Conservation & Environmental Policy

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 sections. We will first take stock of the alarming environmental transformations currently in motion and consider divergent perspectives regarding their 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 emergent politics of the Green New Deal (GND)—a quickly unfolding case study and massive live experiment, being run right before our eyes, 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 how the GND evolves as it “enters” the policy process, by observing the maneuvers and strategies of its protagonists, by documenting what happens to it (and perhaps, as a result of it), and by analyzing the dynamic tensions and coalitions and clashes among the various actors now advancing it, contesting it, and vying to shape it, all of them scrambling to figure out what it represents and how to position themselves in relation to it—we can gain critical insights into the politics, and prospects, of conservation and environmental policy-making at this momentous historical crossroads.

Spring 2019, 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).