By Connie Kwong
On April 17, 2015, State Columnist Connie Kwong sat down with Louis Warren to discuss the history of the environmental movement in honor of Earth Day. Warren is the W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History at UC Davis, and he teaches courses on environmental history, the history of the American West, Native American history, and California history.
CK: Most people think that history is just memorizing a ton of dates and events. But it’s more than that. What drew you to environmental history?
LW: I think that studying the ways that the connections between people and nature change over time is one of the most fascinating things.
CK: Why do you think this is especially relevant to American history?
LW: I think American history is, at its core, the story of the changing of nature in the settling or unsetting of the continent. We talk about American expansion, and what we mean is people moving across the space and the land, changing it as they went in radical and profound ways. Americans claim a special relationship to nature. For instance, in the national parks are places that Americans claim special places as theirs, as representative of the nation and their identity. Those places are also associated with traditional ideas of nature.
CK: How do you see those ideals changing in response to urbanization?
LW: I think we’re becoming more urban all the time. And paradoxically, as we become more urban, nature becomes more important to us. Because people generally see cities as outside of nature, they think of nature as the opposite of where they live and what they are.
CK: This year marks the 45th Earth Day. The first Earth Day was in 1970. Can you talk a bit about the historical and political significance of the first Earth Day?
LW: It was the largest demonstration in American history and probably involved 20 million Americans in maybe 12,000 or 13,000 separate gatherings, teach-ins, demonstrations, and other types of events. It was a profoundly unifying moment in a time of great social fracture coming at the end of the 1960s, when there had been so much division over the Vietnam War, over civil rights, and other issues. Earth Day was an event that many people from many different walks of life – college students, middle-class housewives, and professionals – seemed to get behind and organize for. Earth Day is where the environmental movement gets a name. Before Earth Day, there were separate organizations and movements that did a lot of different things that were related to the environment like stopping pollution in a town, cleaning a river, creating a park in a city. Earth Day inspired people to begin to think about an environmental movement that encompassed all those things.
CK: Do you still see that same spirit encompassed in environmentalism today? We’re often given stereotypes of the barefoot, tree-hugging hippie when we think of environmentalism, and that seems to turn people off from the movement.
LW: Well, it’s like this. “Feminism,” for example, in many places in American society, is a bad word. Even among many young women in college who hope to become corporate executives or scientists, there is a reluctance to associate oneself with feminists. There’s a sense that feminism has become stigmatized. Environmentalism has been the victim of some of the same forces. In the polarization of American politics, feminism and environmentalism are depicted as some sort of exclusive domain of the political left. In reality, I think that culture has changed so much because of feminism and environmentalism that most people think in terms of those movements even when they’re not aware. Now, nobody agrees with everything that people say a movement supports. You might say you support clean air and clean water, and you’re an environmentalist insofar as you want to preserve national parks. Environmentalists also include people in the animal rights movement. And there are many environmentalists who don’t agree with people in the animal rights movement.
But many of the ideas of the environmental movement have become second nature in American culture. For instance, air pollution is a bad thing and we don’t really argue about that anymore. We know that certain pesticides are bad for people and environmental systems. We don’t use leaded gasoline anymore. Littering is considered, at best, rude, and in the past, that’s just what people did to get things out of their pockets and out of their cars. We act in a lot of ways that we didn’t always act because of the environmental movement. I think the values of society have changed because of environmentalism. Environmentalism is such a broad label that it can include all these different groups. One might even wonder if it’s all coherent as a movement anymore because it’s so broad. I do think movements need to be broad in order to work, but there’s always a tension between encompassing a wide set of interests to retain momentum as a movement and include more members and the need to be focused.
CK: So it’s not so much about the movement being monolithic.
LW: Successful movements, I think, are not monolithic.
CK: Despite a pluralistic approach, I think one of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed right now isn’t just environmental progress, but also environmental justice. For example, hydraulic fracking is hurting a lot of poor communities in Pennsylvania. And then we also see the prevalence of heart and lung disease in Richmond, California because of its proximity to the Chevron refinery. These are both cases where “dirty industries” are hurting disadvantaged groups.
LW: Definitely. I think in some ways, the environmental justice movement began as a challenge to the environmental movement. In the early days, the environmental movement was dedicated to the interests of elites or at least people who are comfortably middle-class. Poorer, working class people have been left behind and forced to suffer the consequences of development at the expense of health and wellbeing.
For instance, we have the Love Canal case, one of the early toxic contamination fights, where an entire community suffered because of the dumping of toxic waste by a chemical company. The victims were overwhelmingly working class people.
In the case that you just mentioned, the population of the city of Richmond is historically mostly African-American. The fact that the Chevron refinery is situated right next to the community is an example of what many people call environmental injustice, where certain people are forced to take on a disproportionate burden of the material waste and pollution generated by all these good things we have in American life.
I think that the environmental movement can draw a lot of energy from environmental justice. It is one of the most vigorous and inspired movements. And of late, I would say, its successes have been considerable. In the case of Richmond, forcing negotiations and discussions about what Chevron should do for the community is a good thing. At its core, it is a movement for social justice. These things are linked and will be ever more linked going forward.
