Environmental History

Black Figures in Environmental History

Black figures played a role in the early years of environmentalism, before it even had a name.

Yesterday was the start of Black History Month.  Last year, I posted about the contributions made by Black climate scientists. This year, I want to go back earlier  in history to highlight the environmental contributions of three Black figures in much earlier times. The earliest of these figures was Solomon Brown, who was born in …

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50 Years Ago: Environmental Law in 1973

Five decades back, the country was in the midst of unprecedented environmental ferment.

1973 was at the crest of the environmental surge that swept the United States half a century ago.  In the previous three years, Congress had passed NEPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. The first EPA Administrator took office in 1971. Continuing the legislative wave, 1973 saw the passage of the Endangered …

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The Emergence of the Environmental Justice Movement

The environmental justice movement is now 40 years old. Its influence is only growing.

Dr. King died in 1968, and the Civil Rights Movement had already been a powerful national presence for well over a decade.  Yet it was fourteen more years until environmental justice entered the national spotlight. Environmental justice issues first received widespread attention in 1982 when protests erupted over the construction of a new waste disposal …

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30 Years of U.S. Climate Policy

Here’s a timeline of the victories and defeats since 1992.

Thirty years ago, the United States joined the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The decades since then have been a saga of victories and defeats for U.S. climate policy.  Progress has been made under one President, only to be battered down by the next one. This to-and-fro is a sobering reminder of how …

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Learning to Name Environmental Problems

It was only in the 1960s that the Supreme Court learned to talk about “pollution” and “wilderness.”

There are Supreme Court cases going back a century or more dealing with what we would now consider environmental issues such as preserving nature or air pollution. But when did the Court start seeing filthy rivers and smokey cities as embodiments of the same problem, despite their striking physical differences?  And when it did start …

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Before Yellowstone: The Arkansas Origin of National Parks

In a forgotten incident, Congress set aside Hot Springs in 190 years ago.

The origins of the national park system is usually traced back Lincoln’s 1864 signature of the Yosemite Grant Act.  But Congress had actually had the idea of protecting extraordinary places over thirty years earlier, in Arkansas of all places. Hot Springs isn’t high on the list of American places to see, which may be one …

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Jim Crow and the Fossil Fuel Industry

The fossil fuel industry has yet to escape its discriminatory past.

This being Black History Month, I thought it would be worthwhile looking at the fossil fuel industry’s racial history.  Given the historic concentration of the oil and coal industries in the South, it is no surprise to find that these industries have also been deeply entangled with Jim Crow and its legacy of discrimination. Oil …

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Un-Inventing Fire

After many eons, reliance on combustion for energy is ending.

To head off disastrous climate change, we need to radically transform the modern energy system. We must largely move beyond the use of fire, the first and most important of inventions. The core energy technology used by humans has always involved, in one form or another, burning things up. To a large extent, combatting climate …

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Environmentalism and the Supreme Court

Some cases belong to the environmentalist legal canon, others to an anti-canon of reviled precedents.

Every field has its texts that form part of its intellectual canon, and others that form a kind of anti-canon of rejected ideas.  The same is true in environmental law. The issue goes beyond which side wins. From the pro-environmental side of things, some Supreme Court rulings form guideposts to rely on, whereas others represent …

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Jefferson’s Bridge

Anticipating modern environmental views, Jefferson viewed nature as a public trust.

Today being the Fourth of July, it seems appropriate to think about how the author of the Declaration of Independence felt about nature. A revealing example involves some land Jefferson owned between Lexington and Roanoke, which he sought to preserve. Two years before the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson purchased 157 acres of land  from the …

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