Today’s guest post comes from Jeff Filipiak. He is a Senior Lecturer in U.S. History at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley (LinkedIn profile here). His work on environmentalist ideas includes “‘The Work of Local Culture’: Wendell Berry on the Production of Agricultural Knowledge,” Agricultural History 85:2 (Spring 2011) and “‘I’ve Seen It Raining Fire in the Sky’: John Denver’s Popular Songs and Environmentalist Memory,” in Dragoslav Momcilovic, ed., Resounding Pasts: Essays on Literature, Popular Music, and Cultural Memory.
I found Age of Fracture by Daniel Rodgers to be a fascinating read, and I have a feeling I will be spending more time in the future trying to absorb the implications of its arguments. In this post, I want to explore the implications of his thesis for two related areas which he says little on – the environmental movement, and ideas about the environment. Thinkers working on those topics typically promote the idea that humans need to see themselves as *more* grounded in connections and context, not less so. So, in what ways has thought about the interactions between humans and the environment been shaped by the overall trend toward fracture? And how might analyzing those areas help us look at the larger significance of fracture?
In part, the difficulty with discussing thought about the environment is that it does not fit neatly only into the realm of “social and intellectual debate” which Rodgers chose to focus on. Instead, two kinds of knowledge are discussed – both knowledge of human society and knowledge of nonhuman nature (as well as the complicated overlaps between those types). I will focus on the first kind of knowledge, although I think the second kind needs to be analyzed as well: I am not confident about assessing the overall trends in the second area, particularly scientific ideas. I wanted a place to begin a discussion of this, so what follows are provisional reflections, particularly since the history of environmentalist thought during this period is only now being written. 
Does thought about the environment reflect a trend where “conceptions of human nature that… had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire?” [Rodgers, page 3] To discuss that, we need to consider the ideas of environmentalists, the reception which those ideas received, and the terms of debates over uses of nature. (Note: I want to define the movement inclusively, including all involved in one or more of the movement’s key issues.)
First off, this is an area where one group has kept emphasizing connections and contexts, from the 1970s through the present. Environmentalist thought fractured in certain ways, but thinkers remained concerned about drawing connections between individuals and broader contexts. Environmentalists analyzed how actions taken in one place flow across boundaries to affect people in other places; how decisions certain humans make about how to use the environment have an impact on other humans; how consumers in the marketplace had a connection to how their goods were produced and disposed of; and how impacts flowed across species lines, and so ethics should, too. Barry Commoner’s suggestion that “Everything Is Connected to Everything Else” was a key principle for the movement during the 1970s, and has remained an inspiration for it.
But looking at the Republican response to environmentalism nicely represents Rodgers’ argument. Conservation had once been a bipartisan concern, but during the 1970s Republicans grew much less interested in discussing those ideas. The right tended not to discuss the concerns of environmentalists, but rather to present a series of ways in which conservatives worried that environmentalism limited the free market. Arguments about property rights, and criticisms of regulation and big government, became the right’s primary (although not only) perspective on the environment from the Reagan administration onward. The lack of success environmentalists had in passing legislation after 1980 was a consequence both of the partisan divide on the issue, as well as the lack of common ground on which to discuss issues; conservatives were able to reshape the agenda, and how issues were perceived. (I am less sure what to say about the frequent lack of support for environmentalist goals by Democratic leadership.)
The time frame for environmentalist thought fits uneasily with the time frame of change Rodgers identifies. Environmentalists promoted ideas of connectedness, with an increasing degree of success, from Silent Spring in 1963 through at least the early 1970s, and continued intense attention throughout the 1970s. Many key documents of environmentalist creativity – such as Christopher Stone’s Should Trees have Standing, Arne Naess on deep ecology, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, Amory Lovins’ Soft Energy Paths, and Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island—date to the mid-1970s.
At least in some ways, creativity in exploring connections continued after that. Much work in ecocriticism and environmental ethics has been done since 1975, often fleshing out ideas just sketched before that point, or adding additional levels of social context to analysis. The field of environmental history largely developed during the 1970s, with key works like Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy appearing in the late 70s, and that field has over the decades grown consistently more interested in exploring the complexity of context, social circumstance, institutions, history and cultures. So it appears that in this area, there was an increase in sense of connectedness while the era of fracture began. In addition, environmentalists circa 2000 were more concerned about such connections than their predecessors had been before 1970’s Earth Day.
Environmentalist thought in the 1980s did not reflect a turn to focus on private individuals, but it did reflect a growing interest in a multiplicity of perspectives. The rise of the environmental justice movement demonstrated some of the trends Rodgers identified – a sense that it was too simple to see commonality of interests when there were significant divergences, particularly due to race and class. (It is not yet clear if this limited the environmental movement’s ability to unify its members in action – it may have actually been a useful way of allowing more people to feel that their voices could be heard within the movement.) Race and history became more important in academic discussions, although it is less clear if those topics had any notable practical impact on pollution and land use. In later decades, environmentalist thinkers paid more attention to perspective of indigenous peoples (see Gary Paul Nabhan’s work, for instance) in the U.S. and elsewhere, rather than relying on the perspective of the white American males who often dominated the leadership. (An awareness of the tensions involved in developing wilderness areas outside the U.S. was a good example of this concern). This led to an emphasis (by historians, among others) on place, stories, and traditions which has served to deepen and broaden understandings of issues – placing them in more context.
Environmentalist groups were fairly successful in gaining support from members in 1980s – but in support of defending gains of the previous decade, not in terms of achieving new initiatives. Given Reagan administration attempts to roll back regulations and protections, there was little reason to hope for changes in culture and new regulations, while compromises grew more difficult to achieve. Some, including environmentalist philosophers, tended to keep proposing more ambitious visions; but supporters had to face the fact that strategies they had previously placed hopes in had little chance of succeeding. Some thinkers during the 1980s and after thus shifted either towards 1. visible defense (the media campaigns of major groups like the Sierra Club; the publicity-drawing activism of groups like Greenpeace and PETA) to protect areas and legislation; 2. small groups of radicals acting (Earth First! and Sea Shepherd) in confrontation, or 3. toward options that could rely more effectively on businesses (Paul Hawken and William McDonough), private action (Nature Conservancy), or consumers (the growing market for organic and local foods, as well as Whole Foods), and thus avoid government action.
What does this add to Rodgers’ picture? On the right, ideas about the market were indeed powerful, had significant rhetorical appeal, and actually shaped most uses of nature during the period. The limits on what environmentalists could achieve may have had much to do with the strength of their opposition, and the emphasis on market ideas. The pivotal turning point here was not 1975 but rather 1981, when the Reagan administration radically changed the terms of debate, and environmentalists’ sense of what was possible. (This post focuses on the period through the 1980s; I’d need another post to consider more recent developments.)
But for environmentalists, there was a new breadth and depth in attempts to connect, as environmental thinkers added a new dimension to the kinds of discussions which had been held before 1975; for these thinkers, this period was one of continued struggle against fracture. This movement continued to insist that our choices are constrained by what nature makes available, that aspects of nature have agency which need to be recognized, and that our desires need to be moderated by an awareness of others.
 Many insightful works discussing environmentalist thought have just come out or are coming out soon, including: Adam Rome’s Genius of Earth Day, Thomas Robertson’s Malthusian Moment, Brian Drake’s Loving Nature, Fearing the State: Environmentalism and Antigovernment Politics before Reagan, Frank Zelko’s Make it a Green Peace!: the Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism and Andrew Case’s dissertation “Looking for Organic America.” I reserve the right to revise my interpretations after I have more fully absorbed these works!