A wide-ranging history of the American environmental movement.
Allitt (American History/Emory Univ.; The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History, 2009, etc.) offers a readable account that will provoke and displease many environmentalists. Few of the issues facing the nation—from overpopulation in the 1950s to air and water pollution in the ’60s to genetically modified foods in the ’90s to climate change today—warranted the accompanying moods of crisis, which were “usually disproportionate to the actual danger involved.” Most problems were manageable, but they were exaggerated due to media sensationalism, environmental scientists seeking recognition, the needs of a growing environmental establishment and the beneficial effects of crises on environmental groups’ memberships. “When the nation mobilized the political will it was effective in providing remedies,” writes Allitt, celebrating actions on pesticides, toxic dumps, endangered species and other issues. However, he overlooks the fact that to mobilize political will, environmental groups had to fight for attention, waging information campaigns and sounding alarms, often in the face of strong, well-financed opposition, so that the public would eventually demand legislative action. Allitt’s things-will-take-care-of-themselves view, based on sympathy with counterenvironmentalists’ ideas, informs his book. He covers major individuals and controversies over six decades, showing how Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson created constituencies for mainstream environmentalism—a mass movement by 1970—and Edward Abbey inspired activists. Highly politicized issues pitted critics, who viewed green advocates as selfish elitists, against environmentalists who saw opponents as cynical and greedy. Allitt notes Congress passed 28 major environmental laws in the decade before 1980, when President Ronald Reagan began dismantling many regulations and sparked a conservative counterenvironmentalism. Allitt dismisses the “false” claims of impending catastrophe associated with climate change, which he deems “another real but manageable problem.”
An optimistic book that downplays the clamorous work of environmental groups and attributes progress to the institutions of democracy and capitalism.