Today’s Anti-Environmentalism in Historical Perspective

Christopher Sellers's picture

By Christopher Sellers [posted by Amy Hay]

With our current president targeting the EPA for biggest budget cut of any major federal agency (31%), with climate-skeptics now in charge not just of the Executive Branch but of Congress, the anti-environmentalism wave of the mid-2010s has reached a historic high-watermark. This latest surge has taken much of the American environmental community—including environmental historians—by surprise. It shouldn’t have; for what Sam Hays dubbed the “environmental opposition” has a long, inventive, and obdurate history in the United States.    

Before modern environmentalism itself first took shape, predecessor movements both inside the U.S. and beyond certainly aroused their share of opposition. Timber barons as well as local trappers and hunters, including Native Americans, resisted early park-making. Public health advocates clashed with corporations insistent upon their right to pollute streams or the air. These precedents echo in today’s proposals by the Trump administration to rescind national monument designations and to reconsider recent rules for mercury and other air toxics. But only when a single movement began bundling all these issues together as “environmental,” especially from the 1960s onward in the United States, did a modern anti-“environmental” politics first arise.

As I have argued in a recent piece in Vox, this opposition first found electoral traction during the 1970’s through Western as well as Southern coalitions forged between suburban and rural voters. A Sagebrush rebellion erupted against federal environmental rules for rural lands, among western miners, ranchers, and others rural property-owners. They were joined by politicians like Anne Gorsuch, representing suburban Denver in the Colorado legislature, who extended her own animus against government interference to regional planning.

Gorsuch would go on to become head of the EPA from 1981-83 during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Along with James Watt at the Department of the Interior, she launched an assault on federal environmental agencies that is the closest in American history to what we are now seeing under President Trump. Of note is that Trump also successfully nominated her son to become the latest and youngest member of the Supreme Court.

In the South, meanwhile, Newt Gingrich began running for Congress in a rural-suburban district in Georgia in 1972. He first ran as both a Republican and an environmentalist, but lost. But in 1978, when he set aside his environmentalist allegiances, he also began winning. Over the next fifteen years, Gingrich’s stand-offishness toward environmental issues would help energize a Republicanization of white suburban and rural voters in Georgia. Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America, which helped the Republicans to take over Congress, led to other legislative pushes to undermine many federal environmental laws. Among their accomplishments was the 1996 Congressional Review Act, being used by today’s Congress to try and revoke many Obama-era rules.

Other important trends have also helped nourish anti-environmentalism’s rise. As the environmental movement has become more racially diverse via an environmental justice movement, white environmentalists have also identified increasingly with gentrifying downtowns and “walkability.” Especially in places like Georgia, as environmental issues have become increasingly coded as black and urban, redistricting and gerrymandering have further amplified the use of anti- environmentalism as a political wedge for mobilizing white rural and suburban votes.  The growing prominence of the climate and other global environmental issues has also made environmental causes in the U.S. more vulnerable, in the view of some social scientists.  Suggesting that it may have come at the expense of more local environmental concerns, they also point to the response, a “heightened level of anti-environmental activity” generated “by the conservative movement [including think tanks] and Congressional Republicans.”

The successes of today’s anti-environmentalism will likely attract much further study by future historians, and our understanding will deepen.  But first, environmental historians need to take today’s crisis as a wake-up call.  We need to reconsider our decades-long declaration of independence from political history, which has effectively pushed politics to the side of what we consider “real” environmental history should be.