The "State" of Environmental History


David Stradling is associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. His latest book is "The Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State" (Cornell, 2010).

Environmental historians have boundary issues.  Ecology encourages us to study relationships.  Species and the places they inhabit are interdependent, and all organisms—humans included—live in a web of interconnected natural systems that stretch boundlessly across the globe.   Scientists usefully examine micro-environments, individual ponds or fields, for instance, but unavoidably evidence reveals the importance of factors that lay beyond the scope of the study—the arrival of an invasive species, an unusually long drought, or the like.  What’s more, history teaches us that human systems also connect distant places and people, through lines of economic trade and the exchange of ideas. 

How is one to determine appropriate geographical limits of a project when we work in a field that consistently affirms the artificiality and permeability of boundaries?  To paraphrase William Cronon, we must be alert to the paths that lead out of town and across the boundaries that we once thought might contain our work.

These boundary issues confronted me as I took on an environmental history of New York State.  Like all political boundaries, the state line cannot contain the stories that run through New York’s history, but it is clear that nineteenth-century state policies shaped the American landscape; they were critical to economic development and environmental protection.  New York provides a particularly strong example of this state-level analysis.

This story might begin in the 1820s with the Erie Canal, built and operated by the state.  As historians well know, the canal transformed the nation’s economic landscape, opening upstate New York and the entire Great Lakes region to more intensive development.  The consequences for the environment were myriad, as farms replaced forests and harbors replaced estuaries.  Clearly nineteenth-century state governments were powerful enough to transform economies and ecosystems.

The golden age of state environmental policy stretches at least through the creation of the New York State Forest Preserve, which dates to 1885.  Just nine years later, forest preservation became a constitutional objective of the state, and over the years New York has added to its forest holdings in the Adirondacks and Catskills.  Nearly three million acres are now protected as “wild forever.”  For more than a century the state has exerted its power to control valued environments, setting boundaries and establishing rules for use.

This power reached into the urban environment, too.  In 1901 the state passed the comprehensive Tenement House Law, establishing extensive building codes in the hopes of reforming the residential environments of New York City, especially the Lower East Side.  As modest as the improvements might have been, the establishment of the rules and the means of enforcement are clear indicators of the importance of the state in setting environmental policy.

As the twentieth century progressed state power to control the environment faltered.  In New York this failure may be best illustrated through the story of Love Canal, which began as a local public health crisis sparked by dangerous chemicals buried in a working-class Niagara Falls neighborhood.  The state responded to a wave of public activism in 1978, when Health Commissioner Robert Whalen announced that pregnant women and families with infants should move away from the toxic wastes hidden beneath the 99th Street School.  Reporter Michael Brown described the poignant scene, as young mothers wept with children on their laps.  Whalen’s ill-conceived declaration confirmed that the state was not up to the challenge of Love Canal.  Final resolution of the crisis required the involvement of Jimmy Carter, the EPA, and federal dollars.  Love Canal sparked a nation-wide toxics scare that forced federal leadership on the issue, replicating the leadership it had already taken in the areas of water and air pollution control.

Actually any number of stories might illustrate the declining relevance of state environmental policy.  From nuclear fallout and leaded gasoline to the ozone hole and acid rain, the second half of the twentieth century contained a string of crises that revealed the diminished power state governments to control the environments within their borders.

Today global climate change threatens to undo so much of the work of preservation and protection New Yorkers accomplished in the golden era of state power.  State policy cannot protect Adirondack and Catskill ecosystems from the vagaries of global warming.  As a new Congress gathers in Washington, New Yorkers will be reminded of their relative powerlessness to control the fate of their own environment.  Even if New York State takes seriously the threats of global warming, senators and representatives from energy-rich and conservative states will undoubtedly profess disbelief and demand more proof.  States can—and have—acted to reduce greenhouse gas production, but this is clearly an issue that requires federal action.  The failure to act in Washington means failure everywhere, for everyone.  And boundaries don’t matter much to that story. 

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