CK: Carly Fiorina, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, recently argued that California’s drought problems are largely man-made and blamed environmentalists for worsening the problem. Here’s a quote: “That’s the tragedy of California, because of liberal environmentalists’ insistence — despite the fact that California has suffered from droughts for millennia, liberal environmentalists have prevented the building of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades during a period in which California’s population has doubled.” Do you see any similarities between Fiorina’s comments and the views of prominent climate change deniers like Fred Seitz, Will Nierenberg, and Fred Singer in how they viewed environmentalists and demonized the movement?
LW: It’s very interesting that we live in an age when I think most voters would say that they don’t believe in “rain magic.” That is, most voters believe that there is no one who could make it rain. But yes, it’s a simple case of the polarizing politics of our moment. That environmentalists can be blamed for drought is a sign of how bankrupt certain parts of the political discussion really are.
CK: Do you think what Fiorina said about building infrastructure projects like reservoirs is a valid point to consider though, or is this just sound bite politics? This seems to go back to the tensions between utilitarian conservation and preservation that characterized much of the American environmental movement in the late 19th and early 20th century.
LW: There are some things that would definitely be a good idea to build, and there may need to be new water infrastructure. But the blanket assertion that because we’re in a drought we need more infrastructure could lead to a wave of dam-building that would be ridiculous on its face. Many of the dams that were built in the 1950s and 1960s are in trouble because there isn’t enough water to fill them. Those dams occupied most of the viable sites for dams, and there really aren’t many sites for small dams left.
While it’s convenient to pick a political target and blame people for this or that, the realities are that we don’t have that many options when it comes to building new reservoirs most of the time.
Now, I’m not saying that absolutely no new infrastructure will ever be necessary in the future, but we need to be careful of these things. There is no simple fix for climate change and long-term drought. And to say that building dams and infrastructure will solve the problem and that “these people” are in our way is just being simplistic and, it’s just playing the bitter, polarizing politics that sadly characterizes so much of our era.
CK: In this time of political gridlock, there are many reasons that Americans are upset with our government. I think environmentalism is something that a good number of people care about. For instance, if you ask people if they’re concerned about global warming, a good number of them will say yes. But it’s not the same as income inequality, which is a much more personal issue for most people. Still, we can look back at the 1960s and see how there was strong bipartisan support for environmentally progressive legislation. Do you think if Congress did pass more environmentally progressive legislation, it could renew people’s trust in the government? Or is environmentalism not personal enough of an issue to most people?
LW: I can’t say what will restore trust in government again. (Laughs) But I think that as people have to deal with things like droughts and wildfires getting worse, we have to recognize that these are consequences of climate change. Those are things that will hit them in the pocketbook. Because of this drought, water is going to get a lot more expensive.
It’s impossible to say what people will do. But a movement that develops to actually make for outcomes that are less expensive and more economically sustainable, and create a realistically shared burden–I think whatever movement could do that would gain a lot of supporters.
CK: California has historically been a trailblazer in environmentally progressive politics. Can you give some examples?
LW: Los Angeles has been the hearth of auto emissions regulations starting as early as the 1940s. California was actually the first state to ban an entire industry when the state banned hydraulic mining in the 1880s because of its environmental impact. Can you think of some other ones?
CK: I remember learning in American Environmental History that California played an influential role in passing key amendments to the Clean Air Act because of its car culture.
LW: The regulation of auto emissions nationwide in the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965 is something that California played a big role in because California passed auto emissions regulations first. This motivated the auto industry to get behind a national standard, in order to avoid having 50 different states passing their own standards with different targets. California has absolutely been a bellwether in environmental regulations. And because it’s the biggest state, California will continue to have that impact.
LW: It’s ambitious, but it looks like so far, the state is on track to hit that target. That’s already helped reduce the price of solar panels nationally, but also in creating a momentum in a direction that leads other states to set targets in order not to miss out on the benefits of economic change that that kind of mandate can create.
CK: Students in your American Environmental History class are assigned to read the book, Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. This book tells the story of how the climate change denial movement emerged in the 1980s. What is the biggest takeaway point you hope students get from reading it, as well as anyone who reads it?
LW: Many people are disturbed and disillusioned by the success of a movement that denies scientific facts. And a big point of that book is that that movement has not succeeded. It succeeded for a time, but over time, they will lose. As worsening environmental conditions continue to reflect the reality that scientists are telling us is there, that will become apparent. No amount of well-funded denial will stop the revealing of scientific truth. The book itself stands as evidence of something very powerful going on even now in American society, where there is a confrontation, a dispute, and continuing revelations of scientific truths that outweigh the denial of those truths. That’s a powerful sign of a civil society that’s still working, where scientists can publish results, where historians can interpret those results for a broader audience and put the science in a context to allow the public to see what’s going on in these fights between scientists and deniers. I think optimism is absolutely essential to this movement.
CK: To wrap things up, what is something unique that American culture can offer to the environmental movement going forward?
LW: I think environmentalism is a movement about making a better future, and Americans are obsessed with the future. At least, we always have been thinking about the future. I think that relentless pursuit of the future is something that blends well with environmentalism and gives it momentum, gives it energy, gives it spirit. I also think that the United States has great democratic traditions. Environmentalism needs democracy to function, so that insofar as we can protect our democracy, we can ensure a better future for environmentalism.