A history of the environmental era in the United States

Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985, by Samuel P. Hays, in collaboration with Barbara D. Hays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 604 pp. $29. Beauty, health, and permanence are the three loci of environmental action. ``Beauty'' refers to the aesthetic qualities we try to preserve in our surroundings. ``Health'' refers to our response to human diseases that are often linked to pollution and the degradation of the environment. And ``permanence'' refers to the driving force of the conservation movement: preserving wildlife and open lands for generations to come.

In this well-written and thoroughly researched book, Hays presents a history of the Environmental Era, of actions to promote beauty, health, and permanence. Hays calls his book a political history; I agree, but a careful reader can also construct a psychological history from the material provided. More important, Hays accomplishes his analysis, as all good historians do, by demonstrating that as much historical understanding can be gleaned from what has not changed as from what has.

Hays traces the origins of the Environmental Era (basically, the past two decades) back to the public-health movements of New Deal America. These movements attempted to address social concerns by improving physical surroundings. Hays writes, ``Such measures (improved water quality, for example) greatly reduced human suffering and prolonged life. But they also emphasized new causes of illness, many of them environmental.''

Even if one identifies the beginning of the era with Rachel Carson's ``Silent Spring'' (1962), Hays reminds us that public perception was already ripe for environmentalism. Post-World War II Americans had a little more of everything - of disposable income, of education, of leisure time. The 1950s and '60s were also a time of urban exodus. Many people left ``unclean'' cities to live in ``pastoral'' suburbs or the countryside. This created a physical and psychological link with nature, and a divorce from cement and factory smokestacks.

Hays sketches all the appropriate political actors. He outlines the major environmental-legal organizations, Congress and its agenda regarding the environment, presidential actions of environmental scope, and state and regional movements in conjunction with national agendas. Perhaps most important, Hays describes another political actor - the individual citizen.

When the Environmental Era peaked during the energy crisis of the 1970s, Americans sought solutions to the crisis that would be in concert with traditional values. Hays encapsulates this attitude as he describes Americans' attraction to solar energy:

``The appeal of solar energy had distinctive psychological and sociological roots. It was a form of energy individual consumers could comprehend and relate to directly. This accounted for much of its popularity. At the same time, it could be integrated into the organization and management of one's home and daily activities and hence could elicit personal initiative.... The challenge of solar energy called forth human endeavor more reminiscent of the early 19th-century Yankee tinkerer than the highly centralized and collective initiative of mid-20th-century corporate management.''

In the chapter ``Environmental Inquiry and Ideas,'' Hays shows us that analyses of environmental problems, indeed, the whole intellectual activity of the era, rest on three legs: economics, technology, and law. Interactions between these three disciplines make for both the most intelligent choices and the most contentious issues.

Economists and engineers disagree over definitions and the degree of quantification. For example, an engineer or scientist defines efficient as the greatest output per input (for example, the greatest heat per ton of fuel processed), while to an economist, efficiency means the greatest profit recovered from resources spent. Lawyers and judges grappled with legal constructs such as ``nuisance'' and ``standing.'' For the most part, however, the legal circumscribed the technical. Hays neatly summarizes the cause and effect:

``The environmental movement expanded the realm of science, making greater demands on existing scientific and technical institutions than they were capable of meeting. But it also made demands on law, which reflected social values and social change and hence was more responsive to environmental entreaties.... Courts forced scientists and technicians back into the world of social reality to face their own particular, in contrast with their assumed universal, values and those of society.... Not only did courts respond directly to changing social values, but they had the capacity to force other institutions, and especially those of science and technology, to do so as well.''

Hays closes the book with an analysis of the ``Reagan Antienvironmental Revolution.'' Building on the history presented, Hays argues that Reagan's success is limited, because the structure of the Environmental Era is already highly developed. For every White House action there is a reaction across the country. As a consequence of antienvironmentalism, membership in environmental groups has risen, state and regional organizations have taken greater action in environmental affairs, the administration's delaying tactic of more research has produced greater knowledge by which to document adverse effects, and Congress, with a distrust of the administration's environmental motives, has passed specific laws leaving the administration less discretion.

As a concise and unusually clear history of a public-policy field, this book would benefit all policy analysts, in all subfields. But because environmental choices are so important to this country at this time, I can think of no one who would not benefit from reading this book.

Ralph Braccio is an associate with ICF Inc., a Washington-based public-policy consulting firm.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A history of the environmental era in the United States
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today