When Did the Environment Become a Partisan Issue?

By Cori Brosnahan

When it comes to the environment, it seems that political divisions in America only grow wider. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Democrats believe that the “country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” compared with 52 percent of Republicans.

But it wasn’t always that way. American Experience spoke with environmental historian Naomi Oreskes, author of the book Merchants of Doubt, about the early days of environmental activism, and how it gained — and then lost — broad bipartisan support.

In Merchants of Doubt, you write about the shift from “aesthetic environmentalism” to “regulatory environmentalism.” Can you describe what those terms mean and how that change happened?

There’s a long history of environmentalism in America that we could say goes back to Thoreau and Emerson, but picks up in the early 20th century with figures like Teddy Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller. They are very interested in protecting beautiful places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, or what becomes the Grand Teton National Park, so they expand the National Park system. Historians call that “aesthetic environmentalism” because it’s about preserving natural beauty and places where people can go to escape from the noise and the squalor of urban life — places where they can hunt, fish, hike, relax, just sit, just be. The National Park system is tied up with this idea of aesthetic and recreational environmentalism.

Until the 1950s, there’s not much being done to regulate pollution, particularly on the federal level. But then people become quite concerned about pollution; there’s the water pollution of the Great Lakes and the major rivers in the United States, and then air pollution, which becomes a focus of attention with the terrible smog in Los Angeles. That’s when we begin to see the push to have laws to protect against pollution, to control pollution, to have regulations. Historians refer to this as “regulatory environmentalism” because now it’s not about going to some other place to enjoy the beauty of nature. It’s about here and now. It’s about the place you live, which may or may not be beautiful. It might be New York or Los Angeles, it might be Wichita, or it might be a small town on the Great Lakes, but it’s where you live, and your health and well-being is threatened in a very personal way. Environmentalism now becomes a matter of much more general concern.

Beginning in the 1960s, you begin to see federal laws being passed to control pollution, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmentalism Protection Act. These laws are “regulatory” because they regulate what industry can do, and they signal that certain practices that have been tolerated in the past — like dumping toxic waste into the ocean or into rivers or lakes, or into the air — are no longer going to be socially acceptable. More important, these practices are no longer going to be legal.

How does that shift transform the politics of environmentalism?

Until the 1960s, you had mostly wealthy people — particularly industrialists and progressive Republicans — supporting aesthetic environmentalism. It’s an elite thing, by and large. The people who are going go to the national parks to hunt and fish are typically not working class urban Americans. That changes a bit with the growth of the national park system, when you begin to see ordinary Americans also partaking of aesthetic environmentalism, but aesthetic environmentalism had definitely begun as a movement of elites. It was also initially a very masculine movement, because a big part of the reasoning behind preserving places, like the Tetons, to hunt and fish, was to preserve American manhood. The idea was taken very seriously by people like Teddy Roosevelt, Madison Grant, and John D. Rockefeller that a man wouldn’t be a man if he couldn’t go hunt and fish.

President Roosevelt gives a speech at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park in 1903. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When environmentalism begins to shift — to focus on controlling and preventing pollution — it dramatically changes the politics. Now, it’s no longer about protecting unique places for the use of an elite class. It’s about something that affects everyone. In some ways, that’s a good thing, because it broadens the political base. Political support for environmental regulation in the 1960s becomes very broad and bipartisan; major pieces of legislation are passed by huge bipartisan majorities in Congress. In fact, in several cases, Republicans are more in support of environmental protection than Democrats are.

But then that changes, too. When people begin to focus on pollution, economic activity becomes implicated in a much more direct way. Of course, protecting natural beauty in places like national parks also limits economic activity to some extent — and some industrialists, such as foresters — objected for that reason. But by and large the economic impact of the national park system is local. Now, however, you’re talking about the recognition that pretty much all forms of economic activity — any manufacturing, any transportation, any electricity generation — is creating pollution. You have the recognition that pollution is tied up with the economy, so any attempt to regulate pollution is an attempt, on some level, to regulate the economy. That invites a profound and problematic political argument. It is profound, because it taps into the central question of the function of government, and its role in regulating the marketplace and protecting people from harm. It is problematic, because if you argue that the government must intervene in an expansive way, it invites the criticism that you’re a Communist: you’re saying we have to control and regulate economic activity — that the government needs to step in and control economic activity. (Recall that this is all going on during the Cold War, when the accusation of communism was a very serious one.) At the same time, you’re criticizing the private sector because it’s doing this real damage. Up until now, they’ve pretty much got away with it and haven’t had to pay the cost of pollution. Now you’re saying, “Well, yes, you do.”

As industry starts trying to figure out how to prevent these toxic effluents from their factories and manufacturing activities, they begin to see that their interests are threatened and real costs are going to be placed on them. That’s when they start to fight back.

A 1970 study by the EPA captures Los Angeles under heavy smog. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

How do they fight back?

There were many intelligent and wise people in the 1960s who said, “Well, let’s work up some reasonable laws to figure out how to stop this.” That was one reaction. But another reaction was to attack the messenger — to deny the science and to deny that these things were damaging. And that really is, in a sense, the beginning of the story we told in our book Merchants of Doubt, the story of people who begin to say, “We’re not going to accept this — we don’t believe you. We don’t believe that DDT does harm. We don’t believe that sulfur emissions cause acid rain. Or maybe there’s a little acid rain but, so what? It doesn’t do any harm. The fish are fine.” A set of strategies is developed to deny the scientific evidence of the problem in order to avoiding dealing with the true costs of that economic activity.

When do we see this pushback start to happen? Are there other socioeconomic factors at work?

The pushback really doesn’t start until the late ’70s. After World War II, the United States and other western nations see terrific economic activity, and a substantial increase in overall standard of living. But in the 1970s, the economies of the western world begin to stall. Under Nixon we had terrible inflation and poor economic growth.

Everything, all the post-war prosperity, seems to have kind of come to a grinding halt. There’s a lot of anxiety, both in the United States and Europe, about what is happening economically. People begin to think, “We’re doing something wrong.” The term stagflation –stagnation combined with inflation — -comes into use. And this creates an opening for the private sector to say, “Well, the thing you’ve done wrong is to overregulate the private sector. You’ve passed all these laws that handcuffed us and now look what the price of that is: inflation and unemployment — that’s not supposed to happen. There’s something wrong with this picture and the problem is regulation.”

In my view, it all goes back to the central economic problem of how to generate continued prosperity, which is a problem that economists have never solved. Our challenge now is to learn how to sustain the good life without destroying the environment on which that good life — and ultimately life itself — depends.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hear more from Naomi Oreskes in the film Rachel Carson from American Experience.