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The past few days, Chris has led us through some of the history of the EPA in the 1960s and 1970s. He’ll continue that tomorrow, but today I wanted to share with you a snippet from a Democratic Party newspaper to invite you to think about how we talk about environmental issues.

On a full page spread titled “Heart of the Great Society” there’s a little section called “Beautification of America”

Beautification of America

This is from The Democrat, February 22, 1965

This little thing tells us a lot about how the cause of environmentalism is “pitched” to different constituencies and why the EPA has always faced an uphill battle.

Only the last bullet point is really about beautification in any way, and we want to think about who it’s supposed to appeal to. Removing junk-yards and billboards along highways is pitched explicitly to people who travel on highways – America’s booming white suburban population – rather than people living in the cities through which those highways might run. The idea of providing some way for city-dwellers to have some “fresh air” also has a long history, like the early 20th century charities that provided trips to the country to immigrant children in New York, but it doesn’t do anything to mitigate the environmental damage that’s being done in an urban environment.In essence, this point is about reconciling capitalism with a healthy natural environment, but doing so in a way that prioritizes the needs and desires of some Americans over others and suggests that certain problems of industrial capitalism are not going to be “fixed.”

The first two points, however, were about how to deal more directly with the broader, more harmful effects of industrial capitalism on the environment. People might support “beautification,” but would they accept the financial sacrifices necessary for clean air and water? These two points also foreshadowed the major challenges that would eventually face the EPA itself: funding, enforcement, and tensions between the federal government and state and local governments over funding and enforcement.

The pull between local and centralized power is baked into our federal system, and the environment is one of the areas in which the problems of that system become most apparent. Air and water do not obey state borders, nor do air and water pollution. That is not something that opponents of the EPA and environmental regulation can dispute, but it is something that they can choose not to care about.

 

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