Why focus on Environmental Protection? Almost any policy issue could serve to illustrate the significant themes, but environmental protection places them in particularly bold relief. It involves an extremely broad range of scientific information, including most of the physical, biological, and social sciences. The questions of risk and uncertainty that it presents are especially subtle. Furthermore, the environment provides an excellent example of what happens when these problems merge with other profound philosophical and political dilemmas.
Our relationship with the environment raises fundamental issues about who we are and what we care about. It challenges a basic belief of industrial society; namely, that mastery of nature is mankind’s greatest project. It may force a choice between health and beauty on the one hand and prosperity on the other. It requires us to consider our relationships not only to fellow humans but to plants and animals as well.
First of all, an agency like EPA has substantial power, because of its expertise and its formal authority. Even when disputing its findings, all parties to a controversy often find themselves focusing on the information and analysis that EPA provides. The Environmental Protection Agency is unique among environmental regulatory agencies in that it deals with both public health and resource management issues. Its comprehensive authority is reflected in its position in the Executive Branch. It is the only regulatory agency whose administrator reports directly to the President. No single agency, however, can be understood in isolation. It is constantly influencing, and being influenced by, the courts, interest groups, the Congress, and other parts of Executive Branch.
Our story really begins with the great movement to the suburbs after World WarII. Hoards of upwardly mobile white-collar workers left crowded cities for localities with clean air, gardens, and grass. However, the reality of suburban life – smog, traffic jams and strip development – too often left this rural fantasy unrealized. At the same time some rural folk watched with dismay as their small towns became urbanized. The population was becoming younger; more secure financially, and better educated. Between 1950 and 1974 the percentage of adults with some college education rose from 13.4 to 25.2%. This was coupled with a streak of unprecedented prosperity. Prosperity, leisure, mobility, and greater understanding of physical and biological science combined to create a new awareness of, and interest in, the natural world.
The translation of widespread but unfocused public concern into specific policies and programs was shaped by the political institutions of the time. The characteristics of these institutions decisively affected the form and the content of the public debate about environmental questions, and the results that were obtained. The changes that occurred in political parties, in the media, and in the environmental community were of particular importance.
Political Parties: Democrats confronted a decline in union membership and in the number of small farmers and a decrease in party loyalty among traditionally Democratic groups. Republicans were suffering from the continued depopulation of the smaller cities and town and rural areas. Each party saw its salvation in the suburbs. There resided the young, well-educated voters who were to become the foundation of environmentalism.
Rural democrats deeply appreciated the public works projects that had brought electricity to their homes, paved roads to their doorstep, and saved heir land from the dual ravages of flood and drought. They were upset at the new criticism of such projects, as were the construction unions whose members built these same dams and roads. Republicans too were torn. Environmentalism risked antagonizing their traditional friends in the business community. Fiscal conservatives and opponents of government intrusion were also upset by demands for increased public and private spending on pollution control. Leaders in both parties sought to frame environmental programs to avoid these divisions. The resulting incoherence in the design of environmental programs was therefore due in part to the ambivalent motivations that produced them.
Media: The second important development was the growing role of television news. Potentially very profitable, the news is substantially cheaper to produce than entertainment programs, and widely viewed. Local competition is especially intense because the local news is often the first show viewers watch each evening. This gives stations an opportunity to capture viewers for the entire evening. It has become industry gospel that a good news segment must