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


          The last of the First Wave environmental writers we will explore is Aldo Leopold. Leopold, born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, was drawn to the outdoors as a child, where he avidly hiked and catalogued species of birds, plants, and animals that he observed in the wild. Upon hearing of a new college program in forestry started at Yale University in 1900, the 13 year old Leopold decided on a career in forestry.  He ultimately entered that program at Yale in 1905.  Upon graduation from Yale, he worked for the US Forest Service, primarily in Arizona and New Mexico for the next 15 years, where he developed the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, and helped to establish a wilderness designation for the Gila Wilderness Area, the first such wilderness area set-aside in the US Forest Service system.  The Forest Service transferred him to the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924 to serve there as its associate director.  He was subsequently appointed to a professorship in Game Management at the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1933.  While living in Madison and teaching there, he bought an eighty acre farm in central Wisconsin where he spent vacations and weekends.  It was on this farm that the inspiration for Leopold’s seminal environmental work, A Sand County Almanac [7], was born. Leopold worked the land on the farm to help restore its natural ecosystem because the farm had been logged and overgrazed at the time he purchased it.  He used his observations of the farm’s ecosystem along with his past experiences in forestry as inspiration for the essays in A Sand County Almanac.  Through these essays, Leopold reveals an environmental philosophy that includes a “wilderness ethic” similar to Muir’s.  He believed that wild places should be valued for their own sake and left undisturbed whenever possible rather than “managed.” This view put him into opposition with the utilitarian conservationists of the early 20th century such as Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt.  The utilitarian conservationists advocated that nature be conserved so that it could be enjoyed by man through hunting and other recreational activities. Leopold also advocated for the “land ethic,” a concept which encourages the management of wildlife habitats by both public and private landowners.  Leopold believed that adequate conservation of ecosystems could not occur just by managing public lands, and that private landowners, educated in the basics of ecology and the scientific principles of land management, needed to embrace these principles if sufficient conservation was to occur.  A Sand Country Almanac was almost never published because Leopold finished it only a month before he died.  His family was instrumental in its subsequent publication in 1949 [8].  In some sense, Leopold can be viewed as a bridge between the First and Second Wave environmental writers because his writings did engage large numbers of readers who were already outdoor enthusiasts.  However, the larger population remained generally unaware of the importance of his works until they were re-popularized after the Second Wave had arrived.


          In moving from the First Wave to the Second Wave of environmentalism, we move from a period in which environmental writing and thought were largely the realm of intellectuals and academics to a period when environmentalism was embraced by large cross sections of the American populace.  This represents a significant paradigm shift because it was a necessary precursor to the major federal environmental regulations passed in the late 1960s and 1970s, e.g., the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund legislation, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Environmental scholar and activist Martin Branagan asserts that without grassroots support fundamental environmental reform is not possible [9].  Thus, without the shift from the First Wave to the Second Wave of the environmental movement, our current level of environmental protections and reforms would not have occurred.  The environmental writer who almost single-handedly ushered in the Second Wave was Rachel Carson.


          Rachel Carson, born in 1907, held an MS degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins and worked for two decades in relative anonymity as a science editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  During this time, she also did freelance journalism for a number of popular publications such as the Atlantic Monthly, primarily on topics related to the oceans and the ecosystems of the sea.  She first became nationally known for her best-selling books on the oceans--The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea.   The Sea Around Us garnered her the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1952.  For some time, she had been reading research studies and reviewing anecdotal accounts of the impact of pesticides on the natural world.  She became convinced that synthetic pesticides, especially DDT, were responsible for significant environmental damage, including the decline of a number of bird species.  At the encouragement of E.B. White, then the editor of The New Yorker, she embarked on an investigative journalism project to document pesticide impacts.  Silent Spring, published in 1962, was the result of her efforts.  This book, which contains an allegorical account of an American town without birds and other wildlife, captured the imagination of the American public like no book on the environment up to that point in time.  So impactful was Silent Spring that Carson was invited to testify before Congress in 1963 on the dangers of pesticides.  DDT was banned shortly thereafter, and the major pieces of environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s that continue in effect to the present day, e.g. the Clean Water Act, are directly attributable to popular and political support created by the publication of Silent Spring. It seemed that the only entities not enthralled with Carson’s work were a number of the major chemical corporations who produced DDT and other synthetic pesticides.  These companies spent large sums of money trying to discredit Carson and to smear her reputation, accusing her of junk science, and warning the American public that without pesticides, America would soon be so overrun by insects that we would be unable to grow enough food to feed our population [10].  Despite these scare tactics, the modern environmental movement in America was born.  Silent Spring was translated into a number of languages and also helped to ignite the world-wide environmental movement.    


