History of Environmental Political Thought Part 1

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Week 2 Narratives – History of Environmental Political Thought Part 1

  • Read Chapters 1-3 in Our Limits Transgressed: Environmental Political Though in America
  • Read this week’s narrative
  • Answer the following reading comprehension question:

Briefly describe 6 critiques of the Neo-Malthusians that Taylor offers to readers.

Social Impacts of Reproductive Rights & Health

Week 2 Narratives – History of Environmental Political Thought Part 1

Though the book title is terrible, Our Limits Transgressed is a comprehensive, academic view into the development of environmental political thought in the United States.  It develops a framework for the reader to understand the underpinnings of how environmental thinkers view government’s role in managing natural resources.

These baseline frameworks of environmental policy theory can be boiled down to a few basic issues of the roles of the federal government.  Is an authoritarian or democratic government better suited for the distribution and management of limited natural resources; or is a mix of some government controls with the promotion of individual freedom more effective?  Should the environmental policy choices be looked at from an anthropocentric or biocentric perspective?  In other words, should environmental policy and regulation focus more on how humans should manage and control nature (anthropocentric); or should rules be driven to allow nature to move and exist for the benefit of itself (biocentric)?

It should also be remembered that environmental political theory is relatively young when compared to other administrative and political theory principles.  Though it began to be developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it really didn’t begin to mature until the 1960s.  The rise of the industrial age and increased leisure time allowed people to think more about natural resource management and its impact. Because it is in its infancy, environmental policy theory and thought is still evolving.

Chapter 1 uses two major figures to lay the ground work for two environmental traditions that gave rise to philosophies discussed in the rest of the book.  Henry David Thoreau represents the Pastoral perspective of environmental thought, while Gifford Pinchot represents Progressive Conservationism.


  • Pastoralism
  • Biocentric
  • Nature can teach us moral lessons; it can educate us
  • Nature plays the moral role of providing refuge from worldly immorality; e.g. simplicity of lifestyle
  • Deep ecology (Links to an external site.): advocacy of the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs
  • “In wildness is the preservation of the world”

History of Environmental Political Thought

Gifford Pinchot

  • Progressive conservationism
  • Anthropocentric
  • Nature supports a liberal democratic society
  • If managed properly, natural resources are limitless.
  • Scientific management, rational planning, and bureaucratic processes
  • Natural resources should benefit all and create equal opportunity

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on those thinkers that lean toward the progressive conservation end of the environmental political spectrum but differ from Pinchot in how it should be implemented.

Chapter 2 delves into the politics of scarcity and the fears of those that prescribed to the thinking that began with Thomas Malthus: that the earth has a finite amount of resources on earth; there is a carrying capacity to earth and at some point when the earth’s population grows too large, there will be a crash to the system.  For more about Thomas Malthus, click here (Links to an external site.)

Neo-Malthusians believe that resources can be managed in a scientific manner; however, they don’t believe in the democratic ideals like Pinchot.  They believe that a more authoritarian government is needed in order to properly manage earth’s natural resources.

Chapter 3 discusses liberal reformulations of Neo-Malthusians.  These thinkers prescribe to the idea that progressive conservationism does not do enough to protect natural resources; though they may be too pragmatic for pastoralists.   They hold on to democratic idealism and that nature should be endowed with “rights” because of its intrinsic values.

Some of the more well known of these thinkers are Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), Steward Udall (former Secretary of the Interior), and Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac).  These men and women railed against commercial exploitation of the environment which they saw as utilitarianism’s weakness.  They advocated to rid the world of capitalistic abuse and sought out a new land ethic.  This came mostly in the form of getting people to see not only the commercial value of nature but also its non-utilitarian values. Preservation would be needed in order to protect the last remaining wild places.  The Wilderness Act of 1964 is an obvious by-product of this thinking during that time.

Last Updated on July 21, 2020 by EssayPro