In answering the question of whether the United States has improved on environmental policy since the 1930s, the cyclical nature of the political system must be considered. A generational reform cycle occurs every 30-40 years, such as the Progressive Era of 1900-20, the New Deal of the 1930s and the New Frontier and Great Society of the 1960s and early-1970s. All of the progress that the United States has made in conservation, wilderness preservation and other environmental issues has happened in these reform eras. Barack Obama represents yet another reform cycle and his environmental record is better by far than any other president over the last forty years, although much of what he attempted to accomplish has been blocked by the Republicans and the corporate interests that fund them. In conservative eras like the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s and 1990s, almost nothing worthwhile happens with environmental policies, and the U.S. government simply functions as a servant to corporate interests, blatantly so under presidents like Calvin Coolidge or Ronald Reagan. Today, scientists and the educated public know more about the environment and the history of failed societies like Easter Island and the Classic Maya than ever before, both of which collapsed due to deforestation, soil erosion and droughts (Diamond 2005). Indeed, they know far more about the causes of their demise than they could have known themselves. Lack of knowledge or information is no longer a problem, but the reality is that real changes in the U.S. can only be put in place during one of the generational reform cycles. Moreover, in periods of severe economic downturns, like the Great Depression of the 1930s or today, the public and politicians are going to be more concerned with poverty, unemployment and economic development than environmental issues.
Because of the cyclical nature of the American political system, environmental problems are only addressed during the generational reform cycles, and are generally ignored in conservative, pro-business eras like the 1920s and 1980s. For this reason, progress on environmental issues has been highly uneven and "today's problems should have been solved in the 1960s, but in the '60s we were solving the problems of the 1930s, and in the '30s we were solving the problems of the 1890s" (Kline 164). Franklin Roosevelt was supportive environmental issues as his cousin Theodore, although economics were always primary in the 1930s. Compared to the conservative administrations of the 1920s or 1950s, though, his environmental record was significant, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Soil Conservation Service under Hugh Bennett that dealt with the problems of the Dust Bowl. In addition, the Tennessee Valley Authority followed the "proper use philosophy" of Gifford Pinchot in soil conservation, reforestation and recreation areas (Kline 65). Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was "an old-style progressive conservationist who believed conservation should be a primary concern of the government," and he expanded the national park system, called for a new Department of Conservation to manage public lands and created the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940 (Kline 66). Robert Marshall, head of the Division of Recreation and Lands at the Forest Service, agreed with John Muir that "wilderness should be protected for both aesthetic reasons and the mental and spiritual health of Americans" (Kline 67). Marshall joined with Aldo Leopold in establishing the Wilderness Society in 1935.
Although the Progressive Era and New Deal environmentalists did not deal with pesticides, air pollution and fossil fuels, their environmental accomplishments were far more impressive than most administrations of the last forty years, and were not equaled again until the next reform wave in the 1960s and early-1970s. During the era of the Affluent Society and the Cold War in 1945-65, environmental concerns were hardly the first priority of the government, and "the public at large did not begin to comprehend the environmental damage caused by two hundred years of uncontrolled industrial expansion until the mid-1960s" (Kline 70). Population grew rapidly in the Baby Boom, the number of cars doubled and the expansion of suburbs and highway systems was very rapid (Class Notes #2). In the years 1945-63, atmospheric nuclear tests in the western U.S. And the Pacific caused severe damage to human health and the environment, as did unrestrained use of pesticides like DDT. Air pollution levels in Los Angeles and other cities grew so severe that they damaged food crops. Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay was similar to his successors in later conservative administrations like James Watt in the 1980s, and was known as "Giveaway McKay" because of his efforts to turn over natural resources, government lands and public power to private business interests (Kline 72).
Public concern about the environment and social reform in general began to revive again in the 1960s, sparked by writers and activists like Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner and Ralph Nader. Carson's books The Sea around Us (1952) and Silent Spring (1962) were national bestsellers, and the latter noted that DDT was working its way through the food chain, affecting birds, animals and humans. Unlike Aldo Leopold, she was "less concerned about the 'ethics' of pesticides…and more about the consequences for man's health," including the fact that her own cancer might have been caused by toxic chemicals (Kline 74). Even though she was heavily attacked by the chemical industry and the scientists it employed, DDT was finally banned everywhere in the U.S. In 1972. By the 1960s, half of the world's 200 million automobiles were in the U.S., causing high levels of smog in all large cities, and Ralph Nader pressured the government and the auto industry to set new standards for emissions and fuel efficiency. Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb (1968) became another bestseller, leading to a revival of the neo-Malthusian wing of the environmental movement and its concern over earth's carry capacity. Events like the Santa Barbara oil spill and the fire on the Cuyahoga River in 1969 also increased public awareness of environmental issues, as did smog alerts that banned children from playing outdoors (Kline 79). In 1965, only 17% of those surveyed regarded air and water pollution but this had increased to 53% by 1970, the year of the first Earth Day (Kline 80). Richard Nixon had hardly expected the environment to be his major priority, but public pressure led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972) and Endangered Species Act (1973) on his watch (Class Notes #3).
Environmental issues faded from public concern again in the conservative 1980s and 1990s, due to concerns about the economy, stagflation and the oil shocks. As the political mood turned more conservative, even the moderately reformist administration of Bill Clinton generally deferred to conservative Republicans like New Gingrich after 1994. During this era, global warming and climate change became the major environmental issue, particularly under the leadership of Clinton's vice president Al Gore (Class Notes #5). Indeed, the 1990s were the warmest decade on record while greenhouse gas level rose to the highest levels in 420,000 years, but nevertheless the U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Treaty while corporate interests had virtually unlimited funds to influence public opinion in an anti-environmental direction. E.O. Wilson estimated that species were disappearing at an unprecedented rate of 50,000 a year, while 40% of Americans still lived in areas where smog levels made the air "dangerous to breathe" (Kline 171). As Jared Diamond pointed out, the U.S. suffered from a dangerous type of "creeping normalcy" and "landscape amnesia" like the Easter Islanders, who also failed to notice a 'slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations" (Diamond 2005). Perhaps only an environmental catastrophe like September11th would finally force action of these issues, and in the past few years the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the explosion of nuclear reactors in Japan certainly qualified.
Diamond, Jared. The Mirror of Our Fate, 2005.
Kline, Benjamin. Fish along the River: A Brief History of the U.S. Environmental Movement, Third Edition. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.
All of Aldo Leopold's grandparents were German immigrants, and had an attitude toward the environment and conservation that was far different from typical 19th Century Americans. In Europe, land, natural resources and forests were scarce and precious commodities, and governments took a stronger interest in conserving these much earlier than the United States, given its frontier mentality of unlimited resources. Even by the late-19th Century, though, the reality that these were not really unlimited was already beginning to sink in, which is why Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt began to take a strong interest in European environmental and conservation methods, in which Germany was a leader. German farming and forestry methods were the opposite of the frontier mentality of simply using these up and moving on, and Aldo Leopold -- whose first language at home was German -- simply learned this from his parents and grandparents even when he was a small child.…
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