In today’s world, you cannot go a day without being informed of some new environmental disaster or concern, or without hearing about a new sustainability effort. While the reality of climate change is founded in science, its legitimacy and urgency, as well as thoughts on how to protect the environment in the face of that threat, have become hot-button topics in American society.
Why has the validity of an easily observed and largely devastating phenomenon become such an issue of contention for millions of people? Why has a scientific consensus become the subject of political polarization in the United States? To answer those questions, we must take a long look at environmental policy throughout US history—going all the way back to the Industrial Revolution and tracing legislature up to now—and examine the intricate dynamics between economy and industry, special interests, and environmental policies.
The Industrial Revolution marked the birth of a truly national economy. Factories, assembly lines, and mass production became facts of life. Goods were being produced in half the time for a fraction of the cost, and profits could not be better. This period is the foundation of the national economy we know today.
With the rise of industry and factories came big corporations and companies, whose CEOs, like the Rockefellers, controlled the national economy. When the economy was doing well, companies were making massive profits. As a result, these businessmen were highly interested in maintaining those gains, even if it meant taking shortcuts to do so. Such shortcuts included manipulating workers into low-wage jobs and releasing harmful waste into the environment.
For the people, the rise of industry meant a rise in available jobs. This resulted in mass urbanization and migration to metropolitan areas. But with so many people in a concentrated space, the issues of sanitation and public health moved to the foreground. Diseases like cholera would spread via contaminated drinking water. In fact, during the Industrial Revolution, an estimated 150 thousand people died due to cholera. However, public health and environmental contamination were yet to be connected, and thus the issue went unaddressed until the early twentieth century.
Unfortunately, the government had its hands tied. During this time, government intervention in the economy was disapproved of, as it bore too much of a resemblance to the relatively recent British control of the colonies. In addition, existing policies gave political preference and rights to individuals who had economic power. As a result, those who worked for wages in a factory suffered restrictions and limitations on their political rights, particularly their right to vote.
Due to the combined factors of the special interests of rising companies and the economic success of new industry, no environmental policies were created.
During this post-Industrial Revolution era, industry continued to grow. The railroads constructed in the late 1800s allowed for raw resource transportation across the country, streamlining the production time frame. However, this form of industry still necessitated poor working conditions, low wages, and pollution.
Unfortunately, special interests still played an important role in how people thought of the environment. When production is high and products are cheap, then not only do companies benefit from the profit, but consumers also benefit from the low cost of goods. Essentially, everyone benefits at the expense of the environment.
The turn of the century brought an increased awareness to the general populous of the harmful effects of industry. Upton Sinclair, with his book The Jungle, and other muckrakers brought attention to the negative impacts of urbanization and industrialization.
As a result of the spotlight put on production, the government was forced to enforce basic laws that protect workers, ensure safety, and maintain public health. In 1900, the first studies of air quality were conducted, and 1902 saw the first water quality standard in the United States, a landmark piece of litigation that provided a base from which future environmental political agendas would grow.
As time went on, science progressed, and environmental concerns surrounding drinking water and air pollution were examined further. While the methods were rudimentary, they did create some factual basis for people to understand the negative effects of industrial production.
Self-interest, however, still exerted a large influence. Instead of big money or companies controlling the political world with economic power, the general public’s awareness of and opposition to pollution trends were growing. With increased attention given to the environmental effects of mass production, thanks to journalism and other public information, public opinion began to sway in favor of increased government control.
This change meant that political agendas had to include consideration of the environment and the federal government’s involvement in state affairs. The problem was that the “Not In My Backyard” syndrome was very real; states were reluctant to shoulder the difficulty of new waste management per some new regulation, and individuals only wanted environmental policy to the extent that it did not impact their comfortable lifestyle.
The Eisenhower administration of the 1950s finally came forward to address environmental concerns, specifically regarding air pollution, but ultimately stated it was a local, not a national, problem. The issue that the government faced was that air was such an ambiguous entity, and with the methods possible at the time, it was too difficult to quantify air pollution. Instead, the government renewed focus on water and water quality testing, coming out with the first federal Clean Water Act in 1948.
As time went on, industry continued to boom. As a result of advancements in technology, manufacturing evolved to become faster and more efficient. The standard of living and life expectancy rose. By all objective measures, the United States was quite prosperous economically.
In spite of those developments, there were several concerns raised by the public. Air pollution and toxic waste management had become hot-button topics as research conducted worldwide presented results consistent with climate change and environmental damage. From there, environmental groups had cropped up, creating a new pocket of special interest lobbying in Congress.
Those groups directly opposed the special interests of corporations, causing a political divide in the government. To appease environmental advocacy organizations and pressure from the public, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970, and from that agency, a collection of policies was implemented over the next twenty or so years. Even then, the self-interest of companies continued to exert a major influence in government, with oil companies, steel manufacturers, and other industrialists looking for specific language in legislature that would provide them with some economic benefits.
To be clear about the progress made during this time in terms of policy, in spite of opposing political agendas, I have provided a list of some of the most important pieces of legislation:
1970 Clean Air Act
1974 Safe Drinking Water Act
1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
1976 Toxic Substances Control Act
1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
1990 Oil Pollution Act
1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Implementation Act.
We are now living in an interesting time as a society. Industry continues to be prosperous, but the national focus is not on manufacturing and factory production anymore, having shifted towards the service sector in recent history. Special interests continue to play a major role in Congress, with groups representing every opinion and position possible lobbying for specific legislation and policies. The government itself is also sharply divided along party lines, regardless of environmental policy.
The issue still remains for businesses: environmental policy limits methods of production by increasing costs, in turn leading to an increase in the prices of goods. As it is financially optimal for people to buy and for companies to produce non-environmentally friendly goods, the inclination for many is to simply respond to issues as they arise rather than be proactive. Many groups advocating for more active environmental policy argue that the mentality of treating problems as they come is unsustainable, and that preventative measures must be implemented in order to ensure the preservation of the environment for future generations.
The twenty-first century has also brought a sense of global significance to environmental policy and conservation. Instead of each country focusing on its own attempts, nations have now come together to take collective action and measures against the trend of global warming and climate change. Those efforts have resulted in treaties like the Paris Agreement in 2016, which, while not a complete solution, furthered the world’s progress in environmental protection.
The factors contributing to public health and environmental crises have also been more frequently addressed at their root. Urbanization, for example, led to higher rates of poverty and cramped living spaces in cities. Those closed quarters and general poor hygiene of the time acted as incubators of disease, since human-to-human diseases could easily be transmitted with such large populations living in such concentrated areas. But improved technology in terms of hygiene practices as well as clean water developments greatly reduced the effect of those environmental toxins. Changes and developments in available technology also gradually eliminate the need for harmful substances like coal and gasoline, substituted by renewable sources of energy like solar and electric power, thus minimizing carbon footprints.
Needless to say, it is too early to determine which policies have been more effective in such a short time. But it is interesting to see the development of our nation’s attitude towards environmental policy follow the evolution of industry, self interest, and our understanding of the environment over years of economic development and population growth. The shifts in political agendas from focusing on laissez-faire politics to involvement on a global scale for the betterment of people worldwide have generated widespread favor for environmental protection and sustainability. However, we are reaching a crucial point where economic practices and reactive environmental policies may not be enough to 1) undo the damage done by industry and 2) protect the environment for future generations. But how can we quantify the number of changes and laws needed to undo the damage we’ve done? What is the vague “enough” necessary to preserve our environment?
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