The Great Environmental Awakening

Increasingly, we are all environmentalists," Richard Darman, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, observed in a 1990 speech. "The President is an environmentalist. Republicans and Democrats are environmentalists. Jane Fonda and the National Association of Manufacturers, Magic Johnson and Danny DeVito, Candice Bergen and The Golden Girls, Bugs Bunny and the cast of Cheers are all environmentalists."

Yet, in Darman's view, the embrace of environmentalism is nothing to celebrate. If Americans want to keep faith with the American Romance and its commitment to individual initiative, risk-taking, and economic growth, he went on, they should reject the ideology of the environmental movement. "Americans did not fight and win the wars of the 20th century to make the world safe for green vegetables," he complained, warning that we seem to be turning into "a risk-o-phobic society."

Darman is hardly the first to contend that the values of environmentalism contradict those that have traditionally defined the American national character and the American Dream. Nonetheless, public opinion research amply confirms the popularity of environmentalism. An August 1991 Wall Street Journal poll revealed that concern and awareness of environmental problems are all but universal: eight in ten Americans regard themselves as environmentalists' and half of those say they are strong' ones. In a 1989 New York Times/CBS poll, 80 percent of those asked agreed that protecting the environment is so important that standards cannot be too high, and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost. Among many surveys reaching similar results, the most amusing may be a recent Harris poll in which most respondents rated a clean environment more important than a satisfactory sex life.

Across the Ideological Divide
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, both conservative and liberal social theorists argued that environmentalism represented a historic departure -- conservatives chastising environmentalists as opponents of traditional values, and liberals praising environmentalists as prophets of a new culture. Americans, they agreed, have historically shared a "dominant social paradigm" that includes a commitment to personal liberty and property rights, materialism, faith in science and technology, and optimism about economic growth and abundance. Environmentalism, for better or worse, seemed to break with those values.

According to this analysis, environmentalism belongs on the left of a deep political divide. Peter L. Berger, a conservative sociologist, saw the divide as arising between those who do different kinds of work. On the left were those working in the knowledge industries, manipulating symbols and ideas, who tended to support a liberal agenda of affirmative action, gender equality, gun control, and welfare programs. On the right were those like farmers and blue-collar workers who manipulate things and tended to oppose such policies.

Berger and other analysts such as Aaron Wildavsky, a political scientist, charged that comfortable, upper-middle-class liberals favored environmental policies that would hobble economic growth, which the still-striving, lower-middle class saw as being in its interest. In Risk and Culture, written with the anthropologist Mary Douglas, Wildavsky argued that environmental doom-sayers raise fears to constrain other people's economic opportunities and keep political power to themselves.

A significant number of environmentalists, especially in academia, lent credibility to this conservative analysis by calling explicitly for a paradigm shift away from what social scientist James Swan called "the basic values which have built our society" and that lie "at the root of the ecological crisis." These writers often spoke of limits to growth and conceded, as philosopher Robert Paehlke put it, that "the environmental movement harbors a strong asceticism embedded in doubts about the North American consumer lifestyle."

Reagan's Error
In line with conservative political analysts, President Reagan's advisers, who gauged the national mood correctly on virtually every other issue, identified environmentalism as a preoccupation of upper-middle-class suburban liberals. Reagan's rhetoric as well as his appointments -- especially James Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Anne Burford as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- alarmed and incensed environmentalists. In political speeches, Reagan sniped at "environmental extremists" who made it hard for him to get the government off people's backs. The Republican Study Committee, to which most Republican congressmen belonged at the time, likewise declared that "environmental groups represent only a minority fringe of the American public."

Yet Reagan succumbed to the strength of environmentalism in his own constituency and found himself obliged to replace Watt and Burford. The Reaganites' early assumptions about the marginality of the environmental movement turned out to underestimate its strength.


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Starting in the 1970s, social scientists began testing the thesis that environmental concern is concentrated in the suburban upper-middle class. In the early 1980s, the National Wildlife Federation commissioned studies to determine where its membership stood on the environment. Its leaders wished to put the organization's weight behind efforts to oust James Watt, who had described environmental groups as "hired guns" who cared more about "membership, dollars, and headlines" than about the environment. Roughly two-thirds of the members of the federation, however, were (and still are) hunters and fishermen, often living in the American heartland. Many voted for Ronald Reagan and presumably agreed with his conservative agenda.

