Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy

By Nelson, Robert H. | Independent Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy


Nelson, Robert H., Independent Review


Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy Edited by Robert Repetto New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. Pp. 304. $30.00 paperback.

The National Environmental Protection Act, which created the Council on Environmental Quality and required the preparation of environmental impact statements for major federal projects, was signed into law on New Year's Day 1970. In the decade that followed, American environmentalism achieved sudden and remarkable political and legal successes. The Environmental Protection Agency was created by the Nixon administration; and the Clean Air Act was passed by Congress in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the National Forest Management Act in 1976, the Surface Mining Act in 1977, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (better known as "Superfund") in 1980, along with at least a dozen other significant environmental laws. As these laws were being put into effect, a sympathetic judiciary ruled in favor of environmental plaintiffs in case after case.

Since then, however, life has become more difficult for environmentalists. In the rush to enact the environmental legislation, Utopian goals were proclaimed, impossible deadlines set, cumbersome regulations required, administrative practicalities ignored, and economic efficiency generally slighted. By the beginning of the Reagan administration, a backlash had set in. Environmentalists in the 1980s continued to win many victories, but the victories came slower and at higher costs. By the 1990s, environmental policymaking was stalemated. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, confronted with a hostile George W. Bush administration and achieving few successes elsewhere, the American environmental movement had to make a general reassessment of its methods and goals.

Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy is one product of that effort. Editor Robert Repetto recognizes that the environmental crusade of the 1970s will not be repeated. How, then, facing a less accommodating and more complex policy environment, should environmentalists act to maximize their future impact? How does the American policymaking process work, and what are the points of maximum potential leverage for environmentalists? With contributors who seek answers to such questions, the book has three chapters devoted to general discussions of the policy process and six chapters that offer case studies of particular areas of environmental policymaking.

The three general chapters emphasize the disjointed and discontinuous character of policymaking, as captured in the metaphor of "punctuated equilibrium," which refers to the tendency in the plant and animal kingdoms for Darwinian evolution to occur in sharp bursts of change, followed by long periods of relative stability. Few would dispute this characterization. As other authors have already noted, periods of especially rapid change in U.S. government programs and policies include World War I, the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the Great Society of the 1960s. With regard to social values, the 1960s and 1970s brought not only the sudden rise of environmentalism, but also the U.S. civil rights movement and a revitalized feminist movement, as well as drastic changes in musical tastes, sexual freedoms, popular attitudes toward government, and other areas of American life. In the wider world, the end of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided especially striking examples of sudden and unexpected governmental change on a grand scale.

There is probably no single explanation of the discontinuous fashion in which major policy change often occurs. In some cases, such as the outbreak of a war or other emergency, powerful external events trigger the rapid change. In other cases, such as the breakup of the Soviet Union, no such obvious trigger exists. …

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