Reviewed by Libby Robin (Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, Canberra)
Published on H-Environment (April, 2001)
Taking History on Trust
TAKING HISTORY ON TRUST
I should begin by declaring that I am a great enthusiast about Samuel P. Hays' writing. I have read over and over again his seminal books Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920 (1959, and recently reissued) and (with Barbara D. Hays) Beauty, Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (1987). These are two of the most important historical works that have helped to undermine the myth that the environmental movement began with the greens. A world dominated demographically by baby-boomers has needed reminding about the earlier 'progressive conservation movement'--especially the foresters and water engineers, who in recent years have often found themselves on the 'wrong side' of environmental debate. The concerns of the 'quality of life' years from 1955-1985--beauty, health and 'ecological stability'--also have roots in earlier eras, as Hays has shown.
I was excited to discover the publication of A History of Environmental Politics since 1945, and volunteered to undertake this review, as the title promised two things not previously offered by Hays: global scope and a coverage of issues since 1985. The book disappoints on both these fronts. Just as your internet address mentions your country only if it is NOT the United States (I come from .au), the assumption is that I, the reader, am American. For example: 'Increasing awareness of the wider environment in which Americans live has led to much interest on the part of both citizens and scientists in describing that environment' (p. 5). This is not a good scale, either for environmental history or for environmental politics. In the last thirty years, environmental issues have become increasingly more global and more bioregionally sensitive than a solely national framework can capture.
I have no objection to closely focused empirical work based in the United States, but the idea of generalizing from Arizona to Washington State to Indiana to New York seems, in my very limited experience of those environments, fraught with difficulty to say the least. Equally, to assume the 'American experience' (whatever that is!) is the global experience is breathtakingly nave. Americans have a very important influence on world environmental decision-making, as George W. Bush's recent Kyoto back-flip underscores, and this makes it even more important that their 'environmental experience' is contextualized with good empirical studies of the rest of the world. A book like this should reveal some understanding of the United States as a settler society, working out its relations with its first peoples about land and environment. These are the issues that South Africans, Australians, Canadians and other English-speaking nations are also concerned about. (It is notable that in Hays' brief list of 'further reading', Tom Dunlap's earlier books on DDT and Wildlife are both mentioned, but not his recent comparative venture: Nature and the English Diaspora (1999). Indeed the only non-American book that appears in the whole list is Sharon Beder's Global Spin, which is a decidedly activist book about global anti-environmentalism in the corporate sector.)
The book disappoints in other ways too. Hays' great strength in Gospel and Beauty is his magisterial mastery of historical case studies, studies that logically underpin and frame his analysis. This book lacks the detail of historical stories, and the bland conclusions and summaries do not work without their weight. Without the stories, we are left with opinion and surmise, and we are forced to take the author on trust. Even Samuel P. Hays, whom I know to be a very trustworthy source, cannot get away with a style that so deeply implicates himself in the environmental movement--he is with the good guys all the way. And his opinions themselves sound historic--they are not in tune with events since Rio, with indigenous challenges to the environment movement or with any of the recent critiques of wilderness. The idea of 'ecological stability' so important to 1950s and 1960s environmental issues, has been savaged by ecologists in post-Clementsian, post-climax theories, yet it appears again here 'pat', because it works in service of a certain sort of environmental politics.
For someone like myself who often has to battle to get students interested in history before Rio, this book is very disappointing. It is exactly the 'celebration of halcyon days' that has dogged much environmental writing (usually by people celebrating their activist years in the 1970s or 1980s). I have often used Gospel and Beauty to broaden the horizons of the many people who have told me that they 'invented conservation'. But for the university students of the generations not even born when the Franklin was saved (1983, Tasmania) or Reagan wreaked havoc, this is not a book I can suggest as a way into environmental history. Its politics determine the evidence, and the politics has dated. I'll be recommending they stick with Gospel and Beauty.
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Libby Robin. Review of Hays, Samuel P., A History of Environmental Politics Since 1945.
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