Sir Winston Churchill once reminded us that "the further backward we can look, the better we can see ahead." This statement is as true in the environmental arena as it is in the more traditional field of history. Environmental politics, policies, and outcomes lie within the realm of conscious and collective human choice.(1) Thus, the intelligence with which such choices are made can be improved by a better understanding of the major actors and environmental issues that have brought us to where we are today.
The history of environmental politics and policy in the United States can be conveniently divided into four periods: the conservation movement from 1890 to 1920, the preservation movement from 1920 to 1960, the environmental movement from 1960 to 1990, and the contemporary period from 1990 to the present.(2)
There were, of course, attempts to protect the environment before 1890. For example, during the first part of the 19th century, the federal government took a number of actions to preserve good mast timber for ships, and President John Quincy Adams' administration even went so far as to establish a management program on forest reservations in 1827.(3) With the exception of the Adams administration, however, no other political administration from Washington to Buchanan showed any foresight in planning for the nation's future needs.(4) In fact, there was not really much effort at all for environmental protection until some time after the Civil War.
The years between 1865 and 1890 are perhaps best characterized as a period of resource exploitation as natural resources were subordinated to the political objectives of industrial development, removal of Native Americans from their lands, homestead settlement, and the promotion of free enterprise.(5) During the reconstruction era after the Civil War, the nation concentrated on rebuilding the South and developing the West. Managers, entrepreneurs, and engineers were more concerned with using resources than with conserving them. By the late 1800s, however, a few political leaders and their advisers began to recognize the need to protect the nation's vast natural resource wealth.
According to historian Samuel P. Hays, "The modern American conservation movement grew out of the firsthand experience of federal administrators and political leaders with problems of Western economic growth, especially Western water development."(6) During the years from 1890 to 1920, rational planning to promote efficient development and use of all natural resources was the essence of the conservation movement.(7)
In the late 1800s, a number of notable federal employees - including W.J. McGee, Gifford Pinchot, John Wesley Powell, Frederick Newell, and George Maxwell - decided that something needed to be done about conserving natural resources. Together, they formulated four doctrines that later became the creed of the conservation movement:
* Conservation is not the locking up of resources; it is their development and wise use.
* Conservation is the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.
* Federal public lands belong to all the people.
* Comprehensive, multiple-purpose river-basin planning should be used in developing the nation's rivers.(8)
With these doctrines as their guide, federal forestry officials joined hydrographers and campaigned for more rational and efficient use of timber resources. During the 1890s, the organized forestry movement in the United States shifted its emphasis from saving trees to promoting sustained-yield forest management.(9) By 1891, the federal government began setting aside forest reserves within the federal domain, and it authorized selective cutting and marketing of timber in 1897.(10)
Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester of the Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt, was an important link between the intellectual and scientific founders of the conservation movement and the president. As adviser to Roosevelt, Pinchot imparted a new spirit of respect for America's laws that pervaded government departments and the country at large.(11) Under Pinchot's guidance, the Roosevelt administration greatly enlarged the size of the national forests by adding 118 national reserves, bringing the total to 159.(12) Pinchot, who studied forest management in France and Germany, completely reorganized the Forest Service and infused it with a new spirit of public responsibility.(13)
The period from 1908 to 1920 saw numerous conflicts over conservation policy. For example, much of the western livestock industry depended for its forage upon the open range, which was owned by the federal government but was free for anyone to use. Soon the public domain became stocked with more animals than the range could support.
Chaos, anarchy, and destruction were rife. Range wars erupted between Western cattlemen and sheep operators, and between both groups and farmers as all struggled for control of public grazing lands.(14)
The deepest significance of the conservation movement, however, according to Samuel Hays, "lay in its political implications: how should resource decisions be made and by whom?" Stakeholders wrestled with whether conflicts should be resolved through partisan politics, by compromise among various interest groups, or through the courts.(15) To the conservationists, politics was anathema. They believed that scientific experts, using technical and scientific methods, should decide all matters of development and use of natural resources, including the allocation of funds.(16) The crux of their gospel of efficiency "lay in a rational and scientific method of making basic technological decisions through a single, central authority."(17)
The inevitable tension that developed between grassroots interests and the technocratic elites of this conservation era raised a question that the environmentalists, a few generations later, would finally answer: how can large-scale economic development be effective and at the same time fulfill the desire for significant grassroots participation?
