Lecture #23: Environmental Backlash

Suggested Readings:

Brian Drake, Loving Nature, Fearing the State: Environmentalism and Antigovernment Politics before Reagan (2013)
John Maddox, The Doomsday Syndrome (1973)
William Tucker, Progress and Privilege: America in the Age of Environmentalism (1982)
Dave Foreman, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior (1991)
Norman J. Vig & Michael E. Kraft, Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century (2015)
Patrick Allitt, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism (2014)
James McCarthy, "First World Political Ecology: Lessons from the Wise Use Movement," Environment and Planning 34 (2002), 1281-1302.


I. The Reagan Revolution

A dramatic shift in American environmental politics began during 1970s with the erosion of earlier bipartisan alignments that had been responsible for passing environmental legislation with lopsided bipartisan votes.

From Teddy Roosevelt through Richard Nixon, Democrats and Republicans had actually competed with each other over which had stronger conservation/environmental credentials.

Most major laws of the 1960s-70s were passed during the Nixon Administration with majority votes from members of both parties: NEPA, Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, EPA, NOAA, etc.

Barry Goldwater in 1964 had campaigned on a libertarian critique of social programs and excessive government intrusion on private liberty, while affirming the need for a strong military during the Cold War era. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign played on public fears of nuclear war, most notoriously in famous “Daisy” ad on 9/7/1964, implying that Goldwater might launch a nuclear World War III. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daisy_(advertisement)

Although Goldwater’s massive electoral defeat was seen by some as a death nell for the Republican Party by those on the left, in retrospect it’s now clear that it actually led to a long period of rebuilding in what would emerge as a new conservative movement that would transform Republican Party politics by the 1980s.

The old New Deal coalition that had sustained large Democratic majorities since 1930s eroded for many reasons:

  • civil rights legislation (especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, drew Southern white Democrats toward the Republican party, sustaining a “states rights” rhetoric that would increasingly be directed against other forms of federal intervention into state and local politics, eventually including environmental issues;
  • Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade led religious voters who had previously been sympathetic to environmental concerns away from secular environmentalists who embraced abortion (which they partly saw as a means for population control) toward the new emerging conservative movement (among prominent religious leaders who made this shift were Francis Schaeffer and Richard John Neuhaus);
  • economic concerns of lower- and middle-income Americans about 1970s inflation amid energy crisis, growing sense that environmental regulations might be adding to economic burdens, beginning of growing voter opposition to rising taxes;
  • disaffection of many working-class Americans from radical protest politics of Vietnam and social activism;
  • growing conservative distaste for environmentalist critique of American way of life, which at times seemed unpatriotic.

Reactions against 1960s-era environmentalism were appearing as early as 1970s, with conservative critics arguing that

  • environmental prophecies of doom were exaggerated;
  • progress was good, not bad;
  • excessive regulation threatened economic growth;
  • environmentalists were portrayed as privileged elites out of sympathy with the day-to-day struggles of working-class people.

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) combined these critiques with general hostility to government intervention in private sector, resulting in a systematic attack on Roosevelt/Pinchot-era conservation and the later regulatory apparatus of the 1960s and 1970s.

In his important "Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery," 2/18/1981, the new president declared: "American society experienced a virtual explosion in government regulation during the past decade. Between 1970 and 1979, expenditures for the major regulatory agencies quadrupled. The number of pages published annually in the Federal Register nearly tripled, and the number of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations increased by nearly two-thirds. The result has been higher prices, higher unemployment, and lower productivity growth. Overregulation causes small and independent business men and women, as well as large businesses to defer or terminate plans for expansion. And since they're responsible for most of the new jobs, those new jobs just aren't created." http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=43425

Widely publicized "Sagebrush Rebellion" in the early 1980s argued that federal public lands in the American West should either be turned over to state governments or privatized altogether.

James Watt (1938-), Secretary of Interior, emerged as a key player in the first Reagan Administration. Born and raised in Wyoming, attended University of Wyoming Law School, worked as a lobbyist and mid-level Justice Department attorney before going to work for conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, whose declared mission was to "defend individuals and the private sector from illegal and excessive bureaucratic regulation."

