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Earth Day Blues

The rise and fall of the environmental movement.

1:35 PM, Apr 22, 2010 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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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.

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