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Worth Reading

  • Frank Uekoetter: Global Warming – It's 1970 All Over Again
  • Brian Hamilton: Making “Environmentalism” Relevant for Everyone
  • Nancy Unger: Fifty Years After “Silent Spring,” Let's Not Roll Back Environmental Protections
  • Background

    On February 17, 2013, nearly 35,000 activists gather on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to protest the construction of the Keystone Pipeline XL, an oil pipeline which will connect oil fields in Alberta, Canada with refineries in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Critics of the project have contended that by passing through the fragile Sand Hills in Nebraska, the pipeline could potentially contaminate one of the largest freshwater sources in the United States (the oil company constructing the pipeline has since altered construction plans to avoid the Sand Hills), and that the oil the pipeline will be carrying – extracted from a substance called “tar sands,” emits approximately 12 to 17 percent more greenhouse gases (which are the major contributing factor in climate change) than conventional oil.

    The uproar over the Keystone XL project is but the latest and most visible issue around which the environmental movement has rallied.

    Environmentalism in the United States, broadly stated, is political and social philosophy which focuses on human interactions with the natural world. There are environmentalist groups dedicated to wilderness preservation; protecting endangered species; fighting climate change; improving public health through government regulation of, for example, pollution; improving the urban environment; and a whole host of other issues.

    Environmentalism as an organized political movement has a relatively recent history. Earth Day, celebrated every year on April 22, was first held in 1970 as an offshoot of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Green parties, political groups which fused environmental politics with social democracy, began appearing in Western Europe and the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s; while the U.S. Green Party remains small, with its electoral appeal limited mainly to a few big cities, green parties in other countries have a broader appeal. The German Green Party, for instance, is the fifth-largest political party in Germany, and has formed part of liberal coalition governments in that country.

    Of the two major political parties in the United States, it is generally the Democratic Party which is most identified with environmental politics, but this was not always the case. The Environmental Protection Agency was established while Republican Richard Nixon was president, and John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York, was a key player in the first Earth Day celebrations in New York City (though Lindsay later became a Democrat).

    What the Left Says

    The modern environmental movement was an outgrowth, in many ways, of left-wing social activism in the 1960s, and so it's not surprising that environmental politics are primarily identified with liberals. But there are, as we noted earlier, different groups within the movement. Democratic politicians will generally voice support for environmental causes, but this can vary based on geographic and the demands of constituents. Democrats from West Virginia or Michigan, for example, are generally fiercely opposed to additional environmental regulation because of the coal and automobile industries in their states. Other Democrats from states like California tend to be much more supportive of, for example, emission standards on automobiles.

    What the Right Says

    Modern American conservatives tend to fiercely oppose environmental regulation, and even deny the existence of climate change (either by outright calling climate change a “hoax,” as Oklahoma senator James Inhoufe, ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate's environmental committee, or by insisting that climate change is a natural process; the overwhelming majority of climate scientists – over 90 percent – believe that the Earth is rapidly warming due to human activity). Ironically, conservatives and Republicans were once the leaders in the environmental movement, but as the party became more ideologically rigid in the 1990s and 2000s – and as big business became more and more opposed to additional environmental regulation – environmental politics gradually became one of the Republican Party's third rails. Rick Santorum, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, decried an “reign of environmental terror” from the Environmental Protection Agency, which was ironically established by a Republican president.

    Historical Background

    The deeper historical origins of the modern environmental movement date back to the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which saw tremendous changes to the physical landscape and introduced modern industrial pollution in the form of coal emissions (it is at roughly this moment in history when climate change first began, as huge amounts of greenhouse gases began to be emitted into the atmosphere by the coal-driven power plants).

    The factories of the nineteenth century belched noxious gases. London, a heavily industrialized city in heavily industrialized Britain, became notorious for its air quality. – the first “smog,” air pollution so thick it resembles fog, dates from roughly this period, and was responsible for many thousands of deaths. British writers – not the least among them Charles Dickens – frequently compared the factories and living conditions of Victorian Britain to hellish furnaces.

    It was partly in reaction to the environmental degradations of the industrial era that motivated the New England “transcendentalists” of the nineteenth century. They advocated a simple, back-to-nature, pastoral lifestyle, as opposed to the industrial urban living. The most famous transcendentalist work, Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, would be very influential within the wilderness preservation/conservation movement.

    John Muir, a Scottish-born naturalist, became probably the most important figure within the conservation movement. Muir was one of the co-founders of the Sierra Club, which is still one of the largest environmental groups in the United States. He was also instrumental in establishing the first two U.S. national parks, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in California in 1890, a system which has since expanded to fifty-nine separate parks.

    But the end of the nineteenth century saw challenges for wilderness preservation in the United States. The passenger pigeon, a species of North American bird which migrated in massive flocks that numbered in the hundreds of millions, went extinct due to overhunting and human encroachment; the last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914 (though there is ongoing discussion about potentially reviving the species through cloning). The American buffalo nearly followed; at its peak, the species numbered nearly 50 million individuals. After systemic overhunting in the nineteenth century, the population declined to only a few hundred individuals. Private efforts by a handful of ranchers managed to save the species from extinction, and there are now nearly 350,000 bison in North America – but the overwhelming majority of those bison are domesticated herds.

    Though the federal government did not act to save either the bison or the passenger pigeon, the disappearance of the two species brought preservation and conservation efforts into the public sphere. It would not be until the 1960s, however, when the modern environmental movement was born.

    After the end of World War II, it became common for farmers to spray their crops with the insecticide DDT – and for the chemical to be used indiscriminately in the effort to eradicate malaria from Europe and the United States, a disease carried by mosquitos. In her 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson advanced the shocking (for the time) thesis that it probably wasn't a good idea to dump massive amounts of DDT – the side effects of which were not fully understood – into the environment, and she tied increased cancer rates and the near-extinction of some bird species, especially the bald eagle, to indiscriminate DDT use. DDT was eventually banned by the U.S. government in 1972.

    To address increasing concerns from the public about the environment and health, the U.S. Congress passed a flurry of legislation enacting new environmental regulations: the Clean Air Act of 1963, which enacted regulations on emissions of noxious gases; the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, part of a package of federal initiatives which also birthed the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Clean War Act of 1972. At the same time, environmentalism entered the public consciousness through the space program; the Blue Marble, a photograph of the Earth taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972, remains to this day an enduring symbol of the environmental movement.

    The one issue, however, which has gradually overtaken every other aspect of the environmental movement, only really entered public awareness in the 1980s: global warming. Climate scientists had long been concerned about the potential for catastrophe due to runaway global warming, but a consensus on the reality of global warming only cemented at the end of the 1980s.

    In brief: the average temperature of the Earth is quickly rising, this is primarily due to the massive amounts of greenhouse gases dumped into the atmosphere due to industrialization, and the consequences of this increase in temperatures will be disastrous (think more extreme weather events like hurricanes and droughts; a decrease in agricultural production, social instability, sea level rises... and that's just the beginning).

    The environmental movement has long been an advocate of reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases, scoring a notable victory with Kyoto Protocol in 1997, but because the protocol does not require developing countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – and because the United States, one of the largest emitters, along with China and India, of greenhouse gases, has not ratified the treaty – its effectiveness has been limited in stopping climate change. Increasingly, environmentalists have begun to argue for preparedness for climate change, as opposed to prevention, since it's too late for meaningful measures to stop the process.