Watt sought to open wilderness-designated lands to coal/oil exploration; sell or lease of large blocks of public lands for private development; reduce land-use regulation; favor states and private sector development.

A firestorm of opposition resulted, with large-scale petition drives opposing Watts' actions, large growth in memberships in and contributions to environmental organizations.

Watt was widely criticized by secular environmentalists for an apocryphal remark before Congress that invoked evangelical faith and supposedly claimed that there was no need to protect natural resources because the End Times were near. His actual words (which did allude to his faith) were quite different, and the environmentalist backlash against was further alienating to conservative Christians. Watt was finally removed in 1983 for making a racial joke about one his review committees.

A similar story unfolded at EPA: Anne Gorsuch reduced the agency's budget and staff, seeking to end unnecessary regulation. A political scandal involving a Superfund site in California, the Stringfellow Dump, eventually led to Gorsuch's ouster in 1983.

Membership in environmental organizations grew quite dramatically in response to these actions, and this growth was seen by conservatives as a symbol both of their growing political influence and their status as a new "special interest" group.

Western rural resentment of federal land ownership and management would be a recurring source of concern throughout these episodes.

II. Environmentalist Counterrevolution

During the 1980s, there were also growing criticisms directed against "mainstream" environmental organizations (a term that was coined during this period) from the environmental left as well: older organizations were attacked for being coopted by regulators, insufficiently radical in their defense of the environment.

Forest Service lands: Reagan administration cutting of old-growth forests was attacked by wilderness activists who now saw the Progressive Era conservation of TR/Pinchot utilitarianism and multiple use as an assault on nature. In their eyes, the Forest Service had sold out to corporate development of lands that should be preserved forever in inviolate natural condition.

Dave Foreman's Earth First! was probably the most visible of these activist groups, which portrayed themselves as non-violent "eco-warriors": spiking trees, vandalizing logging and construction equipment, etc. The group was modeled on the 1975 novel The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1927-1989), in which a group of radical environmental activists plan to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam to liberate the wild country behind it.

New movement called "deep ecology" provided philosophical foundations for this new, more radical environmentalism: built on the romantic wilderness preservation tradition, it offered a biocentric vision of harmony with nature, ambivalence about the human place in nature, with an explicit critique of modernitty itself: the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009) was its best known spokesperson. Deep ecology contrasted human domination vs living in harmony with nature; infinite vs limited resources; anthropocentrism vs biocentrism; material economic growth vs living simply with appropriate technology; etc.

As we've already seen, the emerging environmental justice movement was also critiquing “mainstream” environmentalism and society from the left, emphasizing the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on poor and people of color, including international critiques such as those of Ramachandra Guha in India against deep ecology as an assault on the developing nations of the Global South.

Finally, the animal rights movement was also emerging from older anti-vivisectionist, humanitarian, vegetarian traditions, built this time on a rights-based defense of animal autonomy from human-induced pain/harm. Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation offered a philosophical defense of animal rights rooted in the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham that had also influence Gifford Pinchot--only now the "greatest number" for whom the "greatest good" was sought extended beyond the circle of human beings to include animals.

Notice the individualist focus of animal rights (shared with utilitarianism more generally) as opposed to ecosystem/wilderness/species concerns of deep ecology: serious tensions here.

All of these emerging forms of environmental advocacy suggested that although "environmentalism" had seemed like a single movement back at the time of the first Earth Day, the tensions within that movement were now so visible that there was as much conflict between environmentalists as there was conflict from conservative critics.

III. Learning from Complicity

The broader US public was fairly removed from many of these more radical forms of protest. Polling showed a strong public commitment to environmental protection, but this was balanced by an equal concern for economic prosperity and an implicit sense that no real tradeoff was needed between the two.

The 1980s saw diminishing public hopes for simple environmental solutions in 1980s. Instead, what we might call a politics of ambivalence emerged.

As a symbol of these new ambiguities and complexities, indoor air pollution became a political vehicle for shifting controversy away from corporations and industry, suggesting that domestic households were themselves a threat to public health. Growing concern about the quality of indoor air, with radon as a natural pollutant, significant health threat which in part derived from energy conservation measures that insulated houses and diminished ventilation during 1970s.

