Skip to main content

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Climate Change

Debates about environmental damage aren’t new — in fact, the United States was founded partly for the purpose of changing North American nature.

By Andrew Lanham


John Gast’s American Progress, which depicts the agricultural imperialism of the settlers, as well as the way they drove natives off land. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This summer, 35 scientists officially changed how we understand the world when a research team under the auspices of the International Union of Geological Sciences confirmed that we’re living in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, the age when human beings become a defining force in Earth’s natural systems.

The researchers set the Anthropocene’s birthday around 1950, when radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb tests started leaving a distinct layer in the geological record. About the same time, millions of tons of plastic trash, carbon pollution from power plants, and a building-spree of concrete cities began pressing their own fingerprints into the Earth. But the scientists also suggested another way to define the Anthropocene, and it’s so mundane, next to nuclear weapons and global warming, that it feels absurd, like some sort of cosmic joke: We can use chicken bones to track our rise to global domination.

Silly as it sounds, chickens actually make a lot of scientific sense. The global chicken population boomed after World War II, and our clucky feathered friends — roasted, fried, or rotisseried — will leave an expansive and resilient fossil record. For any future explorers who dig them up, the bones from untold buckets of hot wings will document the globalization of food networks, the rising post-war wealth that let vastly more people afford meat, and humanity’s growing ability to control the very plants and animals that compose our ecosystems. Colonel Sanders is the poster-boy for the Anthropocene.

The researchers this summer were a little late to the party, though. Back in the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau recognized already how American farmers, especially their delicious chickens, were radically reshaping the environment. Thoreau, we might even say, used chickens to diagnose the Anthropocene 150 years before geologists did.

In his 1854 classic Walden, Thoreau goes off to the woods alone so he can come back and wake up all his neighbors from their sleepy conformity. He says he wants to crow “as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning” in order to jolt them awake. Thoreau sees Chanticleer, the cocky rooster character from Chaucer, as an ideal symbol for American self-reliance.

Across the 19th century, the U.S. government consciously set out to terraform the continent.

But he also sees roosters as swaggering symbols of our power to alter nature. “All climates agree with brave Chanticleer,” Thoreau writes. “He is more indigenous even than the natives.” Like countless other Old World species — from apples to pigs to the common plantain — chickens came to America with European colonists (American Indians called plantain “Englishman’s foot,” an ecological imprint of colonization). Thoreau points out how these immigrant species not only adapted to new climates, but fundamentally changed the environments they entered by driving out native species and taking over themselves, becoming even more indigenous than the natives they displaced. For Thoreau and his fellow Americans, to be as free as Chanticleer meant being free to subdue and remake nature.

Chickens had lots of company when they came to North America. In his posthumous essay “Wild Apples,” published in 1862, Thoreau writes that “when man migrates” over the prairies, “he carries with him not only his birds, quadrupeds, insects, vegetables, and his very sward, but his [apple] orchard also.” Settlers’ wagons were mobile menageries transporting Old World species west.

Thoreau loved bad puns, so it’s easy to see his settlers’ grassy swards as a bit sword-like too. The historian Alfred Crosby, in fact, argues in Ecological Imperialism that Europeans were able to colonize the globe only because they carried with them “a scaled-down, simplified version of the biota of Western Europe.” This imported European biome wiped out entire American Indian villages with diseases like smallpox, and invasive plant and animal species like pigs and thistles wrecked indigenous environments and the American Indian economies that depended on them. White settlers conquered the continent with ecological weapons.

These settlers believed they were transforming a savage wilderness into modern civilization. The landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing wrote in 1851 that the “hundreds of thousands” of apple trees planted by settlers had turned the frontier into a place where Americans could enjoy “the refinements” of country living. The novelist Eliza Farnham wrote in her 1846 memoir Life in the Prairie Land that the one house in her neighborhood with an apple orchard was the most beautiful to be found. The widow who owned the orchard had a privileged place in the community, since everyone sucked up to her to get apples. On the frontier, plants equaled power.

American Indians saw things differently. In her memoirs, the Yankton Dakota writer and activist Zitkala-Sa uses apples as a symbol for ethnic cleansing.

In 1884, Zitkala-Sa writes, white missionaries visited her village and convinced her and the other children to move east to school. The missionaries promised that, in the east, the children “could reach out our hands and pick all the red apples we could eat.” When she arrives in what she calls the “Red Apple Country,” though, Zitkala-Sa realizes that the missionary school is meant to erase her culture. She cries when the missionaries saw off her long hair, and she feels like “only one of many little animals driven by a herder.” Writing her memoirs was an effort to wrest back control of her life and identity.

