How American Environmentalism Failed

Traditional environmentalism has lacked a meaningful, practical democratic vision, rendering it largely marginal to the day-to-day lives of most Americans.
By: William Shutkin

Historically, U.S. environmentalism has not been an inclusive or democratic social movement. Rather, it’s been shaped by the affluent and professional elites, often more concerned with promoting a romanticized vision of sublime nature than protecting the people and places most at risk from environmental degradation. Finally, after several decades of research, advocacy, and organizing, environmental and climate justice have become priorities among even the most mainstream conservation organizations. John Muir would hardly recognize them; Martin Luther King Jr. would be delighted.

As early as the mid-19th century, George Perkins Marsh and Henry David Thoreau, among others, called for the conservation of nature, despairing, as Marsh did, that “Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.” Thoreau lamented the rapaciousness with which Americans had exploited the land. “For one that comes with a pencil to sketch or sing,” he decried, “a thousand come with an ax or rifle.” Reaction to the widespread settlement and exploitation of the land in the mid-to-late 1800s, exemplified by massive timber harvesting, overgrazing of livestock, land speculation, and boom-and-bust mining, gave rise to the development of two distinct efforts aimed at protecting natural resources: preservation and conservation.

This article is adapted from William Shutkin’s book “The Land That Could Be: Environmentalism and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.”

Spearheading the push for preservation was John Muir, the Scottish-born mountaineer who in 1892 founded the Sierra Club. The most vocal advocates for the creation of national parks like Yellowstone in 1872, the nation’s first, and Yosemite in 1890, Muir and his fellow preservationists sought to protect wild nature from the harmful effects of human settlement and consumption. They viewed wilderness as the antidote to the materialism and arrogance of industrial society and supported aggressive government oversight of public lands.

Whereas in the 18th century wilderness was seen as the devil’s playground, a frightful and forsaken place, by the end of the 1800s, environmental historian William Cronon writes in his seminal essay “The Trouble With Wilderness,” wilderness “became a place not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American.” For preservationists, wilderness, and especially the vanishing frontier, was the authentic American landscape, the source of America’s identity and salvation, and the perfect counterpoint to the perceived ugliness and artificiality of 19th-century urban, industrial society.

Although preservationists like Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Horace Albright, Stephen Mather, J. Horace McFarland, and Robert Marshall were overwhelmingly urban bourgeois, they considered modern urban industrial society degenerate. Parks and other undeveloped areas thus became a kind of tonic for them — a refuge from the filth and bustle of urban life to be enjoyed through recreational activities like hiking, climbing, bird-watching, hunting, and fishing. Its cast decidedly antiurban and middle-class, preservation was a thoroughly romantic movement, an aesthetic reaction to the dramatic social and economic changes of the 19th century brutally manifested in the American landscape.

Simultaneous with the emergence of preservation, conservation arose in the 1890s, inspired by the progressive ideals, born of the Enlightenment, of rationality and science. Led by Gifford Pinchot, the country’s first professionally trained forester (who helped found the Yale School of Forestry) and chief of the Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt, conservation responded to the environmental problems brought about by economic growth — specifically, the destruction of forests encouraged by cheap land prices and the overdevelopment of fragile water supplies, especially in the West.

Conservation opened the door to industry, the most powerful agent of environmental harm, establishing a comfortable alliance between environmental protection advocates and capitalists.

Pinchot believed that “the first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.” As chief forester, he opposed the preservation of forest lands, explaining that “the object of our [conservationist] forest policy is not to preserve forests because they are beautiful . . . or because they are refuges for wild creatures . . . but . . . the making of prosperous homes.” “Every other consideration,” he argued, “is secondary.” Much to the chagrin of preservationists like Muir, Pinchot went so far as to try to bring the national parks, a branch of the Interior Department, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in hopes that park resources might also be developed, but to no avail.

Contrary to the goals of preservation, conservation aimed to use natural resources in the service of sustainable economic growth. It gave rise to a new cadre of environmental professionals, armed with specialized degrees in resource management and public policy, and, with the preservation movement, promoted government as the appropriate steward of America’s natural resources. As a decision-making model, conservation was decidedly top-down and professional.

Conservation held that environmental problems should be reduced to business issues and resolved using corporate tactics, such as centralized administration and scientific management institutionalized in expert agencies. During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman and naturalist who, as a student at Harvard had written passionately about the closing of the American frontier, Pinchot’s conservation reached its pinnacle. Pinchot profoundly influenced Roosevelt, who shared Pinchot’s belief that government agencies should oversee the management of natural resources and convened the first Governors’ Conference on Conservation at the White House and later established the National Conservation Commission. Along with Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield, Roosevelt and Pinchot orchestrated the nation’s first conservation policy based on the principles of expertise and efficiency.