William K. Reilly was appointed to head EPA as a liberal Republican environmentalist by President George H. W. Bush. He sought more efficient, rational, market-based environmental protections by asking how to allocate limited environmental funds so as to get greatest benefit--and yet was repeatedly frustrated that public misperceptions of cost-benefit balance led to irrational choices. Very expensive and highly localized toxic waste dumps vs less expensive but more widespread radon remediation: which would save more lives?

Later critiques suggested that radon risk numbers had been exaggerated by relying on radon exposure and cancer among uranium miners (who were also heavy cigarette smokers).

The politics of disconnection: difficulty of ordinary citizens in connecting their own lives to larger, systemic environmental processes.

Power symbol: the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground off the south coast of Alaska in 3/24/89, have departed from the same port that had long ago shipped Kennecott's copper south to Tacoma. Before the disaster was contained, 11 million barrels had spilled and 1200 miles coastline were contaminated. Public outcry against corporate malfeasance produces clean-up that did further damage to the coast...all to provide gasoline for American automobiles.

(The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Gulf of Mexico in 2010 would replay many of these same dynamics.)

IV. Paradoxes of Preserving Sacred Land

The old-growth forest debate in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s and early 1990s can be seen as a symbolic of deepening of the conflict between old conservationist concern for productive resources and preservationist goal of protecting sacred land...now amplified by growing partisan divisions about environmental protection.

The spotted owl provided the occasion for legal action: 1973 Endangered Species Act had mandated federal protection for species (not ecosystems) threatened with extinction, so owl becomes a surrogate for forest itself. To save the owl from extinction, saving remaining old-growth forests would be required.

(The first such controversy over the Endangered Species Law had arisen in the late 1970s over the supposed threat of extinction for the snail darter fish at the Tellico Dam in Tennessee [TVA].)

In the old-growth controversy, heated debate arose pitting local resource economies and jobs against irreplaceable national resources. In fact, logging jobs were going away because of competition from other parts of the world, but environmental regulation was presented as the chief villain. One notorious bumper sticker asked "Are you an environmentalist, or do you work for a living?" The message seemed clear: environmentalism was the cause of privileged Americans who were indifferent to the economic suffering of their poorer neighbors.

V. Partisan Environments: What Counts as "Wise Use"?

1980s-1990s: the Wise Use (western U.S.) and Property Rights (eastern U.S.) movements made systematic conservative attacks on government-based environmentalism. Wise Use argued against federal ownership and management of western lands, seeking transfer of those lands to state and local governments and/or private sector as the earlier Sagebrush Rebellion had done. The property rights movement argued that government regulation represented a legal “taking” of private property.

By the end of the 20th century, the two parties had become starkly polarized on environmental issues as never before: Democrats favored wilderness protection, pollution control, energy conservation, regulatory oversight; Republicans favored development, rolling back federal control, protecting private property rights from government.

Geographical red-blue divide in recent presidential elections at both state and county level reflects longstanding tensions between urban and rural areas that have long been present in this course, amplified by changing partisan alignments, with rural areas in particular tending toward greater conservatism in part for environmental reasons.

Two powerful symbols:

  • In 1996, President Bill Clinton created one of several new national monuments under the Antiquities Act, Grand Staircase-Escalante in southern Utah, in the face of considerable opposition from Utah politicians and citizens. On December 4, 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he would attempt to reduce that monument by 80-90%, something that had never before occurred.
  • Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in far northern Alaska was created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960. In 1980, 7.6 million acres were designated as wilderness in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), with a separate section (the "1002 area") designated for further study for possible resource development, with congressional authorization required before any drilling could occur there. Despite decades of controversy, no congressional majority could be assembled either to authorize oil drilling or to designate the 1002 area as wilderness. Now, in 2017, that authorization seems likely to be included in the budget bill passed in December, 2017.

There are many other examples, of course, but these can serve as evidence of the extent to which the old bipartisan consensus around conservation and environmental protection has eroded over the past half century.