Waves of Change
Illinois's unnatural natural systems
The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical Trends
The opening, scene-setting chapter of the summary report of the Critical Trends Assessment Project by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. There's as much history as environment in it; researching it made me wish someone would do a first-rate environmental history of Illinois—that is, the story of how the environment shaped Illinois history—or a first-rate Illinois environmental history—that is, how history shaped the Illinois environment.
From the report's introduction: Humans have always been successful at making the world more habitable for themselves wherever they settled. They have done so by their conscious and increasingly expert manipulation of local ecosystems. In Illinois as elsewhere, landscape disturbance is not a byproduct of human habitation but the point of it.
Change and the environment
The fact of environmental change has been constant throughout the human occupation of Illinois, but how and why people have changed Illinois has varied with time and with people's expectations of the landscape. Natural Illinois has been perceived variously as wilderness to be quelled, destiny to be fulfilled, and progress to be enjoyed.
Beginning roughly in the early 1800s, Illinois has been swept by waves of environmental change as people of successive eras converted the natural environment to economic goods—and did so not always aware of or concerned with the consequences to ecological systems.
Complex in cause and effect, these waves of change coincided approximately with Illinois's presettlement, agricultural, industrial, and postindustrial eras. Each era had a characteristic system of production (and associated pollution), a characteristic artifact, and a characteristic urban form. The economy of each was powered by a characteristic "general engine" fueled by a characteristic energy source.
For example, in the early 19th century, Illinois's mainly subsistence economy ran on muscle and wood; these provided the energy to scattered farmsteads in a society whose general engine was the human body and whose characteristic "urban" form was the frontier trading post. After 1820 or so, the horse (hitched to plows or wagons) powered a still-dispersed society that had come to consist of developed farms linked economically to rural small towns. After the Civil War, horses fueled by hay and oats were replaced by coal-powered steam engines; the railroad and the factory were the typical artifacts of industrial Illinois, and together they made possible the densely built (and densely polluted) modern city. Since 1920, the "automobile subdivision" has become the typical urban form in a landscape whose characteristic urban artifact is the shopping mall, which functions in a society in which petroleum energy and the internal combustion engine are undoing the urban concentrations of the 19th century.
The presettlement era
Beginning some 10,000 years ago, Native Americans of various cultures occupied Illinois. Their economy, during that long tenure, was more closely linked to the local land resource than is that of today's Illinoisans. Summer valley camps, where Native Americans harvested mussels and fish, typically gave way in autumn to equally temporary upland sites, where the people harvested nuts and hunted game, with stops at work camps, where weapons points and tools were fashioned from local deposits of flint.
The European settlers who came to Illinois in the late 17th century were primarily traders, farmers out of necessity rather than training. The focus of their economy was not crops but animals, which they sought as a source of food and furs, or isolated proto-industries such as the extraction of salt from springs in far southern Illinois in the 1700s. What farming they did was subsistence agriculture, using methods largely adapted from the Native Americans. Considered in terms of environmental impact, therefore, the Native American era in Illinois may be said to have lasted until the 19th century.
1820 to 1920: Agriculture takes root
Beginning with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1835 and ending roughly with World War I, railroads and farm machines made farming more efficient and more profitable. The Illinois interior was made accessible to distant urban markets that absorbed the surpluses made possible through efficiency. Trading in resources began to be done at a distance and in bulk.
The farmers who constituted the second wave of environmental change in Illinois were mainly experienced farmers from northern Europe. Unlike Native Americans and early European farmers who relied on the hoe, farmers of the second wave utilized technology (in the form of the steel plow and, later, the railroad) and production capital (in the form of draft animals, barns to house livestock, and wagons).
As farming changed, so did the Illinois landscape. But while the prairie ceased to be prairie, it did not cease to be grasslands for decades after farmers first ventured out of the woods. Some prairie was left as a hay source, and much plowed prairie was replaced by plantings of "tame" grass such as timothy, producing a simplified version of the mixed forest and grassland ecology the farms replaced
The mixed grain and livestock farm of the late 19th century was a productive and sustainable system, adapted from land-short Europe by the addition of corn to the crop rotation in place of the wheat grown by earlier farmers. (Corn, an exotic species imported by Native Americans from South America, was better suited to the more extreme weather conditions of Illinois.) On the basis of that farming system, rural Illinois enjoyed historic population growth and prosperity in the decades prior to 1920.
