Urban areas have been the main source of pollution for centuries. The United States is no exception to this more general rule. Pollution of air, water, and soil only multiplied as cities grew in size and complexity; people generated ever more domestic waste and industry continually generated new unwanted byproducts. Periods of pollution intensification—most notably those spurts that came with late 19th-century urban industrialization and the rapid technological innovation and consumer culture of the post-World War II era—spurred social movements and scientific research on the problem, mostly as it pertained to adverse impacts on human health. Technological innovations aimed to eliminate unwanted wastes and more stringent regulations followed. Those technological and political solutions largely failed to keep pace with the increasing volume and diversity of pollutants industrial capitalism introduced into the environment, however, and rarely stopped pollution at its root cause. Instead, they often merely moved pollutants from one “sink”—a repository of pollution—to another (from water to land, for instance) and/or from one place to another (to a city downstream, for instance, or from one urban neighborhood to another). This “end of pipe” approach remained overwhelmingly predominant even as most pollution mitigation policies became nationalized in the 1970s. Prior to that, municipalities and states were primarily responsible for addressing air, water, and land pollution. During this post-World War II period, policy—driven by ecological science—began to exhibit an understanding of urban pollution’s detrimental effects beyond human health. More broadly, evolving scientific understanding of human health and ecosystemic impacts of pollution, new technology, and changing social relations within growing metropolitan areas shifted the public perception of pollution’s harmful impacts. Scientific understanding of how urban and suburban residents risked ill health when exposed to polluted water, air, and soil grew, as did the social understanding of who was most vulnerable to these hazards. From the nation’s founding, the cumulative impact of both urban exposure to pollutants and attempts to curb that exposure has been unequal along lines of race and ethnicity, class, and gender. Despite those consistent inequalities, the 21st-century American city looks little like the 18th-century American city, whether in terms of population size, geographical footprint, demographics, economic activity, or the policies that governed them: all of these factors influenced the very definitions of ideas such as pollution and the urban.
Brian J. McCammack
Timothy James LeCain
Technology and environmental history are both relatively young disciplines among Americanists, and during their early years they developed as distinctly different and even antithetical fields, at least in topical terms. Historians of technology initially focused on human-made and presumably “unnatural” technologies, whereas environmental historians focused on nonhuman and presumably “natural” environments. However, in more recent decades, both disciplines have moved beyond this oppositional framing. Historians of technology increasingly came to view anthropogenic artifacts such as cities, domesticated animals, and machines as extensions of the natural world rather than its antithesis. Even the British and American Industrial Revolutions constituted not a distancing of humans from nature, as some scholars have suggested, but rather a deepening entanglement with the material environment. At the same time, many environmental historians were moving beyond the field’s initial emphasis on the ideal of an American and often Western “wilderness” to embrace a concept of the environment as including humans and productive work. Nonetheless, many environmental historians continued to emphasize the independent agency of the nonhuman environment of organisms and things. This insistence that not everything could be reduced to human culture remained the field’s most distinctive feature. Since the turn of millennium, the two fields have increasingly come together in a variety of synthetic approaches, including Actor Network Theory, envirotechnical analysis, and neomaterialist theory. As the influence of the cultural turn has waned, the environmental historians’ emphasis on the independent agency of the nonhuman has come to the fore, gaining wider influence as it is applied to the dynamic “nature” or “wildness” that some scholars argue exists within both the technological and natural environment. The foundational distinctions between the history of technology and environmental history may now be giving way to more materially rooted attempts to understand how a dynamic hybrid environment helps to create human history in all of its dimensions—cultural, social, and biological.
Adam M. Sowards
For more than a century after the republic’s founding in the 1780s, American law reflected the ideal that the commons—the public domain—should be turned into private property. As Americans became concerned about resource scarcity, waste, and monopolies at the end of the 19th century, reform-minded bureaucrats and scientists convinced Congress to maintain in perpetuity some of the nation’s land as public. This shift offered a measure of protection and an alternative to private property regimes. The federal agencies that primarily manage these lands today—U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—have worked since their origins in the early decades of the 20th century to fulfill their diverse, competing, evolving missions. Meanwhile, the public and Congress have continually demanded new and different goals as the land itself has functioned and responded in interdependent ways. In the mid-20th century, the agencies intensified their management, hoping they could satisfy the rising—and often conflicting—demands American citizens placed on the public lands. This intensification often worsened public lands’ ecology and increased political conflict, resulting in a series of new laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Those laws strengthened the role of science and the public in influencing agency practices while providing more opportunities for litigation. Predictably, since the late 1970s, these developments have polarized public lands’ politics. The economies, but also the identities, of many Americans remain entwined with the public lands, making political standoffs—over endangered species, oil production, privatizing land, and more—common and increasingly intractable. Because the public lands are national in scope but used by local people for all manner of economic and recreational activities, they have been and remain microcosms of the federal democratic system and all its conflicted nature.