The Great Lakes: Reviewing Environmental History of North America’s Inland Seas

Jeffrey Kast

The Ohio State University

Co-Authors: Nicholas Breyfogle and Jay Martin

This project synthesizes historical scholarship on the Great Lakes and their waters and places current regional water quality challenges in historical perspective. Examining the human relationship with the Great Lakes over the past 400 years, we find shifting understandings of what the Great Lakes are, their utility, and their meaning to the regional inhabitants. From being a source of spiritual connection to Native Americans, to teeming with untapped potential as a transportation arena for goods and services, to being sought after recreation spots, and being a source of drinking water for a growing population, our collective human relationship with the Lakes has evolved in step with the region’s move into the 21st century.

When reviewing environmental histories of the Great Lakes, historians generally focus on one of three topics: fishing, transportation, or water quality and protection. They explore the impact of technological and political changes–from the introduction of various fish stocking methods to hydrological engineering projects like the Erie Canal—to the changing relationship between federal and state governments in managing the environment. However, largely absent from historical discussions on the waters of the Great Lakes are histories focused on the eco-social relationship between agriculture and the lakes. Although scientific literature and research have turned their focus towards regional agriculture and its impact on the lakes over the past three decades, numerous opportunities exist within the field of environmental history to explore this relationship and improve our understanding of many water quality related issues facing the Great Lakes today.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Lakes: Reviewing Environmental History of North America’s Inland Seas

  1. Jeffrey, very interesting work! Can you speculate on what changed in the way businesses viewed environmental issues, when once they urged government intervention, they don’t to the same extent anymore. I know its a loaded question, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


    1. Hi Ani, thanks for the question! Focusing on U.S. businesses, I think the shift occurs due to a couple of reasons: 1) increasing competition among businesses and 2) the increasing number and toxicity of chemicals after WWII. Prior to WWII, we see through the historical literature that businesses sought government assistance and even led initiatives related to water quality protection, in efforts to protect their workers from getting sick. However, the proliferation of many new chemicals during the war effort led to new businesses forming and new chemical toxins introduced into the environment. These resulting changes changed the dynamics of the business world within the country where companies shifted their focus to capturing market shares, which would have been slowed by governmental regulations and intervention related to protecting environmental quality.


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