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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
The National Environmental Policy Act: An Agenda for the Future, by Lynton Keith Caldwell, Indiana University; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. xx, 209 pp.
Reviewed by Diane Austin, Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.
Professor Lynton Caldwell has a
long and distinguished career in environmental policy making and evaluation,
and in this book he endeavors to rectify what he perceives has been the
misrepresentation of the National Environmental Policy Act and its applicability
in both national and international contexts. The topic is timely and relevant
as we approach the 21st century with a human population of unprecedented
size having the capacity to act and interact on a global scale.
In his book, Professor Caldwell
aims to clarify the intent of NEPA and demonstrate how, years after its
passage, it still offers a sound national strategy for protecting both
the U.S. and the global environment. His central thesis is that ãNEPA
represents a long-term reconfiguration of assumptions and values in American
society and government and is representative of a trend emerging throughout
the worldä (p. 142) and that NEPA has made a ãmajor strategic
contributionä toward the 21st century challenge of finding a ãviable,
reliable institutional structure through which global issues can be safely
and effectively addressedä (p. 143). He brings together his
personal experience with the formulation of NEPA and his more recent efforts
to design international environmental policy to describe how NEPA has
influenced public policy in the U.S. and abroad and how it can be better
applied and administered. The core chapter titles, ãEnvironmental
Impact Assessment,ä ãIntegrating Environmental Policy,ä
ãInternational Environmental Policy,ä and ãNEPA and
the Global Environment,ä summarize the areas to which Professor Caldwell
devotes attention. In the latter two chapters, Caldwell distinguishes
between international policies between and among individual nations and
multinational regional issues affecting all or most nations.
The book is dedicated to U.S. Senator
Henry M. Jackson, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Interior and
Insular Affairs who introduced NEPA and helped guide its passage in the
Senate in 1969, and it provides valuable information about the process
by which the Act came into being. It is an effort to renew the original
intent of NEPA as a statement of environmental policy that provides guidance
in making decisions where environmental values are in conflict with other
values. Throughout the book, Caldwell bemoans the extent to which NEPA
and the Council on Environmental Quality that the Act created have been
treated as symbolic rather than substantive entities. He laments that
the purpose of NEPA has been interpreted as merely to direct the preparation
of environmental impact assessments without recognition that the Act's
precepts have the status of legal principles which can be implemented
by executive acts or the courts. He argues that NEPA legislates values
ãby giving them national visibility and assisting in their implementationä
(p. xviii). Caldwell then argues for a broad interpretation of NEPA in
international as well as domestic affairs.
The book is filled with interesting
and useful information and is thought-provoking. However, two significant
weaknesses detract from its value. First, Chapter One is a somewhat confused
discussion of environmental values and perceptions, included to provide
background to Caldwell's claim that NEPA expresses a maturing of
values ãwidely but not universallyä held by Americans. Caldwell
also argues that environmentalism is a growing movement with international
character and indicates that NEPA will be fully implemented when the latent
environmental values of the American public are finally realized by the
executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of the U.S. government.
What he ignores, though, is the evidence that the environmental movement
in America has lost both momentum and support (see, for example, Dowie
1995). Though he comments that there is no consensus on how the world
works or humans' place in it and occasionally expresses pessimism
about the American understanding of or commitment to the environment,
he nevertheless argues that NEPA is sufficient to ensure a sustainable
and positive future. This latter argument is my main criticism with the
Throughout the book, Caldwell vacillates
between declaring that NEPA is adequate and demonstrating how its original
intent has been thwarted. Though he argues that NEPA articulates core
values in American society, he also admits it would not pass if it were
proposed in 1997 and that the U.S. has failed to ratify international
conventions when they conflict with our economic interests. While NEPA
opens the possibility for environmental protection, it does not ensure
it and instead relies on the president and the courts for implementation.
As Caldwell asserts, some of the problems with the implementation of NEPA
are problems of the U.S. political system, such as the move away from
an institutional to a personal presidency where individual image is more
important than carrying out the laws of the land and the continuing practice
through which conservative courts limit policy through legal interpretation.
However, I would argue that the way NEPA has been interpreted and implemented
at home and has contributed to the movement of resource extraction, waste
disposal, and similar noxious activities to other countries and U.S. territories
reflects the tenuous nature of American environmental values.
Americans support policies and practices
that allow us to continue under the illusion that we can have unlimited
economic expansion and material consumption and still protect the environment.
Like recycling (see Ackerman 1997), NEPA reflects a particular American
style of environmental values in that it portrays a favorable image and
lets us believe we are doing something, but does not interfere with our
self-indulgent pursuit of material wealth. It is unclear what Caldwell
means when he argues that NEPA should be fully implemented. Despite his
efforts to clarify its intent and his implicit assumption that we can
determine now what is sustainable and what is best for future generations,
the Act does not specify what implementation would look like. Caldwell
suggests that in the future we will be forced to deal with economic, population,
and energy issues and that NEPA gives us the proper foundation to do so.
I disagree. NEPA has persisted because it has allowed us to avoid the
big issues, and any attempts to use it to force attention to those problems
at a national level or the implications of our continued exploitation
of the people, places, and resources outside the U.S. will fail. Caldwell
acknowledges that we may choose not to address the big issues, but he
continually returns to discuss NEPA's potential in both national
and international contexts. I contend that the lack of political will
to fully implement the policy in the U.S. precludes implementation in
an international context. Rather, it is the international arena that serves
to relieve much of the pressure of environmental protection laws at home.
Without that pressure valve, I wonder how the existing U.S. policies would
fare. Caldwell's concluding argument for a constitutional amendment
for the environment is interesting, but the evidence presented in the
book does not lead a reader to accept such a conclusion.
Though filled with insights and information on U.S. environmental policy development, Caldwell's book requires at least some background on NEPA and the policy debates it has engendered as it reads in places like a defense of the Act and the EIS process against specific criticisms, many of which are not discussed in detail and may not be readily apparent even to an educated reader. Certainly, NEPA stands as a model statement of environmental policy. Unfortunately, it can be argued that its continued existence rests as much on the extent to which legislators, presidents, and the courts in the U.S. have been able to support its rhetoric without embracing its purpose as it does on its position as a reflection of shared environmental values. Consequently, though in many respects the U.S. has been a leader in environmental policy, the U.S. example of passing the Act and then carefully constraining its implementation should not be held up as something to be emulated elsewhere in the world.