The second phase in the evolution of environmental policy in the United States, the preservationist movement, was similar to the conservation movement, except that it was more concerned with preserving habitat for wildlife and recreation than with conserving resources for sustainable harvest. The preservationist movement developed largely under the pressures of increased leisure and affluence and the growth of outdooor recreation. It drew its support from the upper middle class and from hunting and fishing groups, mainly from the working classes. But it also included capitalist sponsors like Laurence Rockefeller, who facilitated the preservation of major tracts of land around the hotels he built.(18) Although there were conflicts over natural resource policy, these conflicts were largely confined to struggles between those who favored multiple use of public lands and those who favored pure preservation.(19)
Thus, much of the emphasis on natural resources shifted from conservation of public lands to preservation of private lands and setting aside lands for national parks.(20) The leadership also changed. In the preservation movement, leaders came from some local but mostly national organizations like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, rather than corporations and state and federal agencies.
Beginning in 1920, the major party platforms focused on water power, coal, flood control, and even wildlife. The legislative history of natural resource issues during the period of 1921 to 1950 suggests that the Democrats had a much stronger environmental voting record than their Republican counterparts.(21)
While earlier federal legislation had focused on discrete issues like park management, legislation for natural resources from 1921 to 1950 became associated with broad social and economic objectives like the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which controlled agricultural production.
By the 1960s, however, the movement began to change dramatically as environmental concerns broadened to include such issues as smoke stacks, phosphate detergents in streams, and DDT. The base of support for environmental concerns also broadened to include many new groups such as middle-class voters and various ethnic groups.
One prominent scholar of environmental politics argues that the conservation movement was an effort on the part of elites in science, technology, and government to bring about more efficient development of natural resources, while the environmental movement - from 1960 to 1990 - was a product of a fundamental change in public values in the United States that stressed the quality of the human environment.(22) The conservation and preservation movements were top-down phenomena in which technical and political leaders tried to inject their values into the American psyche. In contrast, the environmental movement was more of a bottom-up phenomenon in which environmental objectives arose out of deep-seated changes in values about the use of nature.
The environmental movement integrated the conservation and preservation concerns of the earlier movements with a broader set of eco-system concerns - such as air and water quality, threatened and endangered species, pesticides, and protection of prime farmland - as well as new concerns about social welfare such as growth management.(23)
The contemporary period of environmentalism can be characterized by the breadth of its constituency, the type of issues that are viewed as important, the approaches taken to deal with environmental problems, the emphasis on philosophy and environmental ethics, and the political strategies adopted to achieve environmental goals.
Environmentalism has been taken up by virtually all sectors of American society, including minority groups that previously were more concerned about employment opportunities than environmental protection. Indeed, President Clinton may endorse a sweeping proposal that makes inner-city pollution a civil rights issue.(24) Clearly, the base of support for the environmental movement is now made up of a larger segment of the American public than ever before, including the working, middle, and upper classes.
Moreover, the scope of the issues has broadened to include sustainable development, environmental justice - or ecoracism - global warming, biological diversity, and pollution prevention, to name a few.
Approaches to environmental protection have also changed as indicated by the efforts to prevent pollution rather than clean it up after the fact. The passage of the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 represents a radical departure from past policies for dealing with the environment.
[TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED]
The level of thinking about environmental issues has also deepened. Today, we are seeing a growing body of scholarship from a normative or philosophical perspective as opposed to an earlier emphasis on empirical approaches.(25) Scholars now are more concerned with "political ideas, values, ideologies, principles of governance, and political paradigms that shape the organization and operation of political systems that manage the environment, including the criteria by which we measure and judge their performance."(26) Rather than focusing on the politics of environmental protection policy, scholars are much more concerned today with how an environmental ethic or ideology might alter personal and political decision making.
