Logo IMG


Political Landscape

Stephen Pyne

Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy. Richard N. L. Andrews. 463 pp. Yale University Press, 1999. $30 (paper).

Thirty years ago environmental history began to probe into fields being abandoned by the recession of academic geography. A little more than 20 years ago it acquired journals and memberships and claimed particular themes. Among the most provocative were the appeal to nature as an expression of American exceptionalism, the vision of nature as an active agent and a transcendent presence and hence not completely controllable by human beings, and the sense that nearly all encounters between people and nature were stories of the Garden and the Fall. Often environmental history seemed more genre than subject. The ironic voice, the narrative of decline, the unbridgeable contrast between a pristine nature and humanly built landscapes—these were the field's prime habitats. Issues of policy appeared, if at all, like so many pebbles in the streambed of the larger narrative.

Richard N. L. Andrews inverts that genre. In his hands, politics—and its intellectualized texts, policies—define the landscape of American environmental history. This is a book about governance, about how environmental concerns must play out in the larger context of American politics, law and institutions of social control. America's environmental exceptionalism resides in its Constitution, not its rivers and woods. Ideas about private property, federalism and the relationship among various branches of government define how the American environment looks today, not meditations on Walden Pond, the cultural identification of people with place or even scientific revelations about the natural world. Most fundamentally, the American environment depends on how citizens perceive government, whether it is something whose power they feel they must oppose or whether they believe that its power can advance positive common goods. Andrews argues for the latter, and hence for the value of policy as the point at which the many competing forces must converge. To this vision he brings a strong historical sense—that these issues and institutions have histories that are themselves part of the milieu.

All these are themes that environmental studies, perhaps especially environmental history, needs to hear. The strengths of the book are precisely its commitment to questions of governance, its anchoring in the Constitution, its comprehensiveness and its hard-nosed refusal to let a misty assumption of progress replace the pendulum model that the author insists better characterizes American political history. It includes topics such as transportation policy, trade and tariffs, farm subsidies, political redistricting, and public health that both more traditional and more trendy studies often neglect. Its recurring emphasis on the environment as a common good deserves the repetition it receives. A chapter on the globalization of environmental policy is particularly noteworthy.

Yet its managerial vision extends equally to how one should view (and write) history. This is managed history, reduced to a flow of policy papers; engineered history, written as one might design a sewage plant or construct a bridge; technocratic history, imposing order and reason where another observer might find messiness and chance; a governed history. This is history with the juice squeezed out of it: a pulp with scant plot, few characters, little thematic zest, no compelling narrative. Weirdly, it is an environmental history without much environment. It is history without story, history organized as a mid-level manager might sort out a tangle of misdirected shipping orders. The story becomes itself a victim of the "paralysis by analysis" that the author laments. Lists are nested within lists. One searches in vain for a quotable phrase.

The book's thematic centerpiece is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The author dissects well that agency's impossible charge and its struggle—successful, if limited—to achieve something tangible from the muddle and hype. In fact, that undertaking is not a bad metaphor for the book itself, whose prose sometimes reads like an EPA directive and whose weighty presence may serve as a kind of EPA of environmental studies, a text forced like that agency to generalize the particular, to consolidate the contradictory, to institutionalize the indeterminate and to rationalize the politically whimsical. Both book and EPA are doomed to fail their full potential; both will annoy and exasperate everyone in places; but few will be willing (or able) to dismiss either.

The author concludes that "what is missing from American environmental policy today is a coherent vision of the common environmental good that is sufficiently compelling to generate sustained public support for government action to achieve it." He believes that such visions have emerged in the past. So they have; and so they have all passed away. One might thus ask whether there is any "vision" in American civilization that has endured as a permanent political goal? Isn't the record one of problems identified, juggled politically, then discarded? Isn't the tendency to substitute process—rules of law, administrative procedures, methodologies, risk analysis—in place of ideals, content and policy? If so, then an American environmental agenda based on substantive, consensual ends such as Richard Andrews wishes to see is quixotic, and a book founded on such a chimera will inevitably share its flaws. What remains instead is process. What shines forth is the act of writing this book, of compelling environmental studies to deal with policy and of forcing policy wonks to contemplate history. If the text falls short of its stated ideal, so have NEPA, the Clean Air Act, and the National Wilderness Preservation System. Yet like them it remains no mean achievement.—Stephen J. Pyne, Biology & Society Program, Arizona State University

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: An Ethical Evolution

Book Review: Names, Simplified

Book Review: Of a Feather

Subscribe to American Scientist