The results of these studies were surprising. The hunters and fishermen stood with the suburban membership in favoring strong environmental regulation. Other sources corroborated these findings. By 1984 public opinion surveys showed overwhelming public support for environmental protection, up dramatically since the Carter years. Armed with this information, the National Wildlife Federation then threw itself behind the political effort that forced Burford and Watt to resign and the Reagan administration to appreciate the political strength of the environmental movement. The greening of the blue coEars may strike us as an anomaly. Have Americans who believe in risk-taking and economic growth climbed aboard an environmental bandwagon apparently going the other way? Has the nation lost its pioneering spirit? Or has environmentalism adopted the values of the American Romance?

Have Red-Blooded Americans Turned Green?
Many mainstream Americans long skeptical about environmental regulation have become stewards of the environment. Farmers and car enthusiasts -- if magazines they read reflect their views accurately -- exemplify this shift of opinion over the last two decades. A perusal of the most popular farm magazine, the Farm Journal, and of the best-selling car magazine, Car and Driver, confirms the broad shift in public opinion social scientists have tracked through society as a whole. The Farm Journal in the early 1970s routinely excoriated "dictatorial bureaucrats," "the crazy antics of OSHA," and the prospect of "farming by permit." Columnists deplored the banning of pesticides like aldrin, chlordane, and heptachlor. One editorial complained: "For 25 years these were important tools and performed efficiently and safely. There is virtually no evidence that these chemicals caused any threat to anyone." Three articles in the 1976 Farm Journal illustrate the suspicion with which farmers viewed the environmental movement. "Will You Go to Jail Over Erosion?" voiced the complaint of many readers that environmentalists were "trying to preserve the farms without preserving the farmers." An editorial, "'Organic' Foods: Today's Big Rip-Off," ridicules "natural food cults." "Only ignorance of nature," the editorial contended, "leads one to label as 'artificial,' fertilizers which are mined from the earth or made from 'natural' gas." On the brighter side, an article announcing "A New Wave of Hard-Hitting Pesticides" promised that variations of familiar chemicals will overcome pest resistance "to keep the time-tested chlorinated hydrocarbons, organophosphates and crabamates in the fight."


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By 1989, however, the Farm Journal had gone over to the other side. The editors proudly introduced a monthly section called "Environment Today." Articles appearing that year praised organic farming and other low-input techniques practiced by farmers in a new movement "driven by a desire to reduce production costs and protect the environment."

Since then, the Farm Journal has printed dozens of articles favoring environmental regulations and urging farmers' compliance. The Journal exhorts farmers to "Make Room for Diversity" by protecting wildlife. It tells them to recycle and to minimize toxic wastes. As part of its "Stewardship Campaign," the Journal regularly covers practices aimed at conservation. In 'Today in the Country," farmers answer the question "How do you protect the environment?" The Journal will now sell you a "Proud to be Conservation Farmers" sign to "let people know you're a good steward."

Car enthusiasts have traveled the same road. Car and Driver, a magazine popular among macho motorists, has come out for "the global environment." For two decades, the magazine railed against Ralph Nader, the Clean Air Act, Eco-Fascists, endangered species programs, seat belts and air bags, speed limits, welfare cheats, and all regulations devised by "the bloated civil service, the feeders at the public trough."

In the November 1988 issue, however, veteran columnist Brock Yates, who for years assailed the EPA bureaucracy, wrote: "Like it or not, our beloved car is an irksome source of pollution, urban congestion, and excessive fossil-fuel consumption."

In the August 1989 Car and Driver, William Jeannes, a columnist who previously echoed Yates's diatribes against environmental regulations, added his voice to the environmentalist chorus. "If you are concerned about planet Earth and the cars you drive on it," he wrote, "you understand that an efficient automobile is one that contributes as little carbon dioxide as possible to fuel the greenhouse effect." Similarly, Yates defended tougher fuel-economy standards as necessary "to reduce automobile carbon-dioxide emissions, a significant contributor to the greenhouse effect and global warming."


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Car and Driver, which out-Herods the American Rifleman in trying to keep Big Brother off our backs, has adopted an environmentalist message. How can such a macho magazine extol risk-taking and at the same tune speak for the trees?

The pages of the Farm Journal and Car and Driver reflect an apparent sea change in public opinion. In the early 1970s, less than a 30-per-cent minority of Americans favored tougher environmental regulations. By 1989, however, nine respondents in ten ranked "taking stronger action to clean up the nation's air and water" as a top priority for government leaders. How may we account for this apparent conversion?

If we assume that environmentalism has remained the same movement over the past twenty years, we must conclude that public opinion has undergone a profound transformation. If such a dramatic shift had occurred, however, one would expect to observe signs of it in other areas of political and cultural life. Yet liberals and conservatives continue to square off across the old political divide.

There is, however, another possibility. Public opinion may have moved in the direction of environmentalism as environmentalism moved toward public opinion. The values and concerns of the environmental movement may have changed over the years, making it possible for those committed to the dominant paradigm to embrace them.

