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Regulating America’s Natural Environment  

Bart Elmore

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.

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Business Social Responsibility  

Gavin Benke

“Corporate social responsibility” is a term that first began to circulate widely in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though it may seem to be a straightforward concept, the phrase can imply a range of activities, from minority hiring initiatives and environmentally sound operations, to funding local nonprofits and cultural institutions. The idea appeared to have developed amid increasing demands made of corporations by a number of different groups, such as the consumer movement. However, American business managers engaged in many of these practices well before that phrase was coined. As far back as the early 19th century, merchants and business owners envisioned a larger societal role. However, broader political, social, and economic developments, from the rise of Gilded Age corporations to the onset of the Cold War, significantly influenced understandings of business social responsibility. Likewise, different managers and corporations have had different motives for embracing social responsibility initiatives. Some embraced social responsibility rhetoric as a public relations tool. Others saw the concept as a way to prevent government regulation. Still others undertook social responsibility efforts because they fit well with their own socially progressive ethos. Though the terms and understandings of a business’s social responsibilities have shifted over time, the basic idea has been a perennial feature of commercial life in the United States.