Finally, the strategies used by environmentalists to achieve their goals no longer rely on traditional interest-group politics. The environmental movement from 1960 to 1990 used lobbying, litigation, the media, electoral politics, and even civil disobedience such as spiking trees and lying down in front of bulldozers, while the conservationists relied on more modest mechanisms, such as technical negotiations among elites, corporate sponsors, and pressure groups.(27) Today's environmentalists, in contrast, have turned to advocacy coalitions and participatory democracy such as town meetings to push their agendas. Even the federal bureaucracy has been developing innovative ways to involve the American public in shaping environmental policy.(28)
From this brief history of the environmental movement, several observations may be drawn (see Table 1). First, we see how environmentalism has steadily broadened its base of support over the past century. Specifically, it has moved from being largely an elitist concern involving scientific and government experts to one with broad-based support, including the middle and working classes. This base of public support has been made even broader by the growth of national environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Earth First!, and the Sierra Club. More recently, we have seen the rise of advocacy coalitions - composed of interests from all levels of government and the private sector - which are now involved in environmental policymaking.(29)
The subject matter of environmental policy and politics has also changed. Americans were initially concerned about natural resource issues such as public lands, water rights, and park management. Later, our focus shifted to environmental issues such as toxic waste, groundwater protection, and chemical plant explosions. More recently, as we have taken on a new generation of environmental problems - for instance, global warming, biodiversity, thinning of the ozone layer, deforestation, and acid rain - we have shifted our concern from purely localized issues to national and global concerns that require individual and institutional support from throughout society.(30)
Moreover, the nature of public opinion has changed dramatically during the past 30 years. Public support for environmental concerns in the late 1960s and early 1970s was high, but it was also soft; it would easily dissolve in the face of concerns about jobs and economic growth. In the 1990s, however, public opinion is strong and salient.(31) The American public wants stringent environmental regulations and is willing to pay for them with new taxes.
Finally, during the current devolution revolution, we have witnessed the growing involvement of states, cities, and grassroots organizations in environmental management. With the advent of the New Federalism in the 1970s and 1980s, states and communities are increasingly being asked to assume more of the environmental responsibilities that were previously handled by the federal government. Yet it is also clear that not all the states are able to muster the economic and institutional wherewithal to meet their new responsibilities.(32) Indeed, the states vary greatly in terms of their capacities to assume environmental management.
Politics of Hope or Despair
We stand on the threshold of a new century. As we peer into the future, what path do we see for environmentalism? Depending on your point of view, two routes present themselves. One leads down a pathway of hope, the other a trail of despair.
The history of the past century offers some grounds for hope. During this time, we have learned a great deal about environmental issues, we clearly are concerned about them, and - as a nation - we are committed to finding solutions. If these values continue, we can still be optimistic about the future, regardless of political and economic events, provided the environment doesn't collapse because of global warming, destruction of the ozone layer, or some similar catastrophe.
Various writers have depicted an optimistic scenario for the future. My colleague John S. Dryzek and I, for instance, suggest that a future environmental scenario may resemble a "strong democracy" or a radically decentralized society in which grassroots environmentalism provides a driving force around which communities are organized.(33) This scenario embodies a cooperative rather than hierarchical or competitive social organization, together with a human scale in technology, settlement patterns, and institutions.(34) Similarly, Gerald Thomas articulates a hopeful scenario characterized by new values: a shift to deep ecology,(35) biocentrism rather than anthropocentrism, cooperation rather than competition, nonmaterialism, decentralization in terms of politics and production, the empowerment of individuals, and appropriate technology.(36) Roderick Nash goes even further to describe an evolving system of ethics in which we extend our concept of justice beyond ourselves to all animals, then to plants, then to life itself, then to rocks, ecosystems, the planet as a whole, and, finally, the entire universe [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].(37)
On the other hand, a pessimistic scenario may result if 1) the environmental budget declines precipitously over the next few years; 2) public opposition to spending on the environment increases in response to other pressing domestic problems such as illegal immigration, crime, poverty, and the need for increased educational expenditures; and 3) both the president and the U.S. Congress adopt a negative posture regarding further environmental initiatives.
In its most extreme condition, this scenario is a dystopia of ecological collapse in which we overpopulate the Earth, exhaust vital resources, and choke on polluted air and water.(38) If these events should occur, our economic and political systems would fail, resulting in a barbaric Hobbesian state of nature. Such a prospect seems more remote today than in the early 1970s, when models of doom were popular and plausible.(39)
Given the evolution of environmental politics and policy from 1890 to 1998, an optimistic scenario seems more probable than a pessimistic one. Still, the politics of the environment, and what happens to our ecosystems as a result, will surely be affected by technological change, social forces, economic development, and the individual values that the public holds. And that story is yet to unfold.
1. John S. Dryzek and James P. Lester, "Alternative Views of the Environmental Problematic," in James P. Lester, ed., Environmental Politics and Policy: Theories and Evidence, 2nd ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 343.
