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Environmentalists are used to wallowing in misery–in fact, it makes them happy–but the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this week should offer up an extra helping of woe, for the movement has lost its mojo. Opinion surveys show not only that public belief in and concern for global warming is plummeting, but that environmentalism in general is falling out of favor. They have no one to blame but themselves.
The first Earth Day in 1970 was a sensation, amounting to a coming out party for a major new social and political force, and for the next decade the environmental movement became arguably the most rapidly successful social movement in U.S. history, with a string of landmark national statutes passed in quick succession with large bipartisan majorities, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and culminating in the Superfund toxic cleanup act in 1980. But the field has been stagnant ever since, with environmental issues becoming highly polarized on ideological lines resulting in a complete stalemate on new legislative policy initiatives (though environmentalists are still thriving in the courtroom and in the bureaucracy).
In 1990, according to an ABC News/Gallup survey series, 75 percent of Americans said they considered themselves to be environmentalists, with only 24 percent saying they did not. The numbers have been slowly reversing over the last decade. As of 2008 (the most recent year the question was asked), only 41 percent of Americans identified themselves as environmentalists, with 58 percent now saying they do not. And Gallup’s annual environmental survey also finds the public now favors economic growth over environmental protection by a 53-38 margin. For most of the last 25 years, even during previous recessions, the public favored the environment over the economy by as much as a two-to-one margin. In 1991, the beginning of a recession, the margin was 71-20 in favor of environmental protection over the economy. Surveys also show surging support for nuclear power and expanded oil and gas production in the U.S. No wonder the 40th anniversary of Earth Day is passing quietly this year.
How did environmentalists squander their vast reservoir of public enthusiasm? A closer look back at the very first Earth Day in 1970 reveals a number of ironies about modern environmentalism that have been forgotten by almost everyone, especially environmentalists. Although ecology, as it was called then, was an obvious issue for the liberal reform tradition, it also had a strong conservative and Republican constituency for the common sense reason that no one is for polluted air and dirty water. Even the evil corporations of leftist lore have a high enough self-regard to not want to poison their customer base. Environmentalism in 1970 appeared to be the perfect consensus issue to take the place of increasingly contentious social policy.
Not only did Richard Nixon create the Environmental Protection Agency by executive fiat (Nixon proposed 36 different environmental laws in 1970), he also competed with Democratic Senator Ed Muskie to see who could be the toughest on reducing air pollution. Out in California, Governor Ronald Reagan devoted fully a third of his 1970 state of the state speech to the environment, declaring “the absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment.” Reagan wrote in Nation’s Business that “the one major issue that is most likely to dominate the nation’s political attention in the 1970s [is] environmental protection. . . . The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our roads and other public projects must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance.” Shortly after the first Earth Day, National Review sounded more like the Sierra Club than a conservative standard-bearer: “If [corporations] do not stop [polluting] we must find ways to compel them in some way to do so. . . . Important people must be interfered with before notice will be taken of disagreeable facts. Instead of demonstrating on Fifth Avenue on behalf of baby seals, the saviors of the environment would get far better results picketing the country clubs of Nassau, Fairfield, and Morris counties.” National Review!
To be sure, there were many conservatives who were wary of environmentalism from the beginning. The Daughters of the American Revolution unintentionally endorsed pollution with their poorly phrased complaint that “Subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them.” The fact that the date designated for Earth Day–April 22–also happens to be Lenin’s birthday further fueled the suspicions of the paranoid right. But other conservatives, including Senator Barry Goldwater (a one time member of the Sierra Club) and Senator James Buckley (enthusiastic co-sponsor of the Endangered Species Act) joined the environmental bandwagon.
