This course serves as an introduction to the politics of conservation and environmental policy-making in the United States. The class is divided into four units. We will first take stock of the alarming environmental transformations currently in motion and consider divergent perspectives regarding the political implications. Next, we will look historically at the key actors, institutions, and political processes that have comprised the “policy process” and examine the roles of different branches of government in crafting conservation and environmental policy in this country. We then turn our attention to a selection of case studies, each focusing on an important area of policy, to familiarize you with the substantive content of those policies as well as the ideas, interests, and political struggles that shaped them. Finally, we will discuss the specific turbulences that define the present moment and ponder how they can, and perhaps should, be addressed.
A central puzzle preoccupying this course, and a pressing challenge for you to wrestle with throughout our time together, is the question of how to reconcile your increasingly detailed knowledge of (1) the persistent difficulties facing existing institutions and political processes for addressing environmental problems (notwithstanding some identifiable successes) with (2) the kinds of rapid, systemic changes urgently needed—and indeed, quite overdue at this late hour—to forestall the more outrageously cataclysmic scenarios of environmental ruination predicted by global change scientists. In other words, we confront a perennial question of social change: how to square what is believed to be necessary with what is believed to be possible.
To try to answer this question, we will look to the election primaries currently underway as they build toward the US general election in November. These contests serve as a living case study wherein multiple candidates — including and especially those championing what has come to be known as the Green New Deal — are endeavouring to test the current limits of political possibility with the explicit aim of bridging this tremendous distance between the necessary and the possible. By watching closely the maneuvers and strategic positioning of these political actors, by examining their policy platforms, by documenting what happens to them (and perhaps, as a result of them), and by analyzing the historical forces, sedimented institutions, and contemporary power relations they must negotiate — we can gain critical insights into the politics, and prospects, for conservation and environmental policy-making at this momentous historical crossroads.
Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Middlebury College (ENVS 211)
Photo: Newly-elected Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking at a protest organized by the Sunrise Movement in the office of the incoming Speaker of the House (November 13, 2018).