Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)

Benjamin Franklin was a lot of things—inventor, publisher, scientist, diplomat, framer of the Declaration of Independence.  But, some argue, he was also America’s first environmentalist.  You be the judge.

Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 (died 1790).  He had little formal education, but learned wherever he went.  As an apprentice printer, he learned the business and became a successful publisher in Philadelphia.  He eventually published Poor Richard’s Almanack, filled with pithy quotes and also with astute observations about weather, forests, farms and oceans (Exhibit 1, a fundamental interest in his environment).

Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Duplessis, 1778.

As he prospered, he became a leading citizen of Philadelphia.  By the time he was 42, he was wealthy enough to retire and focus on civic matters, science and inventing.  Most famous for his experiments with electricity, he also studied meteorology and the ocean (Exhibit 2, a natural history interest).  His study of the Gulf Stream provided navigators a new strategy for crossing the Atlantic, cutting two weeks off the round-trip.

He is well known for his interest in energy conservation (Exhibit 3).  His invention of the Franklin stove provided more heat while using less fuel.  He also promoted improved chimneys to reduce exposure to smoke within homes.  He invented a four-sided street lamp to replace the spherical lamps that were common.  Spherical lamps had poor air circulation that caused inefficient burning of the oil fuel, leading to soot on the lamps that needed to be cleaned daily and excessive smoke emitted into the air—another contribution to energy conservation and air quality.

To be the nation’s first environmentalist, a person should have an interest in the most fundamental of natural resources—water.  One of his most famous aphorisms is “When the well is dry, we know the value of water.”  Franklin knew the value of clean water and the need for society to protect its purity.  In 1739, along with a group of fellow citizens, he petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop tanneries from dumping their wastes into public water supplies, asserting the rights of the public over excessive private actions (Exhibit 4, a commitment to public health).  They won their appeal, but, alas, a lack of enforcement allowed the pollution to continue.

The Franklin stove (actually a fireplace insert) that improved the heat and fuel efficiency (photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the 1760s, he led a commission in Philadelphia to improve waste collection and reduce water pollution (Exhibit 5, a willingness to perform public service for environmental matters).  Even more generously, he left a substantial amount in his will to build a pipeline to bring clean water into central Philadelphia.  That project led to the creation of the Philadelphia Water Commission.

He didn’t get everything right, but he was sure trying.  For example, while living in England and representing the Philadelphia colony during 1757-1775, Franklin encouraged England to switch fuel to improve the environment.  Forests had largely disappeared in England, due to their overharvest for all manner of use, including burning as fuel.  Franklin promoted the use of coal as a substitute fuel, a dubious strategy today, but then one advanced to save the endangered forest (Exhibit 6, an understanding of biodiversity conservation).

So, is the case convincing that Benjamin Franklin was America’s first environmentalist?  Perhaps not the first, but surely one of them.  More than anything, I believe Frnaklin’s interest in the environment shows that men and women of thought and conscience, today and yesterday, include a healthy environment among our most important and cherished priorities.

References:

Fabricius, Karl.  2008.  Environmentalism in 1739.  Scribol.com.  Available at:  http://scribol.com/anthropology-and-history/cultures/environmentalism-in-1739/.  Accessed January 17,2018.

History.com.  Benjamin Franklin.  Available at:  http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/benjamin-franklin.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

Simenauer, Lauren.  2011.  What Would Ben Franklin Do?  Influences of America’s First Environmentalist.  Science Progress, November 20, 2011.  Available at:  https://scienceprogress.org/2011/11/what-would-ben-franklin-do/.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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