Beginning in 1970, the "environmental decade," a swift and sweeping transformation in American law radically reshaped U.S. pollution control policies. This regulatory revolution was mounted on three political foundations: skillful pressure-group politics, effective legislative advocacy, and aroused public concern about environmental degradation. These traditional American political techniques promoted, and continue to shape, contemporary pollution control through U.S. political governmental institutions.

The Political Foundations: Pressure-Group Politics

Americans and their public officials paid scant attention to growing evidence of environmental degradation across the nation until the late 1960s. Air and water pollution control was considered the responsibility of state and local

Antoine Waechter (at center), French Green Party member, participating in a demonstration against the building of the Serre de la Fare dam, along the Loire headwaters. (© Bernard Bisson/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
Antoine Waechter (at center), French Green Party member, participating in a demonstration against the building of the Serre de la Fare dam, along the Loire headwaters. (
© Bernard Bisson/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.
governments. Most states did little more than set drinking water standards to protect public health from a few contaminants like bacterial diseases, fearing that more aggressive control of air and water pollutants would inhibit economic growth and drive resident business and industry to other states. Such mounting environmental degradation as the Cuyahoga River fire and Love Canal focused national attention on the need for environmental restoration. This was translated into bold new governmental policies largely by environmental pressure groups during the 1960s and 1970s.

The strength of the new environmental movement lay in organized political activism, coalition building, and legislative advocacy—the fundamentals of effective group politics. The focus of this political pressure was primarily the federal government with its vast authority and resources for creating nationwide pollution control. No single event dramatized the environmental movement's rise to national importance more than the first Earth Day in April 1970—a nationally televised Washington rally witnessed by 35 million Americans—that swiftly elevated public awareness of environmental degradation while advertising, especially for public officials, environmentalism's newly acquired political clout.

Pressure-Group Politics Old and New

Environmentalism's political strength depends on its leadership's skill in creating a broad and diverse alliance of interests to support environmental advocacy. The environmental movement embraces a great diversity of influential organizations, including traditional conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, established public health advocates like the American Cancer Society, newly formed environmental pressure groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and Friends of the Earth, major labor unions, public interest science organizations, and countless local organizations. Additionally, environmentalists are proficient recruiters. After the first Earth Day, environmentalist organizations multiplied and enriched their political resources, often creating innovative new organizational forms and strategies. Prior to 1970, fewer than twenty-five significant national environmental groups existed with a combined membership approaching 500,000—of these, perhaps a half-dozen organizations were important participants in national policymaking. Several hundred influential national environmentalist groups are politically active; five of the most important—the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and Wilderness Society—alone have a combined membership exceeding seven million. Although all the major organizations use the sophisticated resources of pressure-group politics—mass-mailing technology, skilled media specialists, and full-time legislative lobbyists—the environmental movement has also benefited by developing specialized legal advocacy groups, like the National Resources Defense Council, staffed primarily with lawyers and scientific experts committed exclusively to litigation that establishes important legal precedents and enforces pollution-control regulations for environmental protection.

Creating and Mobilizing Public Opinion

The radical transformation of U.S. pollution-control laws would have been impossible without strong, consistent public pressure on federal and state governments, especially on the Congress and state legislators. Current public opinion polls suggest that more than 80 percent of Americans agree with the goals of the environmental movement. The strength of this support is suggested by other polls consistently reporting since 1980 that more than two-thirds of the public believe environmental protection should be a major government priority, even at the risk of reducing economic growth. The breadth and depth of this ecological consciousness are remarkable, considering that few Americans understood the implications of ecology or the nature of domestic environmental pollution only a few decades ago. The most important political impact of this vigorous public environmentalism is on the electoral system: Candidates for major federal and state office are now customarily expected to support strong pollution controls and other ecologically protective policies, at least in principle. While Americans often disagree vigorously over pollution control methods, air and water pollution regulation itself is now an enduring component of the "American political consensus"—those policies Americans overwhelmingly view as the essential responsibility of their government.

A Regulatory Revolution: The Environmental Decade

The design of U.S. air and water pollution control was crafted in federal law during the "environmental decade" between 1970 and 1980. Responding to dramatic media revelations of ecological deterioration, growing environmental group pressure, and voter concerns, Congress laid the legislative foundation for all contemporary regulation through six statutes: The Clean Air Act Amendments (1970), the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments (1972), the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund) in 1980. Altogether, the Congress wrote or amended nineteen major environmental laws in this remarkable decade. And by changing the law, Congress also reordered its political underpinning.

