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American Natures: The Shape of Conflict in Environmental Law


Jedediah S. Purdy


Duke University - School of Law

February 17, 2011


Abstract:     
There is a firestorm of political and cultural conflict around environmental issues, including but running well beyond climate change. Legal scholarship is in a bad position to make sense of this conflict because the field has concentrated on making sound policy recommendations to an idealized lawmaker, ignoring the deeply held and sharply clashing values that drive, or block, environmental lawmaking. This Article sets out a framework for understanding and engaging the clash of values in environmental law and, by extension, approaching the field more generally. Americans have held, and legislated based upon, four distinct ideas about why the natural world matters and how we should govern it. Each of these conceptions persists in a body of environmental law, a network of interest and advocacy groups, the attitudes and even identities of ordinary citizens, and even the American landscape. The first, Providential Republicanism, treats nature as intended for productive human use, and gives high status to its users: this idea justified the European claim to North America, defined public debates about nature in the Early Republic and persists in important aspects of private and public land-use law. The second conception, Progressive Management, arose in the later nineteenth century as part of a broader legal reform movement, and gave its shape to much of federal lands policy, notably creation of the national forests and national parks. In this idea, nature’s productive use requires extensive management by public-spirited experts, whom reformers imagined as steering the environmental policy of the administrative state. The third conception, Romantic Epiphany, concentrates on the aesthetic and spiritual value of nature, and has defined both national parks policy and the creation of the national wilderness system, and lent essential support to the Endangered Species Act. This idea entered environmental politics at the turn of the last century, with the efforts of the Sierra Club and other innovators. The most recent conception of nature, Ecological Interdependence, arose in the middle of the twentieth century and shaped much of the environmental law of the 1970s and thereafter. This conception treats nature as an intensely inter-permeable web, which humans are unavoidably part of, to our benefit and hazard. Because all these ideas persist today in environmental law and politics, they provide a map of our existing statutes and doctrines and the conflicts around those laws and emerging issues such as climate change.

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Date posted: February 19, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Purdy, Jedediah S., American Natures: The Shape of Conflict in Environmental Law (February 17, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1763833 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1763833

Contact Information

Jedediah S. Purdy (Contact Author)
Duke University - School of Law ( email )
Box 90360
Duke School of Law
Durham, NC 27708
United States
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