Aside from the intrinsic importance of race as an issue for further inquiry, the current public debate over questions of environmental equity, environmental justice, and eco-racism are changing the focus of the environmental discourse in the United States and in other parts of the world. Just as the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s helped to shape the burgeoning field of environmental history, the current public dialogue over equity and environmental justice ultimately may have a similar impact.It's interesting to thing about to what extent that has indeed happened, and also how different American environmental history writing is from American legal history writing in this respect.
The Environmental Justice Movement, because of its controversial stances on race, class, and the environment, and its skepticism about the goals and objectives of mainstream environmentalism, is playing a historic role in reintroducing "equity" into the public and academic debate over environmental policy. Equity, however, has been transformed into "environmental justice," with a particular focus on the traditional American underside caught beneath the wheels of an avaricious economy. From the historian's vantage point, this is but one aspect of a larger issue-an issue already addressed broadly by philosophers, as well as by social scientists-especially sociologists and economists-concerned mainly with distributional effects.
In the case of the latter, sociologist Allan Schnaiberg argued that the redistributive element (such as a windfall profit fund to provide cost offsets to the poor) has been largely absent from most of the history of environmental movements through the 1970s, "despite rhetorics that have been vaguely populist." And that environmental movements "are simply not welfare-oriented to the degree that a stable sustained coalition-building effort will be possible. " Such a conclusion leaves us to speculate if and how concerns over environmental equity can be uncovered in the historical record, especially if they were not a priority in various environmental movements over time as Schnaiberg argues.
Clayton Koppes has suggested another approach to addressing the equity issue in his article, "Efficiency, Equity, Esthetics: Shifting Themes in American Conservation" (1988). Koppes argued that three ideas dominated the American conservation movement in the Progressive Era: efficiency (management of natural resources); equity (distribution of the development of resources rather than control by the few); and esthetics (the preservation of nature free from development). Of the three, efficiency held the greatest sway. Supporters of the" gospel of efficiency" -proponents of applied science and environmental management-did not want to undermine development per se, but questioned short-term private gain at the expense of long-term public benefit. Although this view was not wildly popular among all capitalists, it certainly was less threatening than strict preservationism.
Koppes argued further that for many conservationists of the Progressive Era, "efficiency was not enough; they were also concerned for greater equity." In this context,' equity' implies that natural resources remain in public control so that their benefits could be distributed fairly. "The equity school," Koppes stated, "saw wise use of the environment as a tool to foster grass-roots democracy." By the 1960s, the efficiency school remained dominant, the esthetic school at least had successfully protected the national park system, but the equity branch wallowed. Without grass-roots organizations to press for change-and with resistance to redistributive efforts at every tum-equity moved little beyond the conceptual stage.