Review Essay. American Environmentalism: History, Ethics, and Some Ways Out of the Mess We Have Made

by Jessica O’Reilly

Indiana University, Bloomington

Reviewed in this essay:

Dorceta Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press, 2016)

Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (Verso, 2018)

The environmental history of the United States is complex—incorporating many actors—and political from the start, beginning with the genocidal erasure of American Indians that made it possible to consider the landscape “unpeopled,” “wild,” and in need of protection. This history also includes the preservation of public lands at a scale never before experienced on Earth, and a suite of pathbreaking environmental regulations including the Clean Air Act (1963, 1990), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Violence and innovation prove to be twin threads of American environmental politics. Today, however, the planetary scope of contemporary environmental change challenges any model of land-based protection and the notion that parts of the Earth were ever or could remain wild and apart from politics.

In 1985, researchers discovered the ozone hole, and acid rain wreaked its transboundary havoc. Domestic pollution globalized. These two global environmental problems were solved with scientific expertise translated into international policy: the Montreal Protocol for ozone and transboundary agreements in North America and Europe for acid rain (Oppenheimer et al. 2019). While domestic environmental decision making in the twentieth century incorporated scientific expertise and technocratic skill, global environmental problems also required states to engage diplomatically.

Then along came climate change, a mega global environmental problem with severe potential implications across states, communities, and ecosystems. Technocratic insiders crafted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) with the expectation that climate change could be solved like its predecessor, the ozone hole. But by this point, energy companies and free market advocates saw all proposed solutions—even incremental, technocratic options—to these monster environmental problems as a threat to the neoliberal economy, even though policy makers proposed market-based solutions as the primary solution to climate change. Climate change, in the United States, shifted from a technocratic, scientific problem to one of popular doubt, belief, and the culture wars (Oreskes and Conway, 2011).

This review tracks these transformations in American environmental politics through three new anthropological (or anthropology-adjacent) books that help us understand how American environmentalism came to be, and that each define ethical, political, and cultural options for getting ourselves out of this mess that we have made.

The History of American Environmentalism

I took a class with Dorceta Taylor during my last year as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and reading her newest book The Rise of the American Conservation Movement reminded me of some of the interventions she made in that course, interventions that have influenced my own research and teaching. Taylor’s work has always contained at its core an analysis of race, class, and gender in environmental spaces. Her new book considers the history of environmental protection in the United States, typically told as a cherished national story (including the celebrated invention of national parks), from the view of the people it displaced and with a critical eye on the “business environmentalism” that came to dominate the movement.

In the class I took with her, Taylor took us on a long journey through the invention of the suburbs, from the development of the interstate highway system (which displaced communities of color), to the low-cost mortgages provided by the G.I. Bill, to the explicitly racist methods that realtors, community organizations, and neighborhood groups used to segregate both suburbs and devitalized urban cores (Taylor, 2009). She taught us, too, about famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park as well as the Tioga Road, a scenic route through Yosemite National Park which I later would drive regularly when I worked as a park ranger there. These spaces—suburbs, urban parks, and nature preserves—were each designed, she taught us, to sculpt particular experiences and understandings of nature; and these experiences and understandings were exclusionary. Sublime nature was enacted as a particular form of wealthy, educated, white masculinity. Once she taught me to see this I have never been able to unsee it.

My own experiences as a park ranger give me a heightened appreciation of the criticisms of preservation that Taylor makes in this book. Yosemite rangers are highly skilled interpreters of the environment around them with a keen love for the place and its history. As a newcomer to the park, I was surprised by what I came to consider the “cult of Muir,” especially up in the Tuolumne high country where John Muir, the environmentalist, adventurer, and author who founded the Sierra Club, hung out with his sheep as an itinerant herder in 1911 (Muir 2011). Among the rangers, there was a cult of personality which we were tacitly expected to emulate, both in philosophical approach and in engaging in adventurous pursuits in our time off.

Taylor would not be surprised by this; as she convincingly tells it, masculine adventures and risky exploits are an underlying theme in the story of conservation in the United States (though Muir’s type of solitary exploration of nature, which eschews entrepreneurial and development activities, becomes marginal in Taylor’s account of the more dominant business environmentalism). Elite, white men, in this account, engaged in violent nature activities which they would eventually narrate into messages of conservation. This often began in youth, with a romantic interest in “chasing and shooting wild animals” (p. 74). Several of the well-known early American conservationists—including painter George Catlin, Muir, and president and rugged individualist Theodore Roosevelt—left sick or pregnant wives behind to pursue nature expeditions. Animals, outlaws, and women suffered and died alongside the risks these elite men took. Conservation in its early days—with an easy extension into land management today—involved preserving the places and values associated with these elite white men and their heroic acts.

