This thesis discusses the rise of air pollution to become a major public and official concern in America during the 25 years after 1945. What had been largely ignored as a sporadic local smoke nuisance was seen as a nationwide crisis demanding federal intervention by 1970.
Although air pollution was among the most salient issues creating a sense of environmental crisis and facilitating the emergence of environmentalism before Earth Day, 1970, recent environmental history studies have largely overlooked it, focusing instead on traditional conservation and wilderness preservation organizations and often criticizing these for their white, male, affluent, "elitist" character. However, the public-health/antipollution wing of early environmentalism drew broader support from women, minorities, and the working class as well, as citizens mobilized regarding real threats, not mere amenities or linguistic constructs.
Air pollution was an issue in England, Continental Europe, and America long before 1945 due to health worries and economic damage, yet local government and industry throughout the industrial world long persisted in constructing the issue as merely an aesthetic nuisance, aided by quietist scientific and medical experts. Even after 1945, when major improvements in science and technology expanded control capabilities and understanding, local and state power structures often still ignored the problem and growing public complaints. Consequently, angry citizens increasingly demanded federal intervention to override state/local nonfeasance, and the federal government gradually responded, creating the (now sometimes criticized) present federal regulatory approach to environmental policy.
Three case studies--Los Angeles, New York City, and rural central Florida--depict wider variations, contrasts and similarities in the national battle against air pollution and illustrate why traditional localism and federalism were unable to adequately address such aspects of the problem as recalcitrant interstate industries, interstate pollution problems, or state/local governments deliberately sheltering polluting industries. This thesis also reflects on other persistent problems and patterns in environmental policy, such as the politicization of science and medicine to serve as weapons in legal battles for economic purposes, or the general public's frequent refusal, even while blasting major industrial polluters, to accept fully their own responsibility for causing environmental degradation.