Michael Schudson

 

On his book The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945–1975

Cover Interview of February 13, 2019

A close-up

I think the most interesting and surprising chapter in the book is the one on the role of public disclosure in environmental legislation. What is detailed, especially on pp. 205-219, indicates that the key sponsors of the key law, the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, were interested exclusively in improving environmental protection, not in transparency of any sort. The key provision of the law was the requirement that any federal agency proposing actions that might have adverse effects on the environment must produce a report assessing the environmental impact that the proposed action might have, how likely the bad effects could be, and what measures, if any, could mitigate the harm.

Most important, these environmental impact statements had to be issued before agencies began to execute their proposed plans. They had to be made public in a timely matter. Private citizens and interest groups could then make their voices heard in the halls of executive agencies.

Part of what is so fascinating to me about this is that the provision in the law that environmental impact assessments be made public – rather than just shared among government agencies as the bill’s sponsors originally proposed – seems to have been an afterthought. And, indeed, not until early judicial interpretations of the law began to appear, a year after the law took effect, did Congress realize that the publicness of the whole procedure would give rise to lawsuits – lots of them! – against the government on behalf of the environment. Transparency profoundly transformed the battlefield over environmental protection, and at a moment when general public interest in environmental issues was just beginning to develop.