Taylor’s gender analysis helps us rethink these white male nature activities, rendering them exotic, violent, and savage—and not the only available history. Women performed incredible feats in the wilderness, too, with significant political ramifications. Harriet Tubman’s journeys to lead slaves north required thousands of miles of hiking and strong nature survival skills (p. 135); yet Tubman’s accomplishments, as testimony to her wilderness skill, stand virtually unrecognized in comparison to feats like Muir’s 1916 “thousand-mile” walk to the Gulf (a walk for exploration’s sake, not for freedom) (Muir 1998). In the late 1800s, taking rides and hikes in then-remote Yosemite became symbolic of women’s emancipation—riding had to be astride, as sidesaddle was dangerous on sheer granite cliffs (p. 102). Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony concluded their California suffrage tour in Yosemite, replacing signs naming trees after men for those bearing women’s names.

Taylor offers an African American history of park protection, too, tracing how preservation work was first carried out by Buffalo Soldiers (p. 363) and later the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work program for young men during the Great Depression. The characteristic National Park Service visitor centers, with their wood and stone construction, often are products of CCC projects. Taylor shows how racism, segregation, and discrimination operated in the CCC. Black CCC corpsmen were given separate tasks like kitchen work, making blacks nearly invisible to white CCC work crews (p. 366). Through its camp policies, the CCC showed discomfort with the presence of women, working class whites, and minorities in wildlands through the 1930s.

Finally, Taylor demonstrates in this definitive account that “business environmentalism” has always been a dominant force in American conservation. She shows that conservation organizers maintained closer ties to government agencies and elite groups like the Audubon Society than to wandering philosophers like John Muir, and that “from the outset, conservationism and preservationism were divorced from the inequities prevalent in society” (p. 394). Taylor’s bookgoes a long way toward putting such inequities at the center of our understanding of American environmentalism.

Ethical Environmentalism

While Taylor takes an explicit justice framework in her book, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s book Matters of Care offers a political-ethical approach, thinking through posthumanism and the ontological turn. Matters of Care puts the relationship between labor, love (or affection) and environmental ethics/politics at the center of its analysis (p. 5). In a powerful example, Puig de la Bellacasa writes about a permaculture training course she enrolled in, in Bodega Bay, California (incidentally, just north of where I spent my off-seasons as a park ranger, working at an outdoor school in Marin County). The North Bay of San Francisco and its hinterlands are chockablock with experimental centers devoted to sustainable living, offshoots of the 1960s back-to-the-land movements that have been championed more recently by Alice Waters and her ilk in the farm-to-table trend. Puig de la Bellacasa describes how learning to compost helped her think about ethical and political care, engaging with the mix of soil and microbes while Northern California’s protected landscapes served as a backdrop for her efforts.

For myself, when I moved there from rural Michigan, I remember a jolt of surprise that so many expensive ecological living programs flourished in that part of Northern California—that people could make a living by teaching other people to compost, something everyone in my rural town knew how to do. As Taylor might remind us, the notion of pastoral delights comes from the recreational activities of rich, white urban elites. North Bay counties have become the playground of wealthy, liberal urbanists, freezing development and causing housing and commuting crises for working class and young people (Press 2002, Pincetl 2003).

Puig de la Bellacasa is not Californian, however, and finding herself heading up Highway 1 for the permaculture course retrospectively helped her think through some of the ethical quandaries she was exploring in her critical work on environmentalism. Learning about compost, to her, further inspired thinking about interspecies care. In some ways, she writes, the ethics of care was a form of depoliticization, taking on the apparently neutral veneer of discourses like risk management (p. 133). However, the gentle, pastoral approach to other forms of life, including worms and the composting materials themselves, involved in working with compost belied a darker threat of catastrophe. As she puts it: “Today I’m having a jolly good time getting muddy. A good time? Yet the background in the training is still that of ecologies on the verge of disaster. After all, this is Earth Activism, oppositional, revolted” (p. 157). Engaging with worms, soil, and the organic wastes of domestic production, then, forms a sort of alterbiopolitics (p. 165).

The primary intervention of Matters of Care is that “a care approach needs to look not only at how soils and other resources produce output or provide services to humans but also at how humans are specifically obliged, how they are providing” (p. 192). The promise of environmental productivity also contains explicit environmental harm, and by extension, a threat of environmental disaster implicating people and our societies. Puig de la Bellacasa shows that material engagement with the environment can inspire an ethical politics that encourages us to care for the world that sustains us.

Political Climates

While Matters of Care attends to environmental politics through ethics, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright lead us through several potential political-economic futures that might emerge from anthropogenic climate change.

