These days, everything feels like a partisan issue — we’ve made our food consumption habits, our sports-watching, even whether we wear a facemask in a pandemic (which you should do, by the way)— into parts of our stupid political food fight. Basic concern for the environment around us has been sucked into this vortex as well. In recent years, labeling yourself an “environmentalist” has come to be seen as a polarizing thing to do. By 2016, only 42% of Americans called themselves environmentalists, about half the number of Americans that had done so 25 years before. What’s more, only 27% of Republicans were willing to label themselves this way. Think about this — less than half of Americans are willing to define themselves as being interested in the “preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment.” One hopes that the 58% of people who are not environmentalists understand that they, too, live in the environment and would benefit from its preservation and improvement. How did it happen that something as basic as making sure our society is sustainable became a bitterly divisive issue? And is there a way out of this divisiveness before it’s too late?
It might come as a surprise to those of us living in 2020, but Richard Nixon might be America’s most consequential president on environmental issues. He signed a number of very important laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and he created the EPA to oversee the administration of environmental rules. Nixon was not a deeply committed environmentalist — all of these laws were sent his way by a Democratic Congress — but he saw environmental issues as an easy opportunity for bipartisanship. In one of his several speeches on the environment, he said, “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.” To be sure, many environmental activists saw his commitment to these issues as superficial and criticized his administration for some environmental failures (like being slow to regulate DDT). But the Nixon administration shows that, as late as the 1970s, environmental policy was not seen as a partisan battleground. Nixon was not rejecting environmentalists’ concerns out of hand, or calling them a hoax. Instead, Republicans were able to work with Democrats to get sensible and moderate environmental reforms enacted. These reforms made a big difference in both Americans’ quality of life and the overall health of the American environment. While these issues were often not the top priority for Congress or Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s (Vietnam, Watergate, and economic problems usually took center stage), the parties did work together through the decade to chip away at problems.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the environment ceased to be a bipartisan issue. Reagan was a firm believer in deregulation and the idea that the movements of the free market were the most efficient way to improve people’s lives. He saw the environmental laws of the 1970s as onerous restrictions that would damage American prosperity. Reagan began to chip away at the regulations that had been put in place by his predecessors in the 1970s. While not repealing most of them, he made sure to appoint officials who were more interested in cooperating with industry than confronting it. James Watt, his Interior Secretary from 1981–1983, frequently boasted of allowing more drilling and mining on public lands. Watt spoke at times of his conservative Christian beliefs, saying that resources would only need to be managed until the second coming of Jesus, which could happen soon. Reagan made sure that environmental laws would have to pass a cost-benefit analysis before taking effect, which made economic concerns the only valid measure of an environmental regulation. Republicans often saw environmental issues as zero sum — if the environment was protected, the economy would get worse. The GOP decided to proclaim itself the party of economic growth, which, in this calculus, meant that they would not the the party of the environment. Reagan also helped to inaugurate some of the culture-war parts of the struggle over the environment. He signaled his disdain for energy efficiency, for example, when he had the solar water heater on the White House, which had been installed by Jimmy Carter, removed. There was no real reason to do this other than to send the signal that Reagan disdained the very ideas of renewable energy or energy efficiency. Now, even energy efficiency (in the 1970s, seen as a common-sense, neutral issue) was partisan.
Reagan’s anti-regulation stances combined with a growing anti-intellectual, anti-”elite” movement on the American right. This line of thought went back to the 1960s, when William F. Buckley complained about the fact that Yale University was dominated by closed-minded leftists. By the 1990s, there was a full-scale war on expertise in some areas of the right. Entertainers and pundits like Rush Limbaugh railed against the “hoaxes” being perpetrated against the American people by experts. Limbaugh frequently denied climate change as “bogus,” perpetrated by “environmental wackos.” Fox News has made the questioning of climate change and the scientists who study it one of its go-to issues. By the 2000s, this sentiment was incredibly hard to contain. It seemed that the more expert consensus there was on an issue and the more the mainstream media reported on it, the more enthusiastically the conservative media ecosystem would dismiss it. For a while, this skepticism was contained in the infotainment parts of the American right — most Republican politicians at least paid lip service to environmental issues even if they didn’t do much to solve them. Donald Trump, with his conspiratorial thinking and his dismissal of expertise, represents the breakthrough of this kind of reflexive anti-elitism to the highest level of government. It’s very difficult for the two parties to come to any kind of consensus when they don’t even agree on the facts in front of them. If one party has decided that climate change is a “Chinese hoax,” it’s hard to see a scenario in which they will seriously attempt to mitigate it.
The disdain for environmental experts on the right was fed by some environmentalists’ mistakes and controversial choices. An inherent part of environmental thinking is making predictions — and some of those predictions were quite wrong. Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb had predicted widespread famine and overpopulation, for example, and was widely mocked by conservatives. Some environmental groups focused on attention-getting protests in the style of the “mind bombs” favored by the early members of Greenpeace. While many of these protests were incredibly successful — Greenpeace’s anti-whaling protests and Julia Butterfly Hill’s occupation of an endangered redwood called real attention to serious issues and brought about change —this style of environmentalism was easy for the political right to caricature. Some environmental organizations, like PETA, leaned into this, making their protests as provocative as possible. For many Americans, especially on the right, where these stereotypes were played up, the word “environmentalist” conjured up images of radicals performing street theater, despite the fact that this was a small portion of the overall movement. To call yourself an environmentalist — or to express concern for the environment — was to expose yourself to negative assumptions or even ridicule. One of my favorite, weirdest examples of this is Matthew McConaughey’s commercial for a hybrid Lincoln.
He starts off by staring into space and claiming, “it’s not about huggin’ trees.” This reassures the consumer that it’s OK to buy a hybrid car — it won’t make you one of those environmentalists. Environmentalism and environmentalists have been successfully caricatured, especially by conservatives, and many Americans, afraid of being lumped into that maligned group, have rejected the label of environmentalism altogether.
All of the factors above have been combined with political opportunism. As the news cycle has shortened and overall partisanship has increased, politicians and pundits have looked for wedge issues that can divide Americans. Environmental issues — once an obvious place to look for consensus and compromise — have become yet another battleground. The descent into partisanship can seem like an endless downward spiral, but we’re going to have to figure out some way to end it. Environmental issues, climate change chief among them, are going to shape everyone’s future, regardless of party. This means we are going to have to find ways to make concern for the environment an issue for everyone, not just those on the left.