Book Review of Presidents and the American Environment, by Otis L. Graham, Jr.

Published on July 6th, 2015

By Leon Kolankiewicz
July 6, 2015

Which U.S. presidents largely fought for America’s environment, and which largely fought against it? This is an intriguing question asked and ably answered in the engaging new book Presidents and the American Environment (University Press of Kansas, 2015) by one of America’s leading environmental historians – Dr. Otis L. Graham, Jr., Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a CAPS board member.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly to the uninitiated, the tale begins not in 1789 with President George Washington’s inauguration but a century later in 1889 with President Benjamin Harrison’s.  What happened with the 22 presidents who preceded Harrison, a full century’s worth?  Prof. Graham explains that the overriding, and really only issue of “environmental policy” – if it could even be called that – in that entire first century was the disposition of public lands: trying to expedite the transfer of lands from the federal government into private hands so as to facilitate their development by the burgeoning Euro-American population of the young, vigorous country.  It was not really until the last decade or two of the 19th century that the collective conscience of the country was pricked as Americans gradually became aware of the accelerating, chaotic destruction of forests, wildlife, fisheries, and water resources resulting from unchecked growth and greed. 

In 10 chapters proceeding chronologically all the way to the current occupant of the White House, President Barack Obama, Graham traces the ups and downs of presidential attitudes and policies towards the American environment. Perhaps ironically, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is two larger-than-life Republican presidents (celebrated by some, reviled by others) who provide the highest high and the lowest low:  progressive Theodore Roosevelt at the start of the 20th century and reactionary Ronald Reagan towards its end. TR looked to government as a restraint on the private greed he believed was plundering America’s limited, vulnerable bequest of natural resources, while RR looked to restrain that same government from interring with Americans’ God-given right to use natural resources that he saw as abundant and inexhaustible.  In the last chapter and final analysis, “Trying Again for Greener Presidents,” Graham tells us who among the 22 presidents since Harrison “robustly and with sustained enthusiasm took up the challenge of nature protection,” but I will leave that revelation for readers of the book. It has some surprises.

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