The Power and the Red Tape: Chronicling American Environmentalism

Patrick N. Allitt, the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University (where he has been since 1988), prolific author, and popular teacher has recently written a history of environmental controversies in America since World War II. The fact that it is a history written by a professional historian is important to his approach and his story. It is quite different from a monograph by an economist, political theorist, politician, or environmental activist. Allitt tries to put the different issues into historical perspective by tying them into other events of the period, to lay out the nature of the controversies, and to give fair and judicious appraisals of different arguments and points of view:

Two contradictory points of view developed among American thinkers interested in these issues [population, resources, climate change, and others]. The pessimistic view, often expressed in crisis rhetoric, was that we were running out of basic necessities, and faced a future of constraints . . . . The optimistic view, by contrast, was that human ingenuity could deal with the problems thrown up by economic growth and technical innovation. . . .

Each view had, and continues to have, energetic advocates. The arguments on both sides are powerful, often emotional, and freighted with serious policy implications. My own view is that the optimists have been right on most of these questions. Nevertheless, I hope I have given a fair presentation of each side’s views, enabling even readers who disagree with me to learn from the chapters that follow.

These goals Allitt accomplishes, but his judicious treatment, as I shall argue below, is both the strength and a weakness of his manuscript.

I left the history professoriate for good at the end of 1984, and have not kept up with the profession in a serious way since. Anyhow I do not know Professor Allitt, or his work, though I would have profited by both. I think I might have liked him personally as well, for I taught on a regular basis a history of American conservatism course (as does he), and was working on developing a course when I left academia that might well have turned into a course on environmental controversies. I certainly recommend assigning this book in such a class.

He argues that the possibility of nuclear war led many people for the first time to realize the vulnerability of our planet to environmental destruction, which contributed in turn to the development of “environmentalism” as a political persuasion. An interesting thesis, though I am not convinced, but in any event it is an unnecessary prelude to what follows. Some of the issues covered are population growth, food production , pollution, energy politics, the development of an environmentalist movement and eventually some institutional challenges to its claims, the growth of environmental government agencies in the 1970s, federal land policies and the Wilderness act, global warming and climate change, endangered species, deep ecology, and much more.

Over many years I have read on these issues as an informed layman, knew personally a few of the participants in these debates, and on the margins here and there was a minor and mostly unnoticed participant in these debates myself. On the whole Allitt’s description of these controversies is excellent, yet, despite the word “crisis” in his title and his stated intentions, I think he fails to capture the passionate nature of the debates and the importance of many of the issues involved.

Allitt’s conclusions, however, are quite astute on many of these issues. For instance, on the Julian Simon/Paul Ehrlich bet on resource depletion, “Simon was vindicated in the case of all five metals . . . . ” On the destruction of Times Beach, Missouri by the EPA and its Super Fund, quoting Aaron Wildavsky, “Studies of potentially exposed people from Times Beach and other Missouri dioxin sites have discovered no adverse health consequences that can be linked to dioxin.” On the dangers from acid rain, “The threat of acid rain turned out, like environmental racism, to be evanescent.” On global climate change, “Global warming remains the strangest crisis in American history. As a phenomenon whose current manifestations are almost imperceptible, it has none of the characteristics of an ordinary political issue and cannot mobilize a significant electoral constituency.” On ethanol subsidies, “In 2010, the benefits and drawbacks of ethanol remain acutely controversial.”

At a few points I think he is just mistaken. Unsympathetic to the Reagan administration, he does not catch the fact that on environmental questions, the Reaganites, with a few exceptions (e.g., Danny Boggs at the White House, Jacqueline Schafer at the Council on Environmental Quality, Richard L. Stroup at Interior) were not so much anti-environmental as uninterested in environmental questions (though he does also say that about Reagan himself). And the much abused Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, who knew the department well and understood the environmental and public issues under his jurisdiction, was in many ways an old fashioned progressive resource manager who thought that careful study of land and resource conflicts would produce a proper scientific balance among competing public interests in development, resource exploitation, recreation, and preservation. He really did not support a property based approach to environmental issues at all.