Climate change upends much of what we know, and even cherish, about environmentalism as described above. Public protected land management, as Taylor describes, is largely an American invention, one in which nationalism, power, and environmental protection intersect. Public lands protection is also, however, explicitly place-based, as is composting, as Puig de la Bellacasa explains it. There is no gods-eye view of a compost pile. The whole thing is particles, macroinvertebrates, and microclimates.  Yet while climate change has local effects—and these are profoundly and predictably unequally distributed—one cannot apprehend climate change without a global perspective. Weather is simply too locally variable, our perceptions of weather and change too bound up in our daily lives, to be able to see the changes occurring around the planet and across time. To predict these changes into the future requires the technological heft of global climate models.

Mann and Wainwright begin their book, however, with a critique of the “Anthropocene,” the new geological epoch proposed on the basis of such models, in which human activity starts to impact the Earth’s physical system as a whole (Crutzen 2006). Geologists do not concur on the timing or definition of this new epoch, but the term has been generative for scholars in the environmental humanities. We might note that the concept has been claimed as fresh intellectual terrain, an unspoiled frontier, mirroring the totalizing, colonialist and capitalist endeavors that got us into a place that could be named “the Anthropocene” in the first place. Mann and Wainwright note critically, with Haraway (2015), that the Anthropocene is “extraordinarily unhelpful, because climate change makes it clear that there is no such thing as a universal ‘human’ agent that precipitated this new era in planetary history, and no such thing as a common vantage point from which ‘we all’ understand and experience it” (p. x). Indeed, the everyone-needs-to-pitch-in together rhetoric around climate change is most robustly supported by representatives of nations, like the United States, that have historically contributed an outsized share of the emissions changing the global atmosphere yet decline to take an equivalent share of the responsibility. The fact is that climate change is caused primarily by one segment of the global population and will have the most devastating consequences for others. Wainwright and Mann rightly call this a “scandalous disproportionality” (p. 73).

Building on this insight into inequality, the core analysis of the book is about the “adaptation of the political” (p. x) in relation to climate change, with the explicit goal “to make climate more political” (p. xi). As they stress, the science of global climate change is publicly accepted globally. While we in the United States are doomed to relitigate the scientific reality of climate change ahead of any discussion about climate solutions, this is not the case anywhere else. Only in the United States is conversation about climate change deemed “political” just in the utterance—and therefore, among some circles, impolite to discuss due to its contentious nature. Mann and Wainwright do not clutch their pearls about such worries. Rather, they offer four visions of potential political-economic regimes that could respond to the specifically global and unequal challenges of climate change, spicing their theorizing with fun names: Climate Leviathan (liberal democracy, the current world order), Climate Mao (clearly the authoritarian route), Climate Behemoth (populist climate denialism), and Climate X, a utopian climate world.

“The chief strength of Leviathan today is that it enjoys the status of liberal common sense regarding the arrangement of the world’s future,” they write (p. 48). Incremental, governmental responses have a “pragmatic legitimacy” in that another social order does not have to be created in order to get to work. The Paris Agreement (2015) is a product of the Leviathan, in which “capitalism is treated not as a question, but as the solution to climate change” (p. 31). One of the most vocal boosters of climate action, former Vice President Al Gore, emphasizes that climate change is as much an economic opportunity as it is a global political challenge.

The authors raise the possibility of “Climate Mao” (p. 32) to consider how authoritarian governments may be able to make strides toward reduced carbon emissions, unhindered by concern for democratic political legitimacy. Their attention to authoritarian possibilities is meant seriously, as an analysis of real possibilities some states might adopt, but it also echoes a common joke about environmentalists being “watermelons”: green on the outside and red on the inside, or crunchy and small-scale in theory but authoritarian in practice. “Climate Mao” also speaks to American anxieties about our impending displacement as the sole world superpower. These anxieties are captured in Oreskes and Conway’s speculative climate novella The Collapse of Western Civilization (2014). But Climate Mao may be closer than we think, given the calls for China to lead on climate issues after the 2016 US elections and the announced intention of the United States to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Climate Behemoth is even less appealing: a reactionary populism and revolutionary antistate democracy built on “security of the homeland, the freedom of the market, and the justice of God” (p. 44). While the United States is not the only Western nation to enjoy a resurgence of right-leaning populism, the authors seem with this conception to be primarily evoking the American culture wars, in which climate has come to be one of the key battlefields. How climate articulates with markets and intersects with Christianity and other religions is complex, however—current views reflect a mixture of American political alliances and not necessarily reality (see Callison 2014). The climate threat to national and global security, of course, is well understood and was covered in one of the first international science and policy conferences of climate change, called The Changing Atmosphere: Implication for Global Security in Toronto, in 1988. But with Behemoth, beyond nation-state security, Mann and Wainwright raise the specter of a globalized and violent, lifeboat politics under climate change, a reference to Hardin’s (1976) “lifeboat ethics” in which people secure in a lifeboat have to choose how many swimmers to take on board.