1850 to 1960: The concentration of power
Industrialization was the third wave of environmental change in Illinois. It concentrated people, productive resources, and pollution on small tracts of land. Chicago was the paradigm, not just for Illinois, but for the world. The centralization of grain trade, lumber, and meatpacking at that continental transportation node transformed that city into a colossus, but other Illinois cities boomed as well.
By the end of the 19th century, Illinois was urban in all but physical form, as its economy, politics, and lifestyles were dominated by cities, especially Chicago. The increased scale of the century's new commercial enterprises led to a scaling up of environmental stress.
The concentration of productive enterprise in the cities drew people off the farms Looking for—and finding—better wages for less labor. Amassing hundreds of thousands of people in one spot meant accumulating the wastes produced by the organisms, biological and economic, that sustained them. Chicago's buildings were blackened by its own coal smoke. The massive dumping of sewage and other wastes into the Chicago River eventually led to equally massive damage to the upper Illinois River after the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in order to divert pollution from Lake Michigan to the Illinois via the Des Plaines River.
The industrialized central city was a product of this era. So was the rural residential suburb, which evolved as a refuge from the dirt and congestion of the central city. Railroads were the means of suburban dispersal, and pollution was the prod, as wealthier families fled to cleaner surroundings on the still unspoiled countryside.
When industrial methods came to the countryside, they transformed it as fundamentally as they had the cities. Beginning about 1920, a series of innovations released farming from the ancient bounds imposed by nature. New, artificial fertilizers meant that agricultural productivity was now limited not just by a farmer's skill in husbanding the soil but by economically purchased nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and sulfur. The old corn-oats-clover crop rotation was abandoned as affordable tractors powered by internal-combustion engines made draft horses and the forage crops needed to feed them unnecessary. The shift from animal husbandry toward specialized row-crop culture simplified farm operations at the expense of concentrated chemical and physical stress on land.
The post-industrial era
Pollution has abated considerably in Illinois since the first quarter of this century. The poor condition of its air and water spurred the state on to take the national lead in programs to improve them, from wastewater treatment in the 1920s to bans on open dumps in the 1960s.
Stricter anti-pollution regulations accounted for some pollution reductions. Others were owed to new technologies and changes in the state's economic base, since many of the state's declining industries, such as steel-making and meat-packing, also had been the dirtiest. Pollution has, in effect, been exported to those other nations and U.S. states that increasingly make the things that Illinoisans buy.
By the 1920s the shape of a new, postindustrial Illinois had become clear. If the mark of the industrial era was concentration, that of the postindustrial age is dispersal, courtesy of the internal-combustion engine. Suburbs as an urban form dated back to the mid-19th century in Illinois, but the widespread adoption of suburbs as a way of life had been interrupted by the Depression and World War II. Beginning in the 1950s, the automobile, the truck, and the highway put rural land within reach of an expanding, house-hungry middle class and, later, of businesses.
The 19th-century steam railroad had not made new kinds of cities possible, although it made it possible to build cities in new kinds of places and at unprecedented densities. The car and truck, however, created a genuinely new urban form—the low-density, dispersed "edge city," exurb, satellite city, whose nascent form was the massive new housing constructed on the urban periphery (most of it on former farmland) during the postwar boom. Neither small town, bedroom suburb, nor city, these new places are now the dominant urban form in Illinois. The result is the familiar Illinois landscape of today, in which the 19th-century industrial cities are surrounded by sprawl that is overtaking the 19th-century rural small towns that survive from the state's agricultural heyday.
As Illinois cities began to spread out, their impact on the landscape grew diffuse as well. In a historical irony, the automobile, which was embraced a half-century ago to escape traffic congestion and pollution, has become a cause of both in Illinois's metropolitan fringes. Attempts to alleviate the local effects of pollution, such as building taller smokestacks, have helped create regional, even continental problems; "downstream" impacts such as acid rain are now defined in atmospheric as well as aquatic terms. And Illinois's dependence, since the mid-1900s, on fossil fuels is a local practice that may be having global effects as a result of emissions of so-called greenhouse gases.
The forces behind change
Different as they were in other ways, successive major changes in the Illinois landscape have been caused by the same basic demographic, economic, and technological factors.
The most dramatic change in the Illinois landscape since the start of its European phase is the fact that there are so many more people on it. Illinois's population exploded from a little more than 800,000 in 1850 to well over eight million a century later. Nearly one million people were added to the state's rolls every decade between 1890 and 1930—a period, not coincidentally, that also saw the most dramatic conversion of natural systems to human use.