Meanwhile, the most activist elements of the left were at best ambivalent about Earth Day; some were actually opposed. Many on the Left, Norman Podhoretz observed in Commentary, thought that “the whole issue of the environment represented a maneuver to distract the national attention from Vietnam and the problems of blacks.” Teach-ins on college campuses on Earth Day were viewed with alarm by the anti-war movement. “SDS chapters on many campuses,” Time reported, “have also publicly embraced anti-ecology because President Nixon is publicly pro-ecology.” “Rallying around the ecology banner is the biggest assortment of ill-matched allies since the Crusades,” sniffed the New Republic in a critical editorial about the “ecology craze.” “Worst of all, of course, the ecology binge provides a cop-out for a President and a populace too cheap or too gutless or too tired or too frustrated or too all of them to tangle harder with some old problems that have proved resistant and emotionally unsatisfying to boot.” Writing in Science magazine, Amitai Etzioni of Columbia University dismissed ecology as a “fad,” and thought that “the newly found environmental dangers are being vastly exaggerated.” Even if not exaggerated, Etzioni thought the environment was the wrong priority: “Fighting hunger, malnutrition, and rats should be given priority over saving wildlife, and improving our schools over constructing waste disposal systems.” And civil rights leaders, as I have noted previously in The Weekly Standard, were openly hostile to Earth Day. For example, Richard Hatcher, the black mayor of Gary, Indiana, remarked: “The nation’s concern for the environment has done what George Wallace was unable to do–distract the nation from the human problems of black and brown Americans.”
Of course, the organized environmental movement that sprang into being around the first Earth Day had the civil rights movement in mind as its model, combining protest with lawsuits and lobbying. The environmental movement followed the civil rights movement almost in lockstep, moving to the left and failing to modernize itself as conditions changed. For much of the civil rights movement, racial conditions are always reminiscent of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma; for much of the environmental movement, the Cuyahoga River is always burning. (Even President Obama noted in Earth Day video message this week that the Cuyahoga River is cleaner today than it has been in a century.) Very quickly the Left recognized the potential for environmentalism as a vehicle for its broader ambitions. “Ecology,” the New Republic’s James Ridgeway wrote in a reversal of that magazine’s initial skepticism about the issue, “offered liberal-minded people what they had longed for, a safe, rational and above all peaceful way of seeming to remake society . . . [and] developing a more coherent central state.”
On the surface conservatives should be an obvious constituency for conservation on etymological grounds alone. Beyond etymology, one can see a close kinship between conservatism and environmentalism on a deeper level; namely, that from the viewpoint of traditionalist conservatism they are both champions of lost causes; both are heralds against the remorseless imperatives of relentless progress–recall William F. Buckley’s famous mission statement for modern conservatism: “To stand athwart history yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” That could almost be the mission statement of Greenpeace, or Earth First. Both conservatism and environmentalism are powerless to stop progress in its tracks; hence both derive much of their imagination from an appreciation of the tragic sense of life.
But conservatives quickly became alienated from the issue by the revolutionary apocalypticism of the dominant voices of environmentalism, the costly regulatory bureaucracy that emerged in Washington, and the disregard for private property rights in environmental law. Sincere environmentalists ought to be able to recognize the disaster that this represents for their cause: We can achieve the No Child Left Behind Act only when there is compromise between left and right; the same is true if there is ever going to be a No Species Left Behind Act (the Endangered Species Act doesn’t come close). Instead, environmentalism today practices is own version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, defending against any reform of a regulatory regime that specializes in imposing billion dollar solutions to million dollar problems, and rejecting any serious use of cost-benefit analysis, even though wasting money means we are wasting resources. Private sector money is the only resource environmentalists think we’ll never run out of.
Forty years on, we find the Environmental Protection Agency this week trying to recapture some of the old Earth Day magic by promoting–“an environmental justice video contest”! The EPA wants amateur and professional filmmakers to create videos that “raise awareness of the movement.” If the public isn’t “aware” of environmental issues by now, another set of public service announcements, Al Gore documentaries, or end-of-the-world-coming-soon books aren’t going to make them aware. If someone made an endangered list for vibrant social movements, environmentalists would be close to the top. One day perhaps a new generation of environmental leaders will figure this out. Until then the greens are going to be feeling more and more blue.
Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhauser Fellow at AEI.
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