2. James P. Lester and Douglas W. Costain, "The Evolution of Environmentalism: From Elitism to Participatory Democracy?" in Bryan D. Jones, ed., The New American Politics: Reflections on Political Change and the Clinton Administration (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 231-256. Not all scholars agree about the exact dates of these movements; nevertheless, these dates are generally accepted as benchmarks for each movement. See Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959); Alan Schnaiberg, "The Environmental Movement: Roots and Transformations," in A. Schnaiberg, ed., The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); and Henry P. Caulfield, "The Conservation and Environmental Movements: An Historical Analysis," in James P. Lester, ed., Environmental Politics and Policy: Theories and Evidence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989).
3. Ernest A. Englebert, "Political Parties and Natural Resources Policies: A Historical Evaluation," Natural Resources Journal (November, 1961).
4. Englebert, "Political Parties," p. 233.
5. Ibid., p. 227.
6. Hays, Conservation, p. 5.
7. Ibid., p. 2.
8. Caulfield, "The Conservation and Environmental Movements," pp. 20-21.
9. Hays, Conservation, p. 28.
10. Caulfield, "The Conservation and Environmental Movements," p. 16.
11. Englebert, "Political Parties," p. 245.
12. Hays, Conservation, p. 47.
13. Ibid., pp. 28-46.
14. Ibid., p. 53.
15. Ibid., p. 271.
18. Ibid., p. 386.
19. Schnaiberg, "The Environmental Movement," p. 386.
20. Englebert, "Political Parties," p. 240.
21. Ibid., p. 244.
22. Hays, Conservation, p. 13.
23. Schnaiberg, "The Environmental Movement," p. 382.
24. David Mastio, "EPA May Tie Race to Superfund Cleanups," Detroit News (April 21, 1998), p. A1.
25. James P. Lester, "Introduction," in Lester, Environmental Politics and Policy, 2nd ed., pp. 6-7; see also James P. Lester, "Comparative State Environmental Politics and Policy: The Evolution of a Literature," Policy Studies Journal 22 (Winter 1994), pp. 696-698.
26. Michael E. Kraft, "Ecology and Political Theory: Broadening the Scope of Environmental Politics," Policy Studies Journal 20 (Winter 1992), pp. 712-718.
27. Schnaiberg, "The Environmental Movement," p. 383.
28. Dewitt John, Civic Environmentalism (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1994); Helen M. Ingram and Steven R. Smith, Public Policy for Democracy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1993); Anne L. Schneider and Helen M. Ingram, Policy Design for Democracy (Lawrence, KN: University Of Kansas Press, 1997); Bruce A. Williams and Albert R. Matheny, Democracy, Dialogue, and Environmental Disputes (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); and Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, Civic Innovation in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
29. Paul A. Sabatier and Hank Jenkins-Smith, "A Symposium on Public Policy Change," Policy Sciences (1988).
30. John Carroll, ed., Environmental Diplomacy: The Management and Resolution of Transfrontier Environmental Problems (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); see also Norman Vig and Michael E. Kraft, eds., Environmental Policy in the 1990s (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1994), p. 4.
31. Riley Dunlap, "Public Opinion and Environmental Policy," in Lester, Environmental Politics and Policy, 2nd ed., pp. 63114.
32. James P. Lester, "Federalism and Environmental Policy," Publius 16 (Winter 1986), pp. 149-165; and James P. Lester and Emmett N. Lombard, "A Comparative Analysis of State Environmental Policy," Natural Resources Journal 30 (Spring 1990), pp. 301-319.
33. Dryzek and Lester, "Alternative Views," pp. 328-346.
34. Ibid., pp. 342-343.
35. Deep ecology is an ethical system that challenges the fundamental attitudes of Western societies about nature. Deep ecology recognizes the potentialities of life and the intrinsic right to existence of all natural things and is therefore closely aligned with biocentrism. See Arne Naess, "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements: A Summary," Inquiry 16 (Oslo, 1973), pp. 95-100.
36. Gerald B. Thomas, "The Politics of Hope: An Eclectic Vision of the Future," in Lester, Environmental Politics and Policy, 2nd ed., pp. 347-364.
37. Roderick F. Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
38. Dryzek and Lester, "Alternative Views," p. 343.
39. Donnella Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972).
James P. Lester is director of the Policy Studies Institute and a professor in the Department of Political Science at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins.…