James Huffman, in his April 24, 2014 review of the Allitt book in the Wall Street Journal, correctly says that Allitt confuses the free market environmentalists and their property rights based perspective, with the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and the Wise Use movement of the late 1980s that advocated state rather than national control of the public lands in the West and continued government subsidies for productive uses. Suffice to say, a property rights approach to environmental use was not a priority of these latter movements. But it is much worse than this, except for a few scattered paragraphs (mentioning, e.g., Terry Anderson, Don Leal, and Robert Nelson), he does not explicitly deal with the free market environmental approach at all, and seemingly does not know of its scholarship, which is institutionally located in Bozeman, Montana in two well known think tanks, Foundation for Research on Economics and Environment (FREE) and Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). Together these two institutes maintain wide networks of academic and public policy experts on most environmental questions. Here are few, with recent affiliations, who have worked in areas of interest to Allitt whom he might have drawn on to strengthen his text: Jonathan Adler, Case Western Reserve Law School, Cuyahoga River fire; Terry L. Anderson, PERC and the Hoover Institution, water and water rights, climate change; John Baden, FREE, and Richard Stroup, Montana State University, bureaucracy and environmental management, Love Canal; Daniel Benjamin, Clemson University, environmental risk; David Haddock, Northwestern University, externalities and the public interest; Peter J. Hill, Wheaton College, environmental property rights, wildlife, water, eco-tourism; Andrew P. Morriss, Dean, Texas A & M Law School, DTT, Rachel Carson and the silent spring; Robert Nelson, University of Maryland, on the pathologies of federal land management and environmentalism as a religion; Dominic P. Parker, University of Wisconsin and Walter N. Thurman, North Carolina State University, private land trusts and conservation, bees and pesticides; Randy T. Simmons, Utah State University, endangered species; Bruce Yandle, Clemson University, environmental regulation. By any standard, these are a distinguished group of scholars whose work should have been consulted.

On the other hand the free market environmental scholars do not seem to know Allitt. I think they would both profit by getting to know each other.

But there are more serious problems with the book stemming from Allitt’s thin critique of his voluminous sources. Many of the environmental problems Allitt discusses, and believes have been mitigated by environmental reform over the last few decades, themselves stemmed from government policies in the first place. Examples include legislative and judicial overturning of common law protections against pollution in the name of economic growth and efficiency; public waste water treatment plant pollution, excessive forest fire suppression, Bureau of Reclamation dam building, mass spraying of pesticides, predator control programs, swamp land reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers flood prevention and dredging operations, crop subsidies encouraging farm land expansion, and others. So while some bureaus were working to clean air and water and protect habitat and endangered species other parts of government were working in other directions. Meanwhile private owners and efficient modern businesses, often working long before the successes of the political environmentalists, were developing and implementing methods to reclaim mining lands, provide wildlife habitat, and to use production effluents in productive, if largely unsung ways. There are a few hints of this theme in Allitt’s book, but it could have been a central theme to this historical study. He has a whole chapter on Deep Ecology, a movement that he says had little lasting importance. Why not a chapter on the rich history of non commercial, non political, private contributions to environmental enhancement?

Allitt argues that after the environmental policy consensus during the Nixon years broke down, radicals argued for faster, more thorough, and adversarial reform, while conservative political figures and business leaders began worrying about higher costs and adverse economic effects. Such feet-dragging about further reform fueled political conflict and controversy. Yet, according to Allitt, the policy objectives of the early acts have largely been accomplished leaving Americans healthier, longer lived, with better access to environmental amenities. Thus the democratic process in cooperation with capitalist innovation has worked out pretty well despite the adversarial environmental rhetoric of the last few decades. He writes, “…when the population becomes sufficiently aroused, as it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it can convey its concerns effectively to its political representatives, who will act upon them. The legislative transformation with regard to the environment accomplished in those years is reassuring.” Thus, Allitt seems to say, that while problems remain, if there was once an environmental crisis it no longer exists.

Unfortunately, Allitt’s perspective, despite his admirable presentation, is not the one taught in public schools and the academy. Instead, as repeated endlessly in the media, by the environmentalist groups in their fund raising letters, and by ambitious politicians, we are told that we continue to live, on the edge, in an age of environmental crisis which demands further radical, transformative change. The “Crisis” of Allitt’s title, and despite the thrust of his text, appears to have a promising future. And meanwhile, the institutional products of this legislative transformation, (the federal land management agencies, the EPA, and the Army Corps of Engineers, among others) have become huge, sprawling, expensive, arrogant, authoritarian bureaucracies making it difficult for private parties to pursue their interests without endless regulatory delays, if they are allowed to act at all. These regulatory regimes have caused hundreds of billions of dollars in compliance costs and lost tax revenues. In the name of environmental quality the environmentalists have turned many of the regulatory agencies to their own purposes at the expense of liberty. As Donald R. Leal and Roger E. Meiners wrote, more than a decade ago, “We have become like serfs in medieval England. We are allowed to occupy land and pay taxes on it at the whim of our lords.”

This story, perhaps because of his judicious and moderate approach to the topic, Allitt misses entirely. The environmental achievements Allitt lauds could have been accomplished with less adverse effect on governmental budgets and without leaving us with a metastasizing government bureaucratic establishment. Rather than furthering environmental enhancement, the democratic process, itself, encouraged the environmental crisis and its accompanying divisiveness, expense, and a lasting, detrimental change in the nature of our government. Allitt’s evidence supports this position better than it does his own conclusions.