Census numbers alone are not a dependable measure of the stress that human populations put on natural systems. Relative wealth matters. Total solid waste output in Illinois has outpaced recent population growth.
Technology matters as well. Roughly the same number of people lived in rural Illinois in 1930—around two million—as had lived in rural Illinois since 1870. But the 1930 rural population had an impact on the land that was disproportionate to its size. Whereas 1870s farmers used horses and manure in a system of rotated crops and pasturage, their 1930s counterparts had begun to use tractors and artificial fertilizers for the near-continuous cultivation of high-yield hybrid grains. The result was the elimination of the secondary grasslands ecology that had replaced the original prairie as the dominant system in rural Illinois.
The exhaustion of one resource tends to "create" others by making the costs of developing alternatives worthwhile. Coal was known to exist in Illinois as early as the 17th century, but it was not until trees grew scarce that coal commanded prices high enough to return the higher costs of mining and shipping it.
Similarly, lower-priced alternatives can deplete the economic potential of resources that remain physically intact. Production from Illinois clay pits shrank by 90 percent between 1965 and 1990 in the face of intense competition from clays and clay products produced in the American South and back-hauled at favorable freight rates on trains making return trips after delivering Illinois grain to the Gulf Coast.
Decisions about resource use usually depend on the prices resources can command. Unfortunately, price is a measure of only short-term value. Some economic historians argue that, in the latter decades of the 19th century, Illinois farmers exported to the East wealth produced by Midwestern soils at prices that did not account for the cost of maintaining the resource. Heaviest among these ignored costs were water pollution and topsoil depletion.
Industrialization complicated the arithmetic by which the costs and benefits of resource development had traditionally been calculated. Until the mid-19th century, pollution was a local phenomenon with local effects. When Illinoisans were able to buy goods manufactured outside the state, they shifted the costs of the pollution produced in making them to distant places. The residues from ores used in Chicago's steel mills poisoned Michigan's streams, not Illinois's, and houses in Decatur were built of wood from forests being leveled in the southern and northwestern parts of the United States.
But the scaling up of enterprises in the industrial era meant that the pollution that was introduced locally was produced on an unprecedented scale. Packing meat in a local plant for a thousand customers produced wastes that microorganisms in local streams could usually absorb; packing meat for a million customers nationwide produced wastes so voluminous that no stream could remove them, much less absorb them.
The focus of natural resource policy at all levels of government during the last half-century has been the reduction of the worst pollution of the industrial era. Efforts to curb industrial pollution typically lag behind the economic changes that created it, in some cases by a century or more. It takes time for pollution to manifest itself as a threat to human health, and even longer for political systems to contrive remedies. As a consequence, much of the pollution typical of the 19th-century industrial era lingered in Illinois until the 1960s.
Pollution in the postindustrial era is of a different character. The shift of energy sources from wood to coal to petroleum left polluting residues that are increasingly exotic chemically and whose health impacts are not yet clearly understood. Pollution in postindustrial Illinois has become increasingly dispersed and dilute (and thus less visible) compared to that of the industrial era. Reducing pollution from thousands, even hundreds of thousands of separate small sources such as automobiles has proven to be a challenge both politically and economically, although, here again, the trend is toward cleaner processes. However, research suggests that focusing on pollution as the measure of environmental degradation may have obscured the extent to which natural ecosystems have been compromised in Illinois.
The next wave?
Illinois's environment will continue to change as a result of human dominance. Less certain is if or to what extent humans can anticipate and thus control the direction and pace of that change. Perceptions about the Illinois environment vary enormously across eras and across social groups. Change begets change; as each generation of Illinoisans alters the landscape, later Illinoisans see and feel differently about the land, and thus act differently regarding it. Today few Illinoisans—apart from farmers—perceive that their economic livelihood depends on the natural realm.
For the century and a half that Europeans have been present in Illinois, the environment has been seen in mainly utilitarian terms. The only systematic data widely collected about the virgin landscape came from the records of its sale. Large-scale manipulation of the Illinois environment, whatever its very real benefits to the state's human populations, has always preceded our understanding of its impacts. Making Illinois habitable for humans thus has had serious and largely unforeseen impacts on the larger natural world of which humans are a part and on which humans still depend. Having learned that lesson, it seems incumbent on us to try to anticipate the less happy consequences of future change and, through knowledge, to avoid or minimize them while still providing Illinois with jobs, shelter, and recreation. ●