As a corrective, the authors offer Climate X: “a world that has defeated the emergent Climate Leviathan and its compulsion toward planetary sovereignty, while also transcending capitalism” (p. 173). Mann and Wainwright then explore the specific strategies of mitigation, adaptation, and climate justice necessary to bring Climate X into our imaginations (p. 55).

When I began learning about climate change as an undergraduate in the late 1990s—the Kyoto Protocol era—experts still thought that mitigation would be enough to avoid the dangerous anthropogenic interference with the Earth’s climate system that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) sought to avoid. By now, though, climate change is happening in real time, so mitigation must be paired with adaptation strategies—responses to the new climate we have created. Climate adaptation can be proactive or reactive. Proactive adaption involves planning around projected climate futures to minimize impacts, costs, and suffering if and when the projected changes occur. Reactive adaptation is what goes on amidst a climate disaster as it occurs or afterwards—the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s disaster management can be construed as an example of reactive climate adaptation, and if we continue our country’s policy non-response to climate change FEMA will be the main governmental institution responding to and paying for climate disasters. This is a plan that maximizes suffering and loss. Mann and Wainwright capture the potential for suffering from such climate (non-)solutions. Marginal communities and environments are expected to be the front line victims of climate change. The same communities and environments are also those expected to sacrifice or be sacrificed in the name of global climate adaptation. Who will be asked to relocate, bear the brunt of the labor, and shoulder the delays of retrofitting infrastructure projects? Moreover, the restricted idea of adaptation as technical intervention also severely limits what can be considered adaptation and who is credentialed to carry it out. As the authors write of the hegemonic reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “we have to complement the work of IPCC Working Group II with a critique of adaptation as a technical rendering of a limit problem for the liberal imagination” (p.  72). Adaptation, with its inclusive, development-focused language, shields us from the much more complicated political, cultural, and economic changes that need to take place to stop anthropogenic climate change.

These critiques lead us directly back to Climate X, particularly those exemplars of Climate X whose work aligns with climate justice principles. The water defenders protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline are part of the vision of Climate X, as is Pope Francis, with the quite radical ecological politics of his climate encyclical. But every member of Catholic Church is not Climate X, as clergy blocked indigenous activists from staging a protest outside of Notre Dame. Meanwhile, it is often hard to see Climate X even where it is present. Environmental justice activists in Paris protesting what they viewed as the environmentally-disastrous agreement coming out of COP21 were reported by media to be celebrating the conference, not critiquing it (p. 173).

One of the negative victories of climate skepticism has been the branding of all climate action as radical environmental politics, causing policy makers to make conservative, incremental decisions—and then having those actions again critiqued as radical overreach. Mann and Wainwright have situated these policy makers as part of the Climate Leviathan, and argue instead for a politics of climate change that unapologetically refuses to repair a problem using the same tools used to create the problem in the first place.


These books track relationships with the environment that are specific to, or led by, the United States. Taylor rewrites the story of American environmental history from marginal vantages. Puig de la Bellacasa considers the politics and ethics bound up in American upper middle-class environmental practices. Mann and Wainwright, while writing about the global politics of the climate crisis, are clear about how contrarianism in the United States has been a drag on on effective climate policy internationally. However, environmental politics in the United States is lively, with a long history of good ideas and intentions paired with ecological devastation.

These authors also suggest ways out of our contemporary environmental disasters. First, all of them attend to environmental justice, calling for radical equality among people as well as the other biota, places, and natural systems that we live with. Second, the authors all push back against ethical or moral relativism. There is no equivocating in their pages: there are right ways and wrong ways to interact with each other and the environment, and we are falling short. Finally, Taylor, Puig de la Bellacasa, and Mann and Wainwright show us how deep political and cultural transformations must go, alongside the economic, energy, and infrastructural changes we need, to shift our current, disastrous trajectory.


Callison, Candis. 2014. How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. Durham: Duke University Press.

Crutzen, Paul J. 2006. “The ‘Anthropocene.’” In Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, pp. 13-18. Berlin: Springer.

Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental humanities 6, no. 1: 159-165.

Hardin, Garrett. 1976. “Lifeboat Ethics.” Lifeboat Ethics: The Moral Dilemmas of World Hunger. New York: Harper & Row.

Muir, John. 1998. A Thousand-mile Walk to the Gulf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Muir, John. 2011. My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Oppenheimer, Michael, Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson, Keynyn Brysse, Jessica O’Reilly, Matthew Shindell, and Milena Wazeck. 2019. Discerning Experts: The Practices of Scientific Assessment for Environmental Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2011. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2014. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pincetl, Stephanie S. 2003. Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Press, Daniel. 2002. Saving Open Space: The Politics of Local Preservation in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Taylor, Dorceta E. 2009. The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change. Durham: Duke University Press.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 1992. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 2015. Paris Agreement. Paris, France.

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