The Future of Environmental Action and How It might be shaped through Literature:

          By certain narrow measures, our environment today is in much better condition than in 1962.  Through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Superfund legislation, and a host of other regulatory actions, both in the US and abroad, we are now required to clean up many of the damaging by-products we generate in our daily lives before they enter the environment. Municipal and industrial waste water treatment is now the norm in the developed world; Lake Erie, a ‘dead’ lake in the 1960s, now supports a thriving Walleye population.  In the developed world, air emissions of toxic chemicals from power plants and other industrial sources have been significantly reduced. Recognition is beginning to dawn on the governments of China and India that air pollution threatens their peoples and economies, and in the near future air pollution controls like those used in the West will likely become more commonplace.  New pesticides and herbicides must undergo testing protocols before being allowed on the market to demonstrate they are safe.  There are many other similar examples.

          In a broader sense, however, the world faces environmental problems that are global and so fundamental in nature that they must be addressed if Earth, as we know it, is to survive.   Greenhouse gas emissions linked to global climate change, potable water shortages worldwide, deforestation, and overfishing of the oceans are just a few of the severe impacts we face as a planet.  Unlike the environmental battles in the 1960s and 1970s which were focused on narrow issues and geographically limited in scope, today’s environmental problems can only be effectively addressed on a global scale and they will require significant changes in how man interacts with the planet.  Wealthy multinational corporations with vested interests in the status quo along with dysfunctional political systems in many nations hamper direct action. 

     Given the scope of world environmental problems, is it even plausible that environmental writers can be drivers for fundamental reform?   The answer to this question is uncertain, but were such writers to emerge, their work would need to possess these characteristics:

  • ·       It would engage readers on both a rational and emotional level, as have all transformative literary works of the past.


  • ·       It would build a persuasive case against the modern materialist mind-set.  Humans cannot continue to use earth resources at the rate they are. It is unsustainable to try to support a life-style like that experienced in the U.S. during the 20th century.  This does not mean humanity must return to the Dark Ages, but it will require that we refocus our interests in a direction that does not promote rabid consumption.  It also means that we will have to make maximum use of energy conservation, renewable energy sources, water conservation and reuse, sustainable wildlife, forestry and farming practices, and materials reuse and recycling on a global scale.   The challenge will be for writers to frame this new paradigm in a way so that it is perceived as positive and even enjoyable rather than as sacrificial.  
  • ·       It would appeal to a broad spectrum of religions, cultures, and types of government. Not only do we live in a diverse world, but society seems to be becoming increasingly fractious, with the spirit of cooperation and civil discourse increasingly rare.  There is pressure to demonize the “other.”  The mass media, rather than helping to correct this, has been complicit in fostering it through sensational journalism and reporting.  The effective writer will have to make the case that there is more that connects us as humans than divides us.  He will also have to build the case that it is in the best interests of all to cooperate in addressing global environmental concerns.    


  • ·       It would build the economic case.  Those who argue against the sorts of paradigm shifts needed to ensure a sustainable future for planet Earth and its inhabitants often use arguments based on economics.  They claim such changes are too expensive.  They claim such changes will result in the loss of competitive advantage of one nation over another.  They claim such changes will result in diminished economic status for all.   The economic case must be made persuasively that the ultimate costs of doing nothing will dwarf the costs of any changes we implement now.  Such economic arguments are well developed within academia, but they need to be presented in an accessible and engaging way.


  • ·       It would promote grassroots action.  Governments and corporations tend to favor the status quo unless constituents and customers argue for change.  Even in non-democracies such as China, citizen pressure can foster change.  


  • ·       It would be presented using media that effectively engage 21st century minds and which takes full advantage of the digital revolution. Smart phones, Facebook and other social media sites, graphic novels, interactive computer gaming, the Internet, e-Books….  There is a lengthy list of new media and devices through which writers can reach their audiences.  The transformative environmental writer of the future will have to engage people using these media.


     Ever since Gutenberg, major social changes have been catalyzed through literature.   While 21st century environmental challenges are daunting, they, too, can be addressed through building a global consensus.  It is fortunate that such a consensus can be promoted through literature:

The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.



References and Further Reading:

  1. Guha, Ramachandra, Environmentalism: A Global History, Longman Publishing, 2000.  ISBN 0-321-01169-4.
  2. Wulf, Andrea, Founding Gardeners, the Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-26990-4.
  3. Madison, James, “Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, 12 May 1818,” The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, Volume 1: 4 March 1817-31, January 1820, edited by David B Mattern, J.C.A. Stagg, Mary Parke-Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
  4. Witherwell, E., and DuBrulle, E., “The Life and Times of Henry David Thoreau”, published by the Thoreau Library, for the 150th anniversary celebration of the publication of Walden, 1995.
  5. Holmes, S.J., Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography, University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. ISBN 10: 0299161544.
  6. “John Muir”, Wikipedia, 
  7. Leopold, A., A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River, republished by Ballantine Books in 1986, ISBN -10: 0345345053.
  8. Meine, C., Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 1988.  ISBN 0-299-11490-2.
  9. Branagan, M., “Environmental Education, Activism, and the Arts,” Convergence, Vol. 38, No. 4, 2005, p.33-50.
  10. Griswold, E., “How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement”, The New York Times Magazine, September 21, 2012.


Coming in early 2014 is Installment Nine of this series:  “From Lanterns to LEDs – A Look at the Evolution of Sustainable Lighting,” an essay inspired by the painting Glassblowing by Hugo von Bouvard.