But as author and environmental activist Robert Gottlieb explains in his book “Forcing the Spring,” conservation’s emphasis on expertise and rational management was eventually embraced “by the resource-based industries and other industrial interests attracted to the concepts of efficiency, management, and the application of science to industrial organization.” In other words, conservation opened the door to industry, the most powerful agent of environmental harm, establishing a comfortable alliance between environmental protection advocates and capitalists that would come partly to define the movement in later decades. Personified by such figures as Pinchot and Roosevelt, conservation also became associated with wealth and privilege, in line with preservation’s bourgeois heritage, a socioeconomic legacy the two bequeathed to modern environmentalism.

The romantic-progressive thrust of preservation and conservation determined the basic contours of modern environmentalism and delimited its scope in terms of certain key social issues. Despite the efforts of Robert Marshall, a preservationist who cofounded the Wilderness Society and promoted the idea that social equality was central to wilderness protection, justice and democracy were left out of the romantic-progressive agenda. Many Sierra Club chapters, for example, deliberately excluded minorities from membership until the 1960s. In addition, the parks and nature preserves that environmentalists sought to protect were often off-limits to minorities and immigrants.

Many chapters of the Sierra Club deliberately excluded minorities from membership until the 1960s.

Further, the romantic-progressive ideology shunned both urban areas and lower-income communities as appropriate priorities of environmental protection efforts. In fact, as Gottlieb suggests, the “anti-urban attitudes of the preservationists were . . . linked to their attitudes about class.” Cities were viewed by preservationists like Muir as places of squalor, pollution, and degeneration brought about by industrialization. They were also home to immigrants and minorities, who made up the workforce that fueled industrialization and were excluded from the ranks of the preservation-conservation establishment. Although conservation was primarily concerned with economic growth, this concern was directed not toward working-class Americans but to managers and professionals, the captains of America’s thriving, resource-intensive industries. The focus on expertise, on the one hand, and aesthetic recreation, on the other, ensured that the romantic-progressive model would ignore minorities and lower-income Americans. Blended into the romantic-progressive model, therefore, was a nativistic and elitist disposition toward working-class Americans and minorities and the places where they lived.

Additionally, in its reliance on government and experts to solve environmental problems, the romantic-progressive model largely excluded laypeople and civic institutions from the environmental establishment. Despite the involvement of groups like the American Civic Association in the preservation movement, preservationists and conservationists alike failed to organize sizable citizen constituencies. Although organizations like the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society relied on local chapters for membership and activism, grassroots citizen action would eventually be overshadowed by the centralized structure and professionalism of modern environmental organizations.

Grassroots environmentalism developed on a separate track in the 19th century, in cities and rural areas, grounded in countless local struggles against industrial polluters and unwanted development. Although urban environment and grassroots activism were marginalized by the preservation and conservation movements, environmental issues related to cities and social justice did not go unaddressed.

Founded in 1889, Jane Addams’ Hull House was the nation’s most influential settlement house. Its mission: to promote social democracy and community revitalization through a mixture of neighborhood organizing, professional advocacy, and technical assistance. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1800s, the social reformer and pioneering urban environmentalist Alice Hamilton, for example, took on the problems of industrial disease and occupational hazards, including phossy jaw (a disease affecting mine workers) and lead poisoning, during the early decades of the 20th century. Similarly, Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull-House Settlement in 1889, promoted sanitation and public health on behalf of the city’s immigrant and minority neighborhoods and helped organize local citizens in grassroots reform efforts. Hull-House’s mission was to promote social democracy and community revitalization through a combination of neighborhood organizing, professional advocacy, and technical assistance. Still others, like the planner Benton MacKaye, sought to improve the living and working conditions of urban residents through regional planning aimed at better integrating the natural environment into cities.

Emerging parallel to the preservation and conservation movements, grassroots efforts oriented toward cities and citizen activism comprised a legitimate environmental agenda in the early 20th century, enriched by an emphasis on social democracy. Yet they remained outside the focus of the romantic-progressive model and would remain marginal to the mainstream-professional environmentalism that arose later in the century and determined the course of environmental policy for decades to follow.

Mainstream Professional Environmentalism

With the expansion of the federal government under President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, the Departments of Interior and Agriculture developed a host of policies related to resource management and protection of parks and wilderness areas focused on providing for the growing material needs of the country while protecting pristine nature reserves for recreation.

Interrupted by World War II, federal environmental policy continued to evolve in the 1950s, still aimed at resource use and wilderness protection, but with a particular emphasis on the emerging issues of population growth, economic expansion, and technological innovation, including nuclear energy. With the development of major public works projects in the West, widespread suburbanization, and a handful of well-publicized controversies concerning industrial pollution in the 1950s and 1960s, the modern environmental movement began to crystallize.

