The EPA, environmental policy, and the use of natural resources all remain subjects central to American political debates in the twenty-first century. Now, more than ever, vital scientific and economic concerns are not only weighed against one another, but contested by those who refuse to accept their factual legitimacy. These intense disagreements, along with the legal context in which they take place, form the basis for much of the work of historian Paul Sabin.

Sabin has written on the politics of oil, debates within and beyond the environmental movement, and a variety of topics at the intersection of history, law, and the environment. Cosmologics spoke with him recently about environmental activism, the politics of regulation, and the stakes of our current legal impasse on climate change.

Lewis West for Cosmologics

Cosmologics: Some of your recent work has to do with law and legal regulation of the environment. How did you get to that topic, and how do you see it as speaking to environmental history as a whole?

Paul Sabin: I’m interested in the role of citizen movements challenging government projects and actions, such as the construction of large dams, urban renewal projects, and things like that. I focus on the politics of law because the law structures our engagement with the economy and the environment: it creates a framework within which people make their decisions and choices.

Cosmologics: You’ve also done a lot of work outside of academia. How does that inform where your interests are now, and how did these same questions of public interest law or environmental activism play out in your time beyond the university?

Paul Sabin: In terms of context: when I was in graduate school, I started a nonprofit called the Environmental Leadership Program, which is still very active and has trained and supported around one thousand up-and-coming leaders in the environmental field. The idea was to bring together emerging leaders from academia, where I was based, as well as government, nonprofits, and business. I saw it as activist, but also educational; the educational element was that of human development. How can you help people in their different lines of work and their different fields reach their full potential as public leaders? The assertion of the program is that this is something that can be trained, cultivated, and nurtured. There are some people who fight their way through without any support, but most need encouragement, or they need affirmation.


Convening people from different backgrounds is a bit like bringing all the various characters in a book together to try to get them to talk and listen to each other.


One of the striking aspects of the program was that with relatively small amounts of money, and by creating a community of peers, you could accomplish a lot. You could really encourage people to do a lot of remarkable things.

Being trained as a historian helped in bringing together the different constituent parts of the environmental field. Historians understand where the different actors in the political arena are coming from, what part of the story they represent. I felt that I had a sense of the challenges faced by people working, for instance, in the business sector. How had business sustainability evolved since the 1960s, in terms of different regulatory moments and trends? A historian likewise has a grasp of historical conflicts between smaller nonprofits, environmental justice organizations and large, predominantly white, legal and technical groups. Convening people from different backgrounds is a bit like bringing all the various characters in a book together to try to get them to talk and listen to each other.

One of our reasons for launching the Environmental Leadership Program was that we felt that the environmental movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s was good at defending the regulations of the 1970s, but was having trouble articulating a positive, credible vision for the future. There were a variety of niche visions, ones that were very ecological, or very community-based, but there wasn’t a comprehensive, compelling vision for the country. By bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, we hoped that they would test each other and push each other.

This impulse has motivated my historical work, too. Working with present-day environmental leaders has led to questions about the past. Take my last book, The Bet. What are the origins of the deep divide between liberals and conservatives over environmental questions? How much of it is due to political and economic forces—oil industry support of the opposition, gerrymandering, political divides, things like that—and how much of it has to do with real ideological and intellectual divisions?

Something that led directly to the writing of The Bet was my feeling that within the environmental community there is a level of insularity and a set of collective assumptions about certain things. That needs to be challenged. Looking at a bet that the environmentalists lost was a good way to do that.

Cosmologics: One thing that struck me, reading through the book, was that neither person, neither Paul Ehrlich nor Julian Simon, seems to quite fit the framework for what we think of when we think “environmentalist” or “free-market economist.”

Paul Sabin: It turns out to be more complicated!

Cosmologics: It’s more complicated, but has there also been a shift in how these different positions have aligned with certain topics?

Paul Sabin: There’s been somewhat of a shift. Paul Ehrlich’s emphasis on population control and his anxiety about immigration were more common among environmentalists at that time; groups like the Sierra Club now have more clearly aligned themselves with social justice and as part of a broader progressive and multi-racial coalition.

