A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism

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A provocative history of the environmental movement in America, showing how this rise to political and social prominence produced a culture of alarmism that has often distorted the facts

Few issues today excite more passion or alarm than the specter of climate change. In A Climate of Crisis, historian Patrick Allitt shows that our present climate of crisis is far from exceptional. Indeed, the environmental debates of the last half ...

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A provocative history of the environmental movement in America, showing how this rise to political and social prominence produced a culture of alarmism that has often distorted the facts

Few issues today excite more passion or alarm than the specter of climate change. In A Climate of Crisis, historian Patrick Allitt shows that our present climate of crisis is far from exceptional. Indeed, the environmental debates of the last half century are defined by exaggeration and fearmongering from all sides, often at the expense of the facts.

In a real sense, Allitt shows us, collective anxiety about widespread environmental danger began with the atomic bomb. As postwar suburbanization transformed the American landscape, more research and better tools for measurement began to reveal the consequences of economic success. A climate of anxiety became a climate of alarm, often at odds with reality. The sixties generation transformed environmentalism from a set of special interests into a mass movement. By the first Earth Day in 1970, journalists and politicians alike were urging major initiatives to remedy environmental harm. In fact, the work of the new Environmental Protection Agency and a series of clean air and water acts from a responsive Congress inaugurated a largely successful cleanup.

Political polarization around environmental questions after 1980 had consequences that we still feel today. Since then, the general polarization of American politics has mirrored that of environmental politics, as pro-environmentalists and their critics attribute to one another the worst possible motives. Environmentalists see their critics as greedy special interest groups that show no conscience as they plunder the earth while skeptics see their adversaries as enemies of economic growth whose plans stifle initiative under an avalanche of bureaucratic regulation.

There may be a germ of truth in both views, but more than a germ of falsehood too. America’s worst environmental problems have proven to be manageable; the regulations and cleanups of the last sixty years have often worked, and science and technology have continued to improve industrial efficiency. Our present situation is serious, argues Allitt, but it is far from hopeless. Sweeping and provocative, A Climate of Crisis challenges our basic assumptions about the environment, no matter where we fall along the spectrum—reminding us that the answers to our most pressing questions are sometimes found in understanding the past.

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Editorial Reviews

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History professor/author Patricia Allitt (I'm the Teacher, You're the Student; The Conservatives) sounds a hopeful chord to quiet the alarmists on both sides of the environmental wars. Citing the history of the American environmental movement, she describes the price our society has often paid for exaggeration and fear-mongering of both Earth First advocates and Global Warming deniers. A provocative account for news watchers of every persuasion.

Publishers Weekly
Emory University historian Allitt (The Conservatives) examines contemporary American environmentalism historically, from his “counter-environmentalist” and pro-industrialist stance, in order to allay fears of a real crisis. He structures his work chronologically, devoting each chapter to the conflicting issues within each established time frame. His initial chapter on the 1950s describes “nuclear anxieties” and worries about overpopulation, eventually making his way through discussions of biofuels, invasive species, and alternative energy. While Allitt claims that “America’s environmental problems have been manageable problems,” it’s difficult to assess the extent to which his claim is based on wishful thinking or just a cherry-picking of the available evidence. He also implies that environmental advocates are motivated less by scientific evidence than careerism or a desire to constrain the economy. This is most striking in his dubious discussion of anthropogenic climate change, of which he remains a skeptic. Though “he study of history shows us how bad we are at predicting the future,” that has little bearing on the fact that 97% of climate research points to human activity as the culprit, regardless of potential future outcomes. Allitt doesn’t question his own technophilia, and his belief that capitalism and technology will solve our ecological problems should be received with its own dose of skepticism. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A wide-ranging history of the American environmental movement. Allitt (American History/Emory Univ.; The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History, 2009, etc.) offers a readable account that will provoke and displease many environmentalists. Few of the issues facing the nation—from overpopulation in the 1950s to air and water pollution in the '60s to genetically modified foods in the '90s to climate change today—warranted the accompanying moods of crisis, which were "usually disproportionate to the actual danger involved." Most problems were manageable, but they were exaggerated due to media sensationalism, environmental scientists seeking recognition, the needs of a growing environmental establishment and the beneficial effects of crises on environmental groups' memberships. "When the nation mobilized the political will it was effective in providing remedies," writes Allitt, celebrating actions on pesticides, toxic dumps, endangered species and other issues. However, he overlooks the fact that to mobilize political will, environmental groups had to fight for attention, waging information campaigns and sounding alarms, often in the face of strong, well-financed opposition, so that the public would eventually demand legislative action. Allitt's things-will-take-care-of-themselves view, based on sympathy with counterenvironmentalists' ideas, informs his book. He covers major individuals and controversies over six decades, showing how Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson created constituencies for mainstream environmentalism—a mass movement by 1970—and Edward Abbey inspired activists. Highly politicized issues pitted critics, who viewed green advocates as selfish elitists, against environmentalists who saw opponents as cynical and greedy. Allitt notes Congress passed 28 major environmental laws in the decade before 1980, when President Ronald Reagan began dismantling many regulations and sparked a conservative counterenvironmentalism. Allitt dismisses the "false" claims of impending catastrophe associated with climate change, which he deems "another real but manageable problem." An optimistic book that downplays the clamorous work of environmental groups and attributes progress to the institutions of democracy and capitalism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594204661
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 3/20/2014
  • Series: Penguin History American Life Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 502,831
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrick Allitt is the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. He was an undergraduate at Oxford and a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University. The author of six books, he is also the presenter of eight lecture series with “The Great Courses,” including “The Art of Teaching.”
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2014