Environmentalism Then and Now
In the 1970s, Americans confronted environmental problems that were primarily local in scale, recent in time, and near- or medium-term in their effects. Examples are obvious: belching smokestacks, persistent pesticides, automobile pollution, ground-water contamination.

Congress approached these problems on a medium-by-medium basis as technical challenges to be solved each in its own terms, by improvements in expert analysis, scientific knowledge, regulatory oversight, and technological controls -- hence, the agency- and technology-forcing statutes of the 1970s. The worst and most obvious hazards were often the cheapest to control; when the government went on to control less serious but more intractable problems, it came up against the law of diminishing returns. Arguments then arose over the concerns Darman voiced in his speech as critics asked: Are we a risk-o-phobic society? How safe is safe enough?

In contrast, the environmental problems of the 1990s -- global warming and climate change, deforestation, the loss of genetic diversity, the widening ozone hole -- tend to be global rather than local in scale; historical rather than recent in origin; and cumulative rather than immediate in effect. In the 1970s, the terms "optimality" and "externality," taken from microeconomic theory, typified academic debate about the environment, which focused on the allocation of resources. In the 1990s, "sus-tainability," a macroeconomic concept, has become the organizing metaphor of both professional and popular analysis, linked to the idea of ecological limits to economic expansion. The problem is thus no longer the allocation of resources in the most risk-beneficial ways; it is the adjustment of the economy as a whole to the carrying capacity of the planet.

While many concerns remain constant -- population is one of them -- -the environmental problems of the 1990s have less to do with the "spillovers" one economic activity imposes on another than with the aggregate effect of all these activities on the biospheric systems that support the economy as a whole. However efficient transactions may be relative to each other, they can combine, often in unanticipated ways, to undermine global ecological systems. The problem is no longer just that economic development threatens the environment. Rather, the environment, in the form of rising sea levels, dying forests, eroding land, and thinning stratospheric ozone, threatens economic development.

Many analysts today understand environmental problems, therefore, as the products of the scale effects of economic activity as a whole and, therefore, in macro-economic rather than microeconomic terms. Today's approach embraces the usual goals of macroeconomic theory, such as full employment, price stability, prosperity, and the relief of poverty. But it rejects the way we have traditionally tried to reach those goals, by continually increasing the amount of low-entropy resources the economy takes from nature and the amount of high-entropy wastes it puts back. This ever-increasing scale of the economy, known as total "throughput," places an intolerable strain on the biospheric ecological systems on which the economy depends.

Although environmentalists have attacked big business (exemplified by multinational corporations) since the 1970s, the message has changed to address the problem of optimal scale rather than optimal allocation. Twenty years ago, corporations were accused of indifference to human safety and health; they would "kill to make money." Corporate executives answered this kind of attack by commissioning risk assessments and risk-benefit analyses, and, when these failed, they held seminars in risk communication. The emphasis of current environmental activism, in contrast, falls not on risks to human safety and health but on the sheer scale of throughput and, thus, the stress the economy as a whole places on ecosystems. Accordingly, corporations have to respond to promptings to recycle wastes, minimize "greenhouse" emissions, and conserve energy.


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Legislation reflects this shift in emphasis. Consider, for example, the Clean Air Act. As originally enacted in 1970, the statute regulated pollutants like carbon monoxide that threatened public health. The law called for "an adequate margin of safety" to assure that pollution would not make anyone sick. The statute did little for the natural environment per se; for example, it contained no provision to control sulfur dioxide (SO2), the source of acid rain.

The fundamental philosophy of the Clean Air Act changed with the 1990 amendments, epitomized in the concept of "trading under a cap," which the amendments require wherever possible. By setting a "cap" or nationwide limit on the total allowable amount of SO2 emissions, for example, the amendments seek to control acid rain, a direct threat to ecological systems but not to human health. Polluters will be able to exchange permits for SO2 and other kinds of emissions under broad aggregate limits. Markets for pollution allowances under caps encourage industry to make the most of allowable emissions, thus maximizing productivity while minimizing throughput.

Analysts have suggested the use of caps to discipline virtually all of our relationships with the natural world -- caps on carbon dioxide production, road construction, deforestation, and erosion. The idea is not new: The Endangered Species Act can be interpreted as "capping" the extinction of species. That statute, reauthorized during the Reagan administration, does not stop economic development but limits its effect on biodiversity. The law does not prohibit economically useful projects. Rather, it requires that these projects mitigate their effects on threatened species.