Government-sponsored energy and water projects during this period, including a proposed nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon in California, and proposed dams and hydroelectric facilities at Echo Park in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, and the Glen and Grand Canyons in Arizona, riled the preservationist forces of groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, which waged heroic battles of unprecedented scale in opposition to what they saw as catastrophic environmental assaults. In 1964, the Wilderness Act was passed, a milestone in the struggle for legal protection of the nation’s backcountry.

During the mid-20th century, Americans began migrating to the suburbs as never before, leaving behind the deteriorating cities with help from new federal mortgage subsidies, highway infrastructure, and housing subdivisions.

During this period, notes historian Kenneth Jackson, Americans began migrating to the suburbs as never before, leaving behind the deteriorating cities with help from new federal mortgage subsidies, highway infrastructure, and housing subdivisions. As the suburbs grew, smog, traffic, and sprawl soon followed, provoking a new environmental consciousness among suburbanites. Concurrently, public understanding of the physical and biological issues underlying environmental harms grew as scientific information became more widely disseminated, and media outlets began covering environmental stories. This, too, helped generate a new awareness of the natural world among a well-educated and affluent suburban constituency.

Its political consciousness forged by the New Deal and World War II, this new constituency looked to government for answers to public problems and therefore saw public policy as a legitimate vehicle with which to address environmental issues. Meanwhile, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, warning of the severe hazards to wildlife and human health resulting from the use of industrial chemicals like DDT, Americans in general, and especially suburban environmentalists, took up arms in defense of endangered species and wilderness, environmentalism’s age-old foils to industrialization.

RelatedThe Myth of a Wilderness Without Humans

Picking up on the romantic-progressive tradition born nearly a century earlier, the modern environmental movement was quickly transformed into what some observers have called, to quote the journalist and historian Mark Dowie, “the secular religion of the white middle-class.” With the first Earth Day in 1970 and graphic media coverage of environmental calamities like oil spills and belching smokestacks, the educated upper-middle-class environmental constituency persuaded the Nixon administration in the early 1970s to erect the building blocks of the nation’s modern environmental law and policy system, thus marking the arrival of mainstream-professional environmentalism.

Oriented toward professionalism, law, and science, environmental law and policy became the stomping grounds of a legal-technical elite drawn not only from newly formed government agencies such as the EPA and Council for Environmental Quality, both created in 1970, but from established environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and National Audubon Society, and start-up nonprofit environmental law organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

The new environmental organizations were created explicitly to take advantage of the evolving regime of environmental laws enacted during the Nixon administration that gave citizens a solid foothold in the enforcement of environmental regulations. Yet despite the seemingly democratic purpose of such legal tools as public participation and citizen suits, the public interest organizations failed to promote widespread, bottom-up citizen involvement. Their strategy focused instead on the federal courts and Congress, pursuing litigation and legislative action that sought to broaden the scope of environmental regulations while aggressively attacking polluters with an assortment of legal weapons afforded by the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and other environmental statutes. As Mark Dowie puts it, mainstream environmentalism became a profession dedicated to constant “wrestling with government and corporations over laws and standards.”

Moreover, building their membership through direct mail solicitations instead of political organizing and direct action, the public interest organizations appealed to the white, middle-class, suburban constituency that blossomed during the 1960s but was not inclined to engage in hands-on activism. Yet just as mainstream-professional environmentalists were cutting off their connections to grassroots constituencies, community activists across the country began rallying around the cause of environmental protection in their neighborhoods, towns, and counties.

Lois Gibbs organized her neighbors in the late 1970s to confront the industrial polluters who had turned her quiet, working-class upstate neighborhood into a toxic nightmare. Source: Goldman Environmental Prize

In Love Canal, New York, Lois Gibbs organized her neighbors in the late 1970s to confront the industrial polluters who had turned her quiet, working-class upstate neighborhood into a toxic nightmare, poisoned by over 200 chemicals. In Los Angeles, school teacher Penny Newman founded Concerned Citizens in Action in 1979 to demand the cleanup of the Stringfellow Acid Company pits in Glen Avon. Like Gibbs, Newman organized her neighbors in a comprehensive environmental campaign and got results. Through their efforts, Gibbs and Newman helped put the issue of toxic waste on the map and caused Americans to take a hard look at environmental conditions in working-class communities.

In eastern cities, urban residents organized throughout the 1970s to oppose major highway construction projects such as the inner beltway project in Boston in 1972. Fighting to save their neighborhoods in the face of demolition, Boston residents and other urban denizens established city-wide coalitions to promote urban environmental quality and their pride of place. The inner beltway, and several other transportation projects like it, never got off the ground thanks to the power of grassroots environmentalists and their message of community preservation.

