One criticism that can be made of Patrick Allitt is that he usually writes with the historian’s “objective” detachment, concealing his own opinions or conclusions about his subject matter. His previous histories, on religion and on American conservatism, are very well done; but at the end you have no idea whether Allitt approves of, or agrees with, any of the figures or ideas he treats.
That is not the case with this new history of postwar environmentalism in America. He explains in the preface that his editors at Penguin “wanted me not just to describe and explain the environmental debates of this era but to stake out a clear position.” This he has done. But the result is a lovely orphan of a book that deserves widespread readership and course adoption yet is likely to end up in the literary equivalent of a foster home. It is an orphan because it is critical of the established environmental orthodoxies (especially on climate change) while not fully aligning itself with the most vocal critics of environmentalism, who tend to demand unequivocal red meat. As such, A Climate of Crisis represents a commendable risk on Penguin’s part.
Such is the polarization of environmentalism these days that, from a publishing point of view, the safest path is to go all-in with one of the fortified camps, deploying the usual set-piece artillery volleys about neo-Malthusianism versus market cornucopianism. The virtue of Allitt’s history is a fresh approach to familiar themes and controversies, and from a perspective only occasionally brought to bear on the subject. Even if he has a few details wrong, or incomplete, he gets the larger story right. While he ratifies conventional sensibilities about the permanence of environmental problems—between the Malthusian pessimists and the optimists who think environmental problems are manageable—Allitt doesn’t hesitate to declare, “My own view is that the optimists have been right on most of these questions.” This conclusion, stated at the outset, is uncongenial to environmentalists and inconvenient to journalists, who tend to be environmental activists with bylines.
Environmentalism is often traced to 19th-century Romanticism or Theodore Roosevelt-era conservationism. But Allitt chooses to start his timeline with the arrival of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II. The Bomb represented something new: Previous apocalyptic specters were thought to be the work of God, or chance; but with the Bomb, the prospect of a purely man-made apocalypse had come of age. Environmentalism, Allitt suggests, became a free rider to this new anthro-apocalyptic mood, as media sensationalism combined with the desire of environmental scientists to get a piece of the action. Add to this mix the “crisis entrepreneurs” (my term) of environmental activism, and the subsequent bureaucracy created around it, and you have all the pieces in place for the bitterly polarized world of today.
Allitt decries the extreme polarization over the environment while affirming the importance of environmental problems. He gives good summary accounts of the main episodes and figures of early modern environmentalism, from the deadly 1948 smog siege of Donora, Pennsylvania, to the Cuyahoga River fires of the 1950s and ’60s—along with sketches of Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Garrett Hardin, and Barry Commoner, among others. But early on, he lays out the ground for discounting the central outlook of environmentalists without directly calling them to task for their intellectual errors.
For example, Allitt writes: “History also demonstrates that there is a vital link between industrialization, wealth, and environmentalism. Only wealthy societies practice environmental protection on a significant scale.” Moreover, the developing world has not the luxury of adhering to the whims of wealthy Western environmentalists precisely because environmentalism is a luxury good: “In the early stages, however, it is much better to have ‘dirty’ industrialization than none at all. Industrialization is the only way for societies to overcome mass poverty.”
He pours subtle scorn on Paul Ehrlich and the population bomb crowd, recalling some embarrassing statements of regret that malaria had been conquered and shocking indifference to the human rights violations that China’s one-child policy requires. He also notes the “authoritarian overtones” that accompany many environmental enthusiasms.