Statutes that require recycling and resource recovery, specify fuel-efficiency standards, and call for renewable fuels and energy conservation exemplify the new macroeconomic thinking. From consultation among scientists, policy makers, public interest groups, industry, and others have come measures to regulate the aggregate levels of throughput compatible with a "sustainable" relationship with the natural environment.

Environmentalism has traveled a long road since the 1970s. In moving from a preoccupation with technological threats to personal safety and health to a larger concern with the sustainability of ways of life, environmentalists kept their old enemy -- global markets and "big business" -- but picked up a new vocabulary. They tapped into the artery of mainstream populist sentiment. Environmentalism as a result has begun to fashion itself into a form of patriotism -- to express a concern with the continuity of community linked to the integrity of place. To the surprise and chagrin of many political analysts and strategists, environmentalism has thus gained a sizeable constituency who speak the language of American populism.

Environmentalism and Populism
To be sure, the safety and health concerns of the 1970s persist, but they are not central to the broad-based environmentalist consensus of recent years. This new consensus is better understood in the context of the cyclical occurrence of populist movements in America.

Political movements that combine distrust of big business with a desire to protect the natural environment have deep roots in America. William Jennings Bryan, who entered Congress in 1890 from Nebraska, narrowly lost the presidential election in 1896, at the head of a coalition of Democrats and populists who opposed the social and environmental consequences of the rapid industrialization of the South and West.

Farmers, small-town businessmen, and workers who backed the Farmer's Alliance and the People's Party in 1896 went on to vote in 1904 for Theodore Roosevelt, a conservationist and a trust-buster. Some of the same support later went to Franklin Roosevelt, who stood strongly for environmental protection as well as for the regulation of industry. Those who support populist candidates and causes share the American Dream but fear that corrupt and centralized economic forces will prevent them from achieving it.

The central ideological commitment of populism in the past, as the historian Lawrence Goodwyn has said, follows from the "deification of nature." The appropriate cultivation of nature -- a nostalgia, perhaps, for the rural landscape -- remains one of the most powerful tenets of populism.

During the Depression, Woody Guthrie's songs voiced the indignation of Americans at the deterioration of the rural landscape and at its perceived cause, the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. One can hear the same anger in "Pass It On Down," a song by the group Alabama, which last year went to the top of the country-and-Western charts. The song decries the destruction of the natural heritage that would otherwise give future generations a sense of place and a continuity with the past. Here is one verse:

There's a place where I live called the canyon, Where Daddy taught me to swim. That water is so pure, And I'm going to make sure Daddy's grandkids can swim there like him.

The song expresses an ideology of sacrifice, as opposed to self-interest, that anthropologists such as Mary Douglas and Michael Thompson associate with working-class ethnic communities. Factory workers who put in long hours to send their children to college also might agree with Alabama: "It's only ours to borrow; Let's save some for tomorrow/ Leave it and pass it on down."


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Environmentalism appeals to two attitudes fundamental to the dominant social paradigm. First, a commitment to community, often associated with religion, inclines mainstream Americans to pass down their cultural and natural heritage to their children and grandchildren. Second, Americans since the time of Jefferson have suspected that monied industrial interests have contempt for nature. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, even if it caused little economic damage, stirred Americans' emotions because it so clearly symbolized the apparent conflict between nature and plutocracy.

Thus, the terms "stewardship" and "sustainability," although they may have been coined by academics and analysts, express concepts deeply rooted in the popular culture, and Americans of diverse political persuasions are willing to endorse government regulation to protect the integrity of the natural environment and the well-being of future generations. These values are right up there with breaking speed limits and ignoring radar detector bans.

A sampling of opinion from our two magazines shows how these distinctions play out. Readers of the Farm Journal and Car and Driver, as we have seen, are exposed to a lot of copy about stewardship, sus-tainability, and our responsibility to leave nature intact for future generations.Car and Driver consistently endorses tougher fuel-economy standards (and even higher gasoline taxes) to "decrease petroleum dependence, consumption, and air pollution." In November 1990, Brock Yates conceded: "Our nation gets terrible marks for energy management and conservation. And, like it or not, we car lovers have to shoulder much of the blame."

At the same time, however, the magazine stepped up its attacks on "clowns who bleat that speed kills' including "safety-twit" Clarence Ditlow, "practicing autophobe and executive director of Ralph Nader's Center for Auto Safety." A regular Car and Driver columnist reminds readers that heavy cars fuel the greenhouse effect. A good way to lighten cars, he advises, would be to get rid of some of the mandated safety equipment.

Similarly, the Farm Journal carries many articles that endorse organic farming, but the authors do not argue that low-input methods will yield a safer product. Rather, the journal advocates low-input farming for ecological reasons and because it permits farmers to keep money that would otherwise go to the chemical industry.

