Why Red Hates Green: the 70s to 90s Conservative Backlash to the American Environmental Movement

by Ariane DesRosiers '19, Milton Academy

Preface: this is an analytical piece regarding the conservative backlash to the American environmental movement of the 1970s that I wrote for my U.S. History class as a final research paper in March of 2018. (It is not a piece of original work written specifically for Gaia.)

Why Red Hates Green: the 70s to 90s Conservative Backlash to the American Environmental Movement

When Richard Nixon, a Republican president, signed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into law in January 1970, nobody found it entirely too startling. If President Ronald Reagan had done the same only ten years later, however, the nation would have been shocked. What made it so that environmental issues became a question of political affiliation by the 1990s? To understand this change, one has to understand the decades and events leading up to that point.

The 1960s proved to be a time of rebellion as, around the country, the upcoming generation rose up to claim control over the future. Protests for human rights, gender equality, fair wages and more emerged to take over the focus of political discourse. Near the end of the decade, however, many of the movements that defined the sixties experienced a loss in traction as a counterculture emerged. The environmental movement, on the other hand, continued to gain support from all sides as the nation moved into the next decade. On January 1st, 1970, Richard Nixon, President of the United States at the time, signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), an organisation that assesses environmental quality nation-wide, into action. Later that year, the first Earth Day was held on April 22nd in Washington D.C. Over ten thousand people gathered in Washington D.C. to discuss issues like air and water pollution. The following week, growing pressure from the public sphere prompted Nixon to sign the EPA into law. As William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA, stated, the organisation “never would have been established had it not been for public demand. That I am absolutely certain of.” In the following few years, the government also passed several other environmentally-focused laws, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, because of the ongoing concern of America’s environmental quality.

However, in the late 1970s to early 1990s, the environmental movement suffered a backlash that came, in general, from politically conservative Americans. By the 1990s, the split had become extremely clear — Congress’ environmental scores were markedly different, with an almost forty point average difference between Democrats and Republicans (1). This gap only grew wider in the next twenty years. In 1994, when Americans were polled on whether or not there was too little environmental protection, seventy percent of Democrats said there was inadequate protection, while only fifty-three percent of Republicans agreed. Similar to the results reflected in the Congress environmental score, the disparity between these numbers continued to increase as the years went by.


What induced such an counterculture in the seventies, eighties and nineties? Several key events and people started this nationwide, politically-charged, change. The first major occurrence was when citizens and property owners in the western United States, upset with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s land surveys and the recent governmental push for more public land, started the Sagebrush Rebellion, a conservative movement that sought major changes in federal land control. The anti-environmental protection sentiment escalated when President Reagan, a Republican with an admitted history of objecting against stricter environmental policies, assumed office in 1981. With a new political philosophy of deregulation and privatization, the Reagan administration relaxed many of the previously set environmental policies, allowing corporations to essentially take control over environmental protection. The EPA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) suffered major cuts to its budget and NEPA, compared to its strength in the 1970s, became a minor player. Shortly after taking office, Reagan also appointed James Watt as Secretary of Department of the Interior and Anne Gorsuch as the EPA administrator. Both were controversial picks known to have close connections to corporate interests. While skepticism on environmental research escalated, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit also tarnished environmentalism with the label of socialism, causing even more damage to environmentalism and increasing retaliation against it. Thus, during the latter half of the seventies, the eighties, and the nineties, the conservative side of the American political spectrum began to turn on the environmental movement that had gained so much traction in the sixties and first half of the seventies. This backlash occurred because of an opposition to federal overreach, a governmental return to more conservative policy approaches, and the environmental movement’s connection to socialism.


The first significant environment-related public resistance to governmental control took place in the late 1970s when a rebellion concerned with the overreaching management of state lands by the federal government arose out of the dusty steppe in the west. Basing its argument on politically conservative philosophies, this movement, thanks to the area it was based in, became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. Primarily comprised of western ranchers, with energy officials and timber executives joining the rebellion as it gained traction, the rebellion had a strong base of support within western states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and more. The retaliation against the federal government began in 1976, during the Carter administration, when the Federal Land Management and Policy Act was passed. This legislation threatened traditional land uses that many farmers, miners and loggers relied on to provide for themselves. This act was followed by the national Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service’s Roadless Review Area Evaluation (RARE II), which was comprised of a series of land surveys conducted to see how many acres of land should be designated as wilderness areas and how many should stay as multiple use areas. The results of these surveys and the organisations’ subsequent proposals to the federal government outraged westerners, who saw these new laws as restrictions on their personal freedoms. Frustrated with the government’s new land policy ethic, in which lands were owned at the federal instead of state level, rebels in Nevada, with support from local government officials, passed a resolution insisting that 49 million acres of land be transferred back to state control (2).

“Raised on the myth of rugged individualism, many westerners pride themselves on their ability to thrive in a hostile environment. Because westerners often define freedom in terms of space, land becomes a measure of individual liberty, and the restriction of the public lands exacerbates the region’s antigovernment hostility.”

- C. Brant Short, Ronald Reagan and the Public Lands

Thinking of themselves as tough, independent and free, the western ranchers who were part of the Rebellion accused the government of overstepping its boundaries. The historically western anti-governmental stance began to once again flood the minds of citizens who were tired of federal overreach. Therefore, the rebels utilised a more Republican rhetoric to persuade the government to change their ways, basing their position on a variety of justifications. Their three main arguments were that individual states would be better land managers, the states had the right to control what fell within their borders, and the federal government’s restrictive land policies were stifling economic growth. Using the political tactics and momentum from the New Right, a conservative movement that was also gaining ground at the same time, the rebels organised around the traditionally American ideals of freedom, as well as similarities from the American Revolution, to gather support from people all around the region (2).

