A recent online discussion among fellow environmental historians revealed a troubling development: the word “environment” carries negative connotations for a large proportion of the American public.Some instructors at institutions in regions with predominantly conservative political cultures are witnessing an enrollment downturn in their environmental history courses listed in catalogs under that title. Students in some of these courses confirmed professors’ fears: the presence of “environment” in the course title dissuaded many from enrolling for fear that the course would be about “tree hugging” or a form of environmentalist indoctrination. The ensuing discussion focused on alternative titles that might circumvent this problem and the relative success creative renaming has obtained for instructors in the field.
Yet the dilemma facing environmental historians is more than a sales issue. It reflects a transformation in American political culture decades in the making: “environment” has become conflated with “environmentalism,” and both equated with liberal elitism, economic stagnation, infringement of property rights, and a government overstepping its mandate. The EPA is a favorite boogeyman of an increasingly populist conservative movement and many consider environmental consciousness, at best, a luxury reserved for a meddlesome few who already enjoy material prosperity and, at worst, outright hypocrisy.
This perceptual problem stems in part from the ascent of the wise use movement between the 1970s and 1990s, the attendant Sagebrush Rebellion, and the ideological and political atmosphere of deregulation associated with the Reagan and subsequent administrations that granted those movements a place in the circles of power and policy concessions. During this era, environmental regulation, along with other forms of regulation, were blamed for domestic industrial disinvestment, trade deficits, and keeping areas of the United States from realizing their full economic potential in the various extractive industries. In this milieu, environmental oversight was seen as an impediment to job creation and state-level revenue generation. The false dichotomy between environmental health and job growth persists in political discourse to this day, most visible in debates over the viability of offshore drilling, the proposed Keystone Pipeline, and “fracking.”
The environmental movement is not without fault in the formation of these perceptions. As Richard White points out, its reluctance to consider work in the environment and use of natural resources as a legitimate way of knowing and being in nature—falsely equating modification of nature with environmental degradation–undermined its appeal to those whose livelihoods depend on working the land. To many well-meaning environmentalists, leisure and personal enjoyment of scenery remains the appropriate use of nature. This contention obviously alienates a considerable number of people who might otherwise contribute a great deal to the movement.
Furthermore, the movement’s adherence to the fiction of a virgin wilderness being despoiled by the forces of capitalism and development precluded spaces often conceded as “sacrifice zones” from the priorities of activists, despite the social and environmental justice inroads the movement could make there. Environmental justice certainly gained traction after the incidents like the Union Carbide and Love Canal disasters. Such efforts remained largely localized and did little to challenge the socio-economic order that tends to disproportionately place the environmental hazards of consumption in the air and water supply of marginalized groups who consume the least. Despite an increased attention to environmental justice, as reflected in the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the movement often concerns itself with charismatic endangered species, tropical deforestation, and suburban sprawl–preservation of “wilderness”–at the expense of more dire and systemic environmental issues. In its most recent iteration, the movement posits that individual acts of “greenness”–purchasing a hybrid vehicle, eating locally-grown organic food, installing solar panels, walking or biking to work, etc.–are the key to turning the tide on climate change and rectifying other environmental problems. These are all admirable acts, but if a majority of society lacks the means to live by these standards, individual efforts will fail to make a substantive difference.
A rejection of work as a legitimate use of nature concedes that realm to the reasoning of wise use, which conflates work with private property rights and rejects corporate responsibility for redressing the interrelated environmental and social effects of their activities. A preoccupation with wilderness pushes environmental justice to the periphery of the mainstream movement. Overconfidence in individual green acts and an unwillingness to challenge to prevailing social and economic order stands in the way of the societal change that needs to take place to address the most pressing environmental problems. These perspectives tend to obscure the social relations inherent in environmental problems. Rampant infighting among and within different schools of environmental thought compound the movement’s problems coherence and relevance.
These critiques are harsh and omit a great deal of good work being done where it is needed most. They reflect general tendencies and public perception. Nonetheless, they highlight the movement’s predominantly bourgeois orientation that impedes widespread political support. Furthermore, they contribute to “environmentalism’s” status as a dirty word and “environment’s” conflation with it in course catalogs and the public sphere more generally. Environmental historians have been among the most critical, albeit sympathetic voices mounting such critiques. Their work frequently frustrates movement environmentalists with their increasingly critical approach to modern environmentalism, their nuanced assessment of environmental change in human history, and their rejection of the nature-culture binary alongside the notion of an inherently balanced, pristine nature repeatedly defiled by human activity. Take the deep ecology movement’s negative reception of Uncommon Ground as a case in point.
Along with environmental justice and sustainable development advocates and folks in the environmental sciences, environmental historians offer the movement its most constructive criticism. Their messages generally fail to reach the general public, however, leaving discussion in the public sphere to manufacturers of climate doubt, libertarian think tanks, wise use proponents, popular “skeptical environmentalists” such as Bjorn Lomborg, and an environmental movement that could benefit from a more critical assessment of itself.
This is an area where public historians can make a difference. One arena is in public education curriculum development. If educators at the primary and secondary levels incorporated more fully the findings of environmental historians, especially the historically contingent relationships of societies and their environments and the basic ecological dynamics of modern life, the next generation may not so readily dismiss “environment” as a special interest or conflate it with movements in its name. Museums, parks, and other public history sites could also benefit from a similar incorporation of environmental history without undermining their current exhibitions and programming.
City museums and other place-oriented institutions such as the Chicago History Museum could incorporate the concepts of urban metabolism, city-hinterland relationships, and more controversial subjects such as the relationship between race, class, gender, and spatial politics to differential demographic access to green space, clean air, clean water, and other quality of life issues. This would complement rather than subvert the good work being done by institutions to incorporate social history into their interpretive agendas.
Although institutional resistance may preclude a focus on the darker side of environmentalism, the National Park Service would do well to acknowledge the earliest flagship parks’ role in dispossessing Native Americans and poor rural populations of their customary resource access to that lands elites with access to circles of power wished to fence off as they redefined “wilderness” as a place without people.
Public education, museums, and parks alike could also make use of the concept of work as a way of knowing and shaping the environment in their interpretation in ways that transcend the current false dichotomies both sides of environmental politics construct between environmental protection and jobs and between work and play in wild places. Other topics that merit further consideration include the historical role of hunting in ecological management, people’s historical relationship to predators, and the interrelation of local, regional, and global spatial scales through the lens of environmental relationships, production, and consumption.
Public historians consider community empowerment one of their primary goals. Bringing the findings of environmental history into the public sphere by engaging more directly with environmental justice issues on the ground as advisors, expert witnesses, and through institutional-community partnerships would prove a valuable service to that end.
Public historians possess a unique opportunity to reduce the stigma currently plaguing the term “environment” in the public sphere. The various avenues hastily compiled above represent only a fraction of the possible inroads public historians can make to transform the current polemical debate surrounding the environment into something more useful and empowering.