A recent guest editorial advocating stewardship is long on machismo. "Before I say anything else," Gene Logson, a burly Ohio farmer, writes, "understand that I eat red meat; red, white, and medium rare. I know which side my bread is buttered on, because I spread it a quarter-inch thick." Logson establishes his credentials as a two-fisted cattleman with no patience for "diet dillies, organic nuts, and Bambi lovers" and others overly concerned about risk.

"Having said that," he continues "allow me to say a good word for animal rightists." The good word is that animal rights advocates threaten animal mega-factories, not the independent family farmer who can care properly for livestock.

Logson's logic echoes a familiar populist theme: the resentment small and middle-sized farmers direct against larger, better-capitalized operations that use economies of scale to undersell them. To protect the land, to maintain traditional technologies, and to engage in low-input labor-intensive husbandry make sense economically if you want to keep in business as a family farmer. Without the environmental brake, the "technological treadmill" in agriculture would lead quickly to the industrialization of production and to the demise of the small operator. Farmers have good reasons, therefore, to side with environmentalists against this process. The reason, however, is not health -- unless it is the health of farm communities.

Americans who make up much of the electorate today, like those who joined the Fanner's Alliance and People's Party a century ago, may seek to preserve the social and moral order they cherish against large-scale technologies which intrude, through their economic and environmental effects, on the integrity and viability of local communities. People identify with places; they find in them continuity with the future and consistency with the past. They may be attracted to the sustainability and stewardship argument today, then, for the reasons that led them a century ago to resent the extravagances of the gilded age. This is not asceticism; it is more like self-respect.

If this is true, then environmentalism, far from rejecting traditional American values and attitudes, is consistent with them. Environmentalism thus serves as a common rallying ground for groups usually thought to be at odds with one another: educated professionals and the lower middle class; affluent suburbanites and inhabitants of small towns in the American heartland.


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At the outset of the 1980s, after such well-publicized incidents as the discovery of toxic wastes at Love Canal and the dumping of kepone in the James River, environmental law began to reflect the force of environmentalism as a populist movement. Expert reports that found, for example, no unusual incidence of cancer at Love Canal or argued that kepone, being insoluble and biodegradable, would not damage the river only fanned the flames of populist resentment. These reports, however accurate, did not allay the suspicion that powerful corporations dump wastes indiscriminately and do not really care about nature or people.

Public resentment of a populist sort, perhaps exacerbated by the policies of the Reagan administration, forced Congress to recast environmental law from the prospective "command and control" approach of the 1970s to laws based in retroactive liability that include harsh criminal penalties. Laws enacted after 1980, such as the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 and the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, made corporations liable for virtually any environmental damage that might be associated with them and established severe penalties for industrial practices, as yet unknown and unspecified, that might someday be found to be environmentally hazardous.

During the 1970s, when environmental laws mandated what sorts of pollution-control technology industry had to install, economists criticized this "command and control" approach as inefficient, since industry itself knew best how to control its effluents. Congress subsequently responded to this criticism with a vengeance by enacting a series of laws that assigned strict liability retroactively to any corporation that might be involved in polluting.

This response regards pollution as a crime rather than as a cost. It sets up draconian joint-and-several liability regimes, therefore, to require polluters to pay for gold-plated clean-ups whether the pollution is "really" dangerous or not. This is a religiously and ethically based approach because it distinguishes between law-abiding people and criminals; it does not balance benefits and costs. It expresses the style of thinking of rural populists rather than urban professionals.

The statutes drafted in the 1980s contain tough (indeed vengeful) criminal penalties and make polluters jointly and severally liable for the entire cost of clean-up regardless of degrees of fault. Industry has responded to these perhaps vindictive laws by invoking the old questions about how safe is safe enough. Trade associations throw away money studying risk assessment, risk management, risk perception, and risk communication, as if nothing had changed since 1970. They would do better to think less about risk and more about the moral, cultural, and religious values that have led Americans to resent the effects of technology on their environment and on their lives.

As we head into the 1990s, we must make broad environmental compromises, while maintaining communities and sustaining moral and social ties in the face of an increasingly intrusive economy. Environmental protection is thus caught up in the popular imagination with shared memories of an agrarian heritage and an edenic, if partially mythic, past.

Our respect for nature is a respect for the land that transformed us from immigrants to Americans; it is, therefore, also a respect for ourselves. A sense of continuity with the past seems essential to a faith in the future. In these fundamental respects, the environmental movement and American populist ideology have moved toward each other. Mainstream American attitudes have changed the environmental movement and the environmental movement has been integrated into the American Romance.

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