It is not clear whether the Sagebrush Rebellion was especially appealing to Republicans because of its conservative rhetoric or because it was spearheaded and backed by Republican politicians who were “eager to exploit the link between the Revolution and the rebellion” from the very beginning. Several prominent government officials such as Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Paul Laxalt (R-Nevada), and James McClure (R-Idaho), along with multiple other governors and county commissioners across the western United States, backed the movement, making it more popular.

One highly utilised rationale in favor of the rebellion can be found in one of Sen. Laxalt’s senatorial papers. He claimed that the rebellion began because citizens were “being denied access to [their] lands,” and tired of “being ruled like some faraway colony by uncaring and unknowledgeable bureaucrats more than 3000 miles distant.” As many other rebels did, he compared the fight over the steppe to the fight for America’s freedom. He harnessed this strategy to draw in conservative citizens irritated with the growing power of a federal government that was too often not working for the majority of the people, but for the supposed minority concerned with environmental regulation. Laxalt’s usage of the word “denied” highlighted the notions of increased restriction and regulation that many conservative citizens saw as a major issue. Sen. James McClure also used the analogy of the American Revolution to inspire citizens to take action, reminding western states that the “original colonies got complete dominion over their own lands by revolution. We have not got complete dominion over our own future in Idaho.” Especially to those who felt as if their voices were not being listened to, the sense of injustice incited by this statement was clear and riling. It also inspired those who wanted “complete dominion” to start their own revolution in order to gain back the lands they thought they had lost. In a time where it seemed like the left-wing government and ideology was controlling the future, it made sense for those who maintained those ideals of individual liberty and who felt overly influenced by a far-off organisation to want to regain some measure of command over what they thought of as theirs.

Thus, the Sagebrush Rebellion, along with the anti-environmental regulation ethic it represented, became diametrically opposed to the left-wing philosophies of the President at the time, a sentiment which commenced the clear bipartisanship of the government on environmental issues. However, when Ronald Reagan, a president who supported everything the Rebellion stood for, was elected to office in 1981, the Sagebrush Rebellion was essentially defused as the government came to smooth things over with the rebels in the west, relaxing regulations and incorporating more local opinions and representation into federal management.   


Reagan’s presidency also coincided with a relaxing of environmental regulations, a change in policy rhetoric, and a general shift in the conservative attitude towards one of indifference or skepticism regarding environmental issues. All these changes simply furthered the countermovement to environmentalism. His administration’s appointment of James Watt and Anne Gorsuch, both of whom were affiliated with big polluting industries, as heads for the Department of the Interior and EPA, respectively, highlighted the beginning of the era when conservative administrations would elect environmental skeptics to head government agencies. Moreover, his administration cut funding and indirectly supported environmental-skeptical publications, which also created a rift within the government that would soon have a great toll on American environmental protection.

During the presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, much of the contention between the nominees was because of their differing energy and land policy philosophies. In one October presidential debate, Carter claimed that although the nation could turn a record-shattering 800 million tons of coal into energy that year alone, America should restrain itself for the sake of the environment and public health. Reagan, on the other hand, wanted to see this potential turned into reality, and to do away with the “thousands of unnecessary regulations that invade every facet of business… that Government can do without; that have added $130 billion to the cost of production in this country; and that are contributing their part to inflation.” Reagan finished his statement on the matter with the following: “and I would like to see us a little more free, as we once were.” Reagan made his opinions on environmental, health and energy regulations very clear in his campaign. He found them costly, ineffective and an affront to the freedom of the citizens of the nation. Once again, he used an old tactic similar to the one used in the Sagebrush Rebellion that reminded citizens of how the government was restricting liberty and freedom, contrary to the very founding principles of America. His wording was extremely blunt and although he continued to maintain that he was still for the good of public health after being accused by Carter that he wanted “to put all our eggs in one basket and give that basket to the major oil companies,” it remains obvious that Reagan’s position was extremely conservative and that he wanted to do away with much of the government’s unwarranted control on energy production (3). His unabashedness in announcing his seemingly anti-health and anti-environment opinions also shows that he was not concerned about public backlash and attests to the fact that negative conservative sentiments regarding environmental regulation were growing at the time (4).

Coupled with positive reactions to the Reagan administration’s new position on deregulation was an increase in conservative think tanks (also known as CTTs). These are non-profit, policy research and advocacy organisations that support typical conservative ideals such as free enterprise, private property rights, limited government, and increased spending on national defense. After being launched in the 1970s in response to growing social activism and an expanding federal government, CTTs in America were soon associated with a large number of publications skeptical on research regarding environmental issues. A study done by several professors in universities across America showed that, globally, ninety percent of CTTs that study or address environmental issues also promote skepticism about their gravity. They found that from the 1970s onwards, 130 of the 141 (ninety-two percent) of the environmentally-skeptical books published had a clear link to one or more CTTs. The number of environmentally-skeptical books published also increased ten-fold from the seventies to nineties (5). These statistics make it overwhelmingly evident that conservatives were the ones spreading doubt about the seriousness of environmental problems. They also verify that much of the skepticism surrounding environmental issues and their importance is funded and supported by big organisations with ties to conservative ideologies and government. The biggest increase in environmentally-skeptical publication occurred during Reagan’s presidency and is most likely because of the administration’s increasingly split position on environmental issues, which would have signalled strong support for skepticism.

In correspondence with the increase in CTTs and skepticism, the government drastically cut funding for research into environmental issues as well. One prime example of this is when scientist James Hansen, working with the NASA-based Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), published his findings on the effects of greenhouse gases on global climate. In 1981, he predicted that global temperatures would rise by more than two degrees Celsius by the end of the twenty-first century. The Reagan administration, having just entered the White House, responded to his paