Between 1964 and 2017, the United States adopted the concept of environmental policy as a new focus for a broad range of previously disparate policy issues affecting human interactions with the natural environment. These policies ranged from environmental health, pollution, and toxic exposure to management of ecosystems, resources, and use of the public lands, environmental aspects of urbanization, agricultural practices, and energy use, and negotiation of international agreements to address global environmental problems. In doing so, it nationalized many responsibilities that had previously been considered primarily state or local matters. It changed the United States’ approach to federalism by authorizing new powers for the federal government to set national minimum environmental standards and regulatory frameworks with the states mandated to participate in their implementation and compliance. Finally, it explicitly formalized administrative procedures for federal environmental decision-making with stricter requirements for scientific and economic justification rather than merely administrative discretion. In addition, it greatly increased public access to information and opportunities for input, as well as for judicial review, thus allowing citizen advocates for environmental protection and appreciative uses equal legitimacy with commodity producers to voice their preferences for use of public environmental resources. These policies initially reflected widespread public demand and broad bipartisan support. Over several decades, however, they became flashpoints, first, between business interests and environmental advocacy groups and, subsequently, between increasingly ideological and partisan agendas concerning the role of the federal government. Beginning in the 1980s, the long-standing Progressive ideal of the “public interest” was increasingly supplanted by a narrative of “government overreach,” and the 1990s witnessed campaigns to delegitimize the underlying evidence justifying environmental policies by labeling it “junk science” or a “hoax.” From the 1980s forward, the stated priorities of environmental policy vacillated repeatedly between presidential administrations and Congresses supporting continuation and expansion of environmental protection and preservation policies versus those seeking to weaken or even reverse protections in favor of private-property rights and more damaging uses of resources. Yet despite these apparent shifts, the basic environmental laws and policies enacted during the 1970s remained largely in place: political gridlock, in effect, maintained the status quo, with the addition of a very few innovations such as “cap and trade” policies. One reason was that environmental policies retained considerable latent public support: in electoral campaigns, they were often overshadowed by economic and other issues, but they still aroused widespread support in their defense when threatened. Another reason was that decisions by the courts also continued to reaffirm many existing policies and to reject attempts to dismantle them. With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, along with conservative majorities in both houses of Congress, US environmental policy came under the most hostile and wide-ranging attack since its origins. More than almost any other issue, the incoming president targeted environmental policy for rhetorical attacks and budget cuts, and sought to eradicate the executive policies of his predecessor, weaken or rescind protective regulations, and undermine the regulatory and even the scientific capacity of the federal environmental agencies. In the early 21st century, it is as yet unclear how much of his agenda will actually be accomplished, or whether, as in past attempts, much of it will ultimately be blocked by Congress, the courts, public backlash, and business and state government interests seeking stable policy expectations rather than disruptive deregulation.
Richard N. L. Andrews
The development of nuclear technology had a profound influence on the global environment following the Second World War, with ramifications for scientific research, the modern environmental movement, and conceptualizations of pollution more broadly. Government sponsorship of studies on nuclear fallout and waste dramatically reconfigured the field of ecology, leading to the widespread adoption of the ecosystem concept and new understandings of food webs as well as biogeochemical cycles. These scientific endeavors of the atomic age came to play a key role in the formation of environmental research to address a variety of pollution problems in industrialized countries. Concern about invisible radiation served as a foundation for new ways of thinking about chemical risks for activists like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner as well as many scientists, government officials, and the broader public. Their reservations were not unwarranted, as nuclear weapons and waste resulted in radioactive contamination of the environment around nuclear-testing sites and especially fuel-production facilities. Scholars date the start of the “Anthropocene” period, during which human activity began to have substantial effects on the environment, variously from the beginning of human farming roughly 8,000 years ago to the emergence of industrialism in the 19th century. But all agree that the advent of nuclear weapons and power has dramatically changed the potential for environmental alterations. Our ongoing attempts to harness the benefits of the atomic age while lessening its negative impacts will need to confront the substantial environmental and public-health issues that have plagued nuclear technology since its inception.
From its inception as a nation in 1789, the United States has engaged in an environmental diplomacy that has included attempts to gain control of resources, as well as formal diplomatic efforts to regulate the use of resources shared with other nations and peoples. American environmental diplomacy has sought to gain control of natural resources, to conserve those resources for the future, and to protect environmental amenities from destruction. As an acquirer of natural resources, the United States has focused on arable land as well as on ocean fisheries, although around 1900, the focus on ocean fisheries turned into a desire to conserve marine resources from unregulated harvesting. The main 20th-century U.S. goal was to extend beyond its borders its Progressive-era desire to utilize resources efficiently, meaning the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. For most of the 20th century, the United States was the leader in promoting global environmental protection through the best science, especially emphasizing wildlife. Near the end of the century, U.S. government science policy was increasingly out of step with global environmental thinking, and the United States often found itself on the outside. Most notably, the attempts to address climate change moved ahead with almost every country in the world except the United States. While a few monographs focus squarely on environmental diplomacy, it is safe to say that historians have not come close to tapping the potential of the intersection of the environmental and diplomatic history of the United States.
Sara C. Fingal
Since the 1960s, Latinxs have played prominent roles in the environmental justice movement and in organizations that have defined their members as Hispanic or Latinx environmentalists. Organizers created their own groups in response to their alienation from predominantly white mainstream environmental movements that focused on wilderness preservation and government conservation policies. Latinx community activists, on the other hand, related social justice and grassroots democracy to struggles over public parks and beaches, clean air, clean water, pesticide exposure, and high environmental risks. In the late 1960s and 1970s, organizations like the United Farm Workers (UFW) consciously connected worker safety to environmentalist and consumer concerns about unregulated pesticides, but the majority of environmental groups ignored issues that affected Latinx communities. Eventually, mainstream environmentalists and federal government agencies responded to calls for diversity with increased attention to environmental justice for communities of color in the late 20th century. In recent years, the National Park Service and the US Forest Service have attempted to engage Latinxs through American Hispanic heritage projects and Spanish-language advertising. Previous calls for environmental justice and the youth of the US Latinx population have made many mainstream environmental organizations aware of the need to engage with people of color, although persistent stereotypes about Latinx disinterest in access to public lands and conservation still linger. Newer organizations have worked to engage community members, young people, and departments in the federal government. Latinxs have been and will continue to be critical actors in conversations about local and global environmental issues. Recognition of an existing environmental ethic among Latinx and Spanish-speaking people in the United States would expand the understanding of conservation and environmentalism in American history.
During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced an unconditional “war on poverty.” On one of his first publicity tours promoting his antipoverty legislation, he traveled to cities and towns in Appalachia, which would become crucial areas for promoting and implementing the legislation. Johnson soon signed the Economic Opportunity Act, a piece of legislation that provided a structure for communities to institute antipoverty programs, from vocational services to early childhood education programs, and encouraged the creation of new initiatives. In 1965, Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act, making Appalachia the only region targeted by federal antipoverty legislation, through the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Appalachian War on Poverty can be described as a set of policies created by governmental agencies, but also crucial to it was a series of community movements and campaigns, led by working-class people, that responded to antipoverty policies. When the War on Poverty began, the language of policymakers suggested that people living below the poverty line would be served by the programs. But as the antipoverty programs expanded and more local people became involved, they spoke openly and in political terms about poverty as a working-class issue. They drew attention to the politics of class in the region, where elites and absentee landowners became wealthy on the backs of working people. They demanded meaningful participation in shaping the War on Poverty in their communities, and, increasingly, when they used the term “poor people,” they did so as a collective class identity—working people who were poor due to a rigged economy. While many public officials focused on economic development policies, men and women living in the region began organizing around issues ranging from surface mining to labor rights and responding to poor living and working conditions. Taking advantage of federal antipoverty resources and the spirit of change that animated the 1960s, working-class Appalachians would help to shape the antipoverty programs at the local and regional level, creating a movement in the process. They did so as they organized around issues—including the environment, occupational safety, health, and welfare rights—and as they used antipoverty programs as a platform to address the systemic inequalities that plagued many of their communities.
From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.