Federal Leadership

The laws listed above radically recast the U.S. approach to pollution management. Most important, the federal government assumed the primary responsibility for air and water pollution regulation; Washington set national pollution standards and supervised their implementation, thus defining pollution control priorities and prescribing acceptable control methods. The Clean Air Act, for example, now requires all states to control at least six dangerous pollutants (sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, lead, particulates, and volatile organic compounds) and a rapidly growing list of other substances currently believed to be "air toxins." The act additionally mandates that car manufacturers install pollution-control devices on all new automobiles. The new pollution laws also extended federal protection to the natural environment instead of exclusively to human health and safety. The Toxic Substances Control Act, for example, authorizes the federal government to regulate the manufacture, sale, or use of any chemical presenting "an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment."

Regulatory Federalism

Regulatory federalism has become a fundamental regulatory principle. This means that Washington prescribes national pollution standards and control procedures, but allocates the appropriate resources to states so they assume the primary responsibility for implementing and enforcing these requirements. States are then said to exercise "delegated authority." Using delegated authority, for instance, thirty-eight states as of 2002 issue permits for water pollution discharges required by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments and forty-nine states certify pesticides for local use as required by the Federal Environmental Pesticides Control Act (1972). Thus, the states assume an essential and highly influential role in national pollution regulation; pollution policymaking continually requires negotiation, conflict, and cooperation between the states and Washington.

New Regulatory Agencies

New federal agencies were created, and others reorganized, to implement these new control programs. The most important federal pollution control entity is now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created in 1972. The EPA is the nation's largest regulatory agency with 18,000 employees, a 2002 budget exceeding $7.5 billion, and responsibility to fully or partially implement all the nation's important pollution control laws. In 1970 the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a much smaller agency, was created within the White House to advise the President on environmental affairs. At the same time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was created within the U.S. Department of Commerce to conduct research on and monitoring of ocean and atmospheric pollution. The authority and staff of many other federal agencies concerned with environmental quality, such as the Department of the Interior, were also vastly expanded to implement new pollution control programs. These agencies also provide research support and grants to the states to facilitate the enforcement of pollution control laws. The EPA, for instance, has distributed more than $150 billion in grants to state and local governments to upgrade their sewage treatment systems.

New Policymaking Procedures

Federal pollution laws created new, often controversial, regulatory procedures. The most contentious of these is risk assessment —the process used by regulatory agencies to determine if a substance constitutes a sufficient threat to human health and safety, or to the environment, to require control. Federal pollution laws, including the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and Superfund, require the EPA or other responsible agencies to conduct such risk assessments—usually focused on the risk of cancer—on thousands of chemicals never previously evaluated according to the rigorous new standards. Risk assessments proceed slowly due to the huge number of substances involved, a lack of basic information about their distribution and impact, and intense controversy about the appropriate procedures for the assessments.

Federal pollution legislation has also vastly increased opportunities for the public, and particularly environmental advocacy groups, to become informed and involved in federal environmental decision making. Major federal pollution laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts removed a major legal impediment to public involvement in pollution control by granting individuals and organizations standing to sue federal and state agencies for failure to enforce pollution control laws. Almost all federal environmental laws also require the responsible federal and state agencies to actively inform the public and to provide numerous opportunities for public comment and review of contemplated regulations.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is apparent that the environmental movement permanently and comprehensively altered the law and politics of U.S. pollution regulation. Pressure-group politics, public opinion, and congressional legislation were the powerful driving forces in this change. The result was unprecedented, aggressive federal leadership in an active national program of pollution control based on federally mandated pollution standards and pollution controls. By promoting new national pollution control laws and agencies, expanded opportunities for public involvement in pollution regulation, and vigorous public concern for environmental degradation, the environmental movement has created a continuing "environmental era."



Buck, Susan J. (1996). Understanding Environmental Administration and Law, 2nd edition. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Cohen, Richard E. (1995). Washington at Work: Back Rooms and Clean Air, 2nd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Graham, Mary. (1999). The Morning after Earth Day: Practical Environmental Politics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Marzotto, Toni; Moshier Burnor, Vicky; and Bonham, Gorden Scott Bonham. (2000). The Evolution of Public Policy: Cars and the Environment. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Rosenbaum, Walter A. (2002). Environmental Politics and Policy, 5th edition. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Internet Resource

Project on Teaching Global Environmental Politics Web site. Available from http://webpub.alleg.edu/employee .

Walter A. Rosenbaum

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