In 1982, black residents of rural Warren County, North Carolina, successfully organized public demonstrations in opposition to a proposed landfill for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), leading to 500 arrests and attracting national media attention. The event is credited with kicking off the national environmental justice movement. Borrowing from the success of efforts like the Warren County protest, the Los Angeles–based Labor/Community Strategy Center initiated a massive campaign in the early 1990s involving thousands of “straphangers” to improve air quality and mass transit service in the city for lower-income residents, resulting in an overhaul of the city’s transit system.

These and numerous other grassroots environmental efforts over the past several decades represent the lasting legacy of the Hull-House movement. Yet despite their local successes, such campaigns have not significantly influenced national policy debates or the agenda of mainstream-professional environmental organizations. Often ad hoc and singular and always community-driven, grassroots issues and strategies have largely failed to percolate up to the higher echelons of the environmental establishment. The result has been a wide gulf between local environmentalists and their professional counterparts.

In effect, the proud tradition of American environmentalism has mirrored the same democratic deficits that have afflicted society as a whole. Bureaucratic, centralized, and technical, modern mainstream-professional environmentalism has largely ignored local communities and the civic networks necessary to sustain them. Notwithstanding the rich tradition of grassroots environmentalism dating back to the neighborhood organizing of Jane Addams’s Hull-House and still extant today in many communities across the country, mainstream-professional environmentalists have not used their considerable power to foster community-based environmental efforts and have even sometimes helped to undermine them, as evidenced by the disproportionate impact of polluting facilities in minority communities for too long sanctioned by environmental regulators and public interest environmentalists alike.

By focusing their problem-solving strategies on the courts and Congress, and on issues like protection of wilderness areas, parks, and endangered species, mainstream-professional environmentalists have generally avoided local environmental issues and discounted the value of local civic networks in addressing environmental harms. Consequently, they have indirectly countenanced the continued environmental degradation of local communities.

The elitism and homogeneity of traditional environmentalism are further evidence of the movement’s democratic deficits. Only recently bothering to reach out across racial or economic lines, mainstream-professional environmentalism has alienated racial minorities and the working class, who traditionally have not identified with environmentalists. Moreover, notwithstanding the progress of the past several decades, environmental harms have not let up in lower-income and minority communities, revealing a gap in mainstream-professional environmentalism’s advocacy agenda or, worse, confirming the success of the environmental law and policy system.

It is no accident that environmental hazards persist, often following the path of least resistance to lower-income and minority neighborhoods.

Because environmental laws do not prevent pollution but merely control it, and decisions about the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens such as parks and polluting facilities are naturally a function of the relative political power of communities, it is no accident that environmental hazards persist, often following the path of least resistance to lower-income and minority neighborhoods. Lacking the political, medical, economic, and legal resources more affluent communities possess, and facing environmental hazards of all kinds, lower-income and minority neighborhoods are at the greatest risk of harm. The physical conditions in these neighborhoods thus represent some of the most serious environmental problems of our time. Yet the mainstream-professional movement has just begun to take notice.

All environmental harms are local in origin, though their effects may spread great distances. In thinking about environmental degradation, we tend to get lost in abstractions like global climate disruption, or even in the minutiae, such as pollution measured in parts per billion. Competing statistics can confuse us. One day we read that the air is getting cleaner or that a certain endangered species is making a strong comeback; the next day we hear reports that water pollution continues to be a major public health threat or that remote rural areas are being developed at unprecedented rates. How do we reconcile this information? How do we make sense of the endless litany of statistics and figures that often seem at odds?

The answer is as simple as looking out the window. The true test of environmental quality is the environmental conditions on the ground, in the trenches of local communities across the nation. What do you see when you peer out the window — from your bedroom, office, or automobile? For many, the sight is as unpleasant as it is unsettling, at best offering a meager experience of nature and place and at worst presenting real and immediate health threats. Ironically, it is these same conditions that we have tended most to neglect in our environmental protection efforts.

Notwithstanding the local nature of environmental harms, in terms of both their genesis and consequences, traditional environmentalism has focused on places where very few of us actually live and work, such as wilderness and national parks, while overlooking densely populated areas like cities and suburbs. It is for this reason that William Cronon warns, “Wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century.” We must move beyond fetishizing the sublime and wild, he urges, and instead embrace the humble places most of us call home, bringing the powerful lessons wilderness teaches into the more quotidian reality of our day-to-day lives.

William Shutkin is principal of Shutkin Sustainable Living, a sustainable real estate developer in Boulder, CO, focused on green, mixed-use, mixed-income projects. He is also on the faculty of the Masters of the Environment program at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he leads the Urban Resilience and Sustainability specialization. Shutkin is co-founder of the Boston-based environmental justice law center, Alternatives for Community & Environment, and, in 1999, founded New Ecology, Inc., among the first organizations in the U.S. focused on greening community development in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. He is the author of “The Land That Could Be,” from which this article is adapted.

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