By Laura Watson
While current attitudes in the USA towards environmental policy are not entirely positive, it has not always been this way. Indeed, in the past, environmental issues and responses have been centralised and significant. While the term ‘environmental policy’ only dates back to the 1960s, there had been policies in the USA on the protection of the natural environment for many years before this.
Protection of public lands
Up until the late 19th century, public lands could be used for private economic purposes, but with the establishment of the first National Park, Yellowstone, in 1872 (and many others following), these lands began to be protected by the government. The National Parks Service was later created in 1916 to federally oversee all parks. Today there are over 400 acres protected by the US National Parks system.
This system of conservation has been strongly critiqued in decolonial and political ecological circles, as it failed to acknowledge the prior rights of indigenous inhabitants to these lands, and assumed that they were 'naturally empty wildernesses' rather than empty due to the intentional expulsion of their original inhabitants by the forces of the colonising state. Furthermore, they have been critiqued on purely conservationist grounds as largely ineffective for actually preserving the 'nature' they sought to protect.
A move towards national regulatory frameworks
For many years, the United States took a highly localised approach to environmental issues, with active moves against centralised regulation—reflecting the country's ardently federal political structure. For example, in 1960 President Eisenhower vetoed federal water treatment funding.
This all changed in 1970, with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which amalgamated a huge range of diverse pollution reduction programmes. Subsequently, many new environmental laws were enacted, regulating a range of environmental issues such as air and water pollution. Over time, the role of the EPA was expanded, allowing for the regulation of additional pollutants, more stringent regulation of already regulated pollutants, and the regulation of smaller scale issues.
In addition to its regulatory mandate, the EPA recognised the value of market-oriented incentives to implement regulations more efficiently and increase the number of people and businesses following them. For example, in 1990 a cap and trade scheme was implemented as an amendment to the Clean Air Act, to reduce sulphur and nitrogen emissions from power plants, to deal with the proble of acid rain. These market-oriented incentives can only be applied with the approval of Congress, though, which in more recent times has become increasingly hard to obtain due to the politicisation of environmental protection, and the increasingly polarised nature of American politics.
A Specific Example: The American Dustbowl
The dustbowl was a period in the 1930s, during which the Southern Plains region of the USA experienced terrible dust storms, associated with a dry period. Like many environmental issues, the dustbowl was caused by a combination of natural factors (drought) as well as agricultural (excessive tillage), political (land policy), and economic ones (the Great Depression).
In response to the disaster, Congress intervened, establishing the Soil Erosion Service and the Prairie States Forestry Project in 1935. These centralised schemes worked with farmers in affected areas to implement soil conservation practices such as reduced tillage and tree-planting, to reduce the susceptibility of these areas to the large-scale wind-driven erosion that had caused the catastrophic dust storms. Unfortunately, the efficacy of the land management practices introduced during this period have been debated among the academic community, as many of them were abandoned at the end of the drought. Others believe that natural changes which occurred at the same time as the end of the crisis were at least equally responsible for ending the disaster.
With the election of President Biden, it remains to be seen whether the rolling back of environmental regulation across the United States under President Trump will be reversed, and whether the new President will build on the long history of environmental protection in the United States outlined in this post during his term in office.
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