Rothman (Devil’s Bargains, not reviewed) examines the factors that have influenced Americans’ perceptions of their natural
world over the last 100 years and explains how those factors have shaped and reshaped our national environmental consciousness.
During the 20th century, Rothman argues, there grew an American sensibility that moved beyond the rhapsodizings and
pleadings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Marsh to an active and protective embrace of nature, sometimes communally, if more often
for individual motives. He charts that shift in outlook starting with the turn-of-the-century revulsion from the inequities wrought
by industrialization: the skewed distribution of wealth and, particularly, the plunder of resources. Such disgust paved the way for
Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressivism and Gifford Pinchot’s call to conservation. But this was a politics of bounty, contends
Rothman, and when the economy faltered, we were happy to pillage nature anew to get things back on track: Witness Teapot
Dome and the damming of the Colorado. In FDR’s environmental ministerings—including the WPA and CCC as well as the
TVA—Rothman sees the eastern elitist approach, which, buttressed again by a boom economy, held sway into the coming decades.
While he nods in passing to the zeitgeist, he too often ascribes the sparks that lit the countercultural environmental movement
to prosperity and entitlement (call it "full-stomach environmentalism") and gives short shrift to ethical dimensions, ignoring the
influential likes of Barry Commoner and Murray Bookchin. Better is his detailing of the effects of earlier defining
moments—Echo Park Dam, Silent Spring—and the later local and grassroots efforts of such groups as the Love Canal
Homeowners Association to establish a balanced approach to economic development and preservation and manifest a sense of
decency and responsibility.
A thoughtful tracking of the American environmental sympathies during this century that suffers only from its urge to grant
the economy an imperious, overarching role.