    A Climate of Crisis By Patrick Allitt A Review Professor All

    A Climate of Crisis
    By Patrick Allitt

    A Review

    Professor Allitt has written a comprehensive history of environmentalism in the 20th and 21st Centuries. The title of the book provides a capsule of his point of view, which he states unabashedly to be that environmental concerns for global disaster have been overblown, ill-founded and regrettable. Allitt does not deny that environmental problems exist now and have been much more serious in the past. But he holds that environmental policies and regulation that threaten economic growth are, in general, unwise and counterproductive. His theme is that only wealthy countries can afford to be “green” and that underdeveloped countries must accept bad environmental practices on the road to wealth, so that they may someday achieve the relatively clean environment now experienced in the USA and Western Europe.
    In the course of some 340 pages, Allitt cites the statements, actions and experiences of what must be almost every major character on the stage of the environment – both pro and con. In prose that comes close to sneering, he discusses in detail the forecasts of worldwide doom that came from some of those concerned about overpopulation and food deficiencies, nuclear proliferation, fossil fuel depletion, endangered species, pollution, acid rain, etc. He points out that man’s ingenuity and willingness to regulate (in democratic, developed nations) mitigated the effect of those threats, when real. In discussing the undeniable success in reducing health risk by elimination of lead compounds as anti-knock additives in gasoline, Allitt denigrates the use of ethanol as a replacement by linking it exclusively to the desire for renewable energy sources. Here he is either ill-informed or blind to the real issue: the political decision to use ethanol made only from US-produced corn.
    On the other hand, the author has nothing good to say about radical anti-environmentalists such as Ronald Reagan and his appointees, who believed that environmental threats were nonsense in the first place and fought every effort that they perceived as costing private or public money. Allitt also does not downplay real environmental disasters, such as Chernobyl, Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Deepwater Horizon, and the widespread pollution of the former Soviet Union. Nor does he overlook the current rampant pollution in China and India. He strongly supports enforcement of government regulations that may prevent the errors, malfeasance and carelessness to blame for such tragedies.
    To this reader, a major fault in the book is the lack of credit given to the early, and sometimes radical, pioneers of environmentalism for mustering public and governmental support for the positive changes in American health and safety over the time since World War II. These positive changes are stated clearly as monumental. No doubt the threats those pioneers foresaw were exaggerated but their views were sincerely held. By insisting on publicizing the risks, the early environmentalists caused a groundswell of opposition to air and water pollution by callous industry and municipalities. They also generated much of the concern for food and drug safety that is embodied in the FDA. These voices of doom have been shown to be wrong in many ways but without them, we may ask if our environment would be as well off as it now is.
    There are interesting insights developed by Professor Allitt. One of these is the pseudo-religious fervor displayed by many environmentalists in their intensely secular concern for the well-being of the earth. It is, perhaps, an example that people dedicated to altruistic action need a spiritual motivation even if they deny belief in a higher power. Another insight is the “auto-reinforcing” (my term) position of groups on both sides of the environmental fence. In order to get results by lobbying or publicity, groups who promote an environmental posture require money. The sources of funding tend to demand uncompromising dedication to the position of the group, even when information is developed later that should lead to change. Yet another insight is that those in opposition to environmental reform may be characterized as either “anti” or “counter” in their positions. The “anti” group rejects just about any action to improve or protect the environment if it costs money. The “counter” group admits that environmental problems exist but wants to defer potentially costly action until the threat is fully defined. (Prof. Allitt seems to find himself in the “counter” category.)
    The later chapters of this book devote much attention to the issue of climate change or warming. And it is here that Allitt expresses a counter-environmental position most clearly. He devotes much space to the scientific arguments that deny various aspects of climate change theory but not that much to the arguments that support it. His conclusion is that climate change itself is doubtful, that man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are not significant in the atmosphere, and that even if major climate change does occur, mankind is smart and wealthy enough to roll with the punch.
    Overall, Prof. Allitt attempts to straddle the fence of environmentalism with optimism that no matter how man changes the environment of the world, mankind will not only survive but prosper. It is difficult to dispute his contention that large expenditures by wealthy nations are better directed to reducing poverty than on actions to forestall uncertain environmental calamity. But one has the uncomfortable feeling that the slant of Allitt’s writing is directed more toward book sales than the author’s convictions.

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