Thoreau praised settlers who planted apples on the frontier but also recognized the human and ecological violence of colonization. In his last, unfinished book, The Dispersion of Seeds, which was inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Thoreau considers how plants migrate around the world. He pays particular attention to invasive species like thistles, and he quotes a passage from Darwin that describes how cardoon, a spiny purple plant used in Spanish cheeses, overran Uruguay. Hundreds of square miles are “covered by one mass of these prickly plants,” Darwin writes. “Where these great beds occur, nothing can now live.… I doubt whether any case is on record of an invasion on so grand a scale of one plant over the aborigines.” It wasn’t hard to see how human invasion made aboriginal lands uninhabitable for native peoples too.

Eurasian species like apples and thistles didn’t conquer North America on their own, though. Across the 19th century, the United States government consciously set out to terraform the continent.

In The Dispersion of Seeds, Thoreau uses a political metaphor to explain Darwinian evolution. Nature spreads seeds, he says, “as effectually as when seeds are sent by mail in a different kind of sack from the Patent Office.… There is a Patent Office at the seat of government of the universe.” Thoreau is playfully referring to the U.S. Patent Office, which, in fact, mailed foreign seeds to American farmers so they could find the right varieties for local climates. It was a nationwide experiment in micro-evolution, trying to adapt new species to newly conquered niches.

It was a massive experiment too. The Patent Office mailed 30,000 packets of seeds in 1840, 60,000 in 1847, and 474,000 in 1861. By 1862, the job was so big Congress created the U.S. Department of Agriculture to distribute “new and valuable seeds” across the country. Before the Civil War, the federal government was a relatively small operation; it ballooned during the war, creating the bureaucracies we know today. But as the USDA shows, the expansion of federal power was also driven by a desire to transform North American nature into a manmade European biome.

If this early American geo-engineering has a folk hero, it’s Johnny Appleseed. He’s Colonel Sanders’ ancestor in the American Anthropocene. Johnny was a real man named John Chapman, and he was a sneakily savvy businessman.

Thoreau recognized the human and ecological violence of colonization.

When Congress opened the Northwest Territory at the end of the 18th century, it offered free land to anyone who would build a cabin, live there for three years, and plant 50 apple trees. It was a legal incentive to import foreign species and help push American Indian tribes west. Seeing an opportunity, Johnny Appleseed would travel three years ahead of the frontier and plant his apple orchards. Then when settlers showed up, he would sell them three-year-old apple trees, allowing them to claim their land early — and to brew hard cider, which they drank by the barrelful. Law, bureaucracy, and a taste for alcohol conspired to remake the landscape.

From the start, Americans worried this ecological change would cause a climate disaster. In his 1783 treatise Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson — who experimented with apple varieties at Monticello — wrote that clear-cutting forests was changing wind and rainfall patterns and dangerously lowering the average temperature. For a modern reader, Jefferson’s account weirdly parallels the devastating changes caused by global warming from greenhouse gasses; the deforestation he describes, in fact, still contributes to the rise in CO2. Unlike most climate scientists today, though, Jefferson’s motives were neither disinterested nor humane: As a colonial plantation-owner and slave-driver, he had serious financial reasons to pay attention to any climate changes that might affect his crops.

Jefferson had company in paying attention to changes in America’s climate. As Andrea Wulf describes in Founding Gardeners, James Madison jump-started American environmentalism with a speech about deforestation in 1818, and Richard Grove argues in Green Imperialism that Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson developed the modern scientific method partly to track and try to mitigate changes to the environment — including significant changes in the climate — caused by colonization. Like Darwin and Thoreau, these early scientists were keenly aware of the dangers of what they didn’t yet have the vocabulary to call the Anthropocene.

Despite these dangers, early Americans saw the power to remake nature as their natural right. Thoreau says that “the apple emulates man’s independence and enterprise” because it “has migrated to this New World, and is even, here and there, making its way amid the aboriginal trees.” As with Chanticleer, being an autonomous individual means being able to invade aboriginal lands and become even more native than the natives one destroys.

This helps explain the difficulties of passing climate regulations today: the very concept of freedom Americans celebrate was forged amid maybe the greatest intentional geo-engineering project the world has ever seen. Violently changing nature, even the very climate, is our country’s birthright.

But this also provides tremendous precedent for federal action. Climate regulations can’t overreach if the U.S. government was created to cause ecological and even climatological change — to create the Anthropocene. In fact, federal inaction on climate change is itself a substantial form of action, since it lets forces fostered by the government continue to devastate the environment. Just as in Zitkala-Sa’s day, that devastation is still aimed like a weapon at the poor, vulnerable, and unrepresented. And just as Zitkala-Sa fought for representation, Native activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline today are battling ecological imperialism in the age of global warming.

The Anthropocene, history tells us, is all around us, woven into the ecological fabric of our everyday lives, from the birds and trees we see to the chicken wings we eat to the microbes and chemicals we unwittingly consume. This history imposes a moral imperative to take responsibility for the weaponization of nature that made America what it is. But it also implies that collective action on climate change can be a revolution to build a more just and inclusive world. That’s the way to use our democracy today.