Cosmologics: Could you talk a bit more about the fractures in the environmental movement? You write about how these environmental lawyers were mostly white and aligned with the mainstream, and how they in turn got critiqued by people who were more interested in social justice, race, and economics.

Paul Sabin: This is one of the fascinating puzzles of the modern environmental movement. It was founded at the height of the Vietnam War and in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Some of the groups started at that time were explicitly inspired by civil rights organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund—the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council even incorporated the legal “defense” framing into their very names! Some of the people active in these public interest groups were committed to, sympathetic to, or active in anti-war and civil rights activities. They generally weren’t leaders, but some, from my interviews, were going to rallies, participating in marches, and surrounded by people deeply invested in these broader movements.

What’s intriguing about this—and this is perhaps a broader question about liberalism from the 1960s and 70s—is the way they defined their lane and specialized. There were some efforts to create multi-issue organizations: for example, there was a group called the Center for Law and Social Policy that initially started out doing environmental work, women’s rights work, mental health work, and more. Then, what seemed to happen more generally, was that groups specialized and that specialization led to a narrowing of the set of issues. Everyone stayed in their lane and didn’t create a cross-cutting movement.

There are also historic tensions within the environmental movement due to the roles of wealthy landowners and recreationalists, who were not necessarily sympathetic to urban planning, public health, and equity. These were people who focused on preserving large landscapes—in Alaska, in the American West—but who often lived in places like New York. They were real estate developers, people in finance and philanthropy, and they were on the boards of the law and science organizations. They weren’t grassroots organizers, people of color, or low income people.


It will become a credibility question and a legitimacy question—is this party able to represent reality and formulate appropriate policies?


The character of a board can shape the character of an organization, and that was also true with respect to the leaders of the organizations. They were lawyers and scientists, for the most part, and many of them had prestigious educational backgrounds—Yale Law School, Harvard Law School, Duke. They were focused on succeeding in the regulatory arena and that meant demonstrating their legitimacy to the people already in that arena. All these things mitigated against better relationships and partnerships, particularly with grassroots organizations, communities of color, and low income groups.

Cosmologics: Thinking more about these divisions: another of our pieces in this issue is about American Indian communities and land rights cases, among other things. You have people who say, “the law is the way we’re going to fight this,” and you have others who don’t recognize the legitimacy of US law at all. That is, in many ways, a very different situation—there are questions of sovereignty, colonialism, etc. But was there another sort of debate going on in the environmental movement about the utility of law?

Paul Sabin: There was a debate at the time over the use of law and there were some people more focused on creating a movement and on political organizing. But for the mainstream environmental organizations, the law proved very successful in the early 1970s.

Cosmologics: It worked.

Paul Sabin: It was working—there was a seemingly never-ending set of opportunities to litigate. There were new laws, new regulations, and a sequence of actions and reactions following the Clean Air Act, for example. There was constant monitoring and enforcement and pushing and pressing. There were tremendous gains to be had. The judiciary was pretty sympathetic and the bureaucracy was relatively amenable—the bureaucrats even, in a way, used the external litigation in the service of regulation. So, many of the groups focused on these legal channels and saw them as quite rewarding, though there were still others on the outside who wanted more of an organizing focus.


The idea that the long-time users of the land should be part of protecting it and might be able to continue to live in it, that’s taken a long time to emerge as a concept.


The Native American rights issue is an interesting one: you saw alliances around the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the proposal for the Alaskan Pipeline. But at the same time, there also was a divergence, because the native peoples were not necessarily stuck in history. You had new corporations getting set up in Alaska, where some native groups had been pushed to adopt a corporate model and begun to pursue economic development. You had divergent ambitions within native communities that didn’t always align with those of environmental groups.

There’s been an ongoing tension around that, and this is an area where environmental organizations have moved significantly, though not completely, to be more flexible regarding land preservation, and open to greater sovereignty and autonomy in a way that overlaps with indigenous rights claims. The idea that people can live in a park, for instance, represents a major shift. There’s now a parks and people movement internationally and domestically. The idea that the long-time users of the land should be part of protecting it and might be able to continue to live in it, that’s taken a long time to emerge as a concept.

Cosmologics: As someone who’s been both a historian and a practitioner, in some sense, how do you think of your role in instigating these shifts, or in pushing environmental activists to think in different ways?

Paul Sabin: Historians have an opportunity to help people understand where we came from and why. What were the challenges that people faced in the past, and why did they think like they did? How have these different lines of thinking evolved over time? On that issue of national parks and the role of people within them: in the 1990s a number of historians—Mark Spence, Karl Jacoby, Louis Warren, and others—wrote important books about the founding of the national parks in the United States and the displacement of native peoples who had lived within those parks. That, I think, really provides an important base of knowledge for people working in the environmental field, one that enables them to understand the origins of the parks, as well as why native peoples would be so suspicious of the conservation movement and not necessarily see conservation objectives as aligned with indigenous rights.

Taken together, that work provides a crucial framework for people working in land preservation. I hope that my book, The Bet, can, in a similar way, provide some useful insight into current fights over climate change, and help us understand why the two parties are so entrenched. This earlier debate over population growth fed directly into the more recent controversy over climate change.

Cosmologics: That book was published in 2013. Looking back at it from 2017, have the questions of partisanship and political division changed? How do these topics appear in the current political context?

Paul Sabin: It’s as divided as it was then, but, at the same time, the facts on the ground are changing. Changes in the world around us associated with climate change are not unstoppable, but at the moment, they’re moving steadily forward. My own feeling is that, at some point, this conversation is going to change. The skepticism about whether climate change is happening, and the questioning of the science—that impulse and that effort is going to falter. It’s going falter within the Republican Party, and it’s going to become an untenable position.

At that point, we’ll then arrive at a more interesting and complicated question, which is, what to do? How much to spend? How quickly to do it? There will be a much more complicated debate over policy, where the different parties will really need to listen to each other and to understand their different perspectives. That’s a debate that’s being held off by the stagnant position in the Republican Party over whether climate is a legitimate issue and whether it’s something that needs to get addressed. As flooding starts to occur in places like Miami and elsewhere, as storms and other weather patterns change, as the temperature continues to develop and alter, I just don’t feel that position is ultimately going to be tenable. That, again, is when it will get interesting.

Cosmologics: There’s a point at which it will be physically undeniable.

Paul Sabin: There will always be people who deny, or who aren’t ready to accept scientific conclusions. But the question is whether those positions are considered legitimate bases for the policies of one of the two governing parties of the nation. Essentially half of the country—since we’re basically a 50/50 nation—is going to be represented by that position.

There comes a point at which it will be a liability, as there will be too much of a gap between the reality of what’s happening in the world and the policies that are being proposed. It will become a credibility question and a legitimacy question—is this party able to represent reality and formulate appropriate policies? I don’t know if it will become a primary voting issue, but it will become part of a larger question about whether people can have faith in this party, and whether it’s representing the reality we see around us.

Cosmologics: In that formulation, science, and perhaps law, are ways of stressing even further the nature of that reality and the unavoidable-ness of it.

Paul Sabin: Yes. Interestingly, today’s opponents of climate action claim the mantle of economic growth and say that they are protecting the U.S. economy. Yet the American economy is fundamentally founded on science and technology and innovation. So there’s a profound gap there between the forces that actually have driven American economic growth and their resistance to the conclusions of science, engineering, and technology. That’s a gap that is not tenable indefinitely.

Cosmologics: Well, I hope not.

Paul Sabin: Let’s be somewhat optimistic and assert that it’s true!

Paul Sabin teaches United States environmental and energy history at Yale University. He is the author of The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future (2013) and Crude Politics: The California Oil Market, 1900-1940 (2005). Sabin’s current research examines the evolution and impact of modern environmental law and regulation in the United States.

Lewis West is co-editor of Cosmologics and a doctoral student at Yale.


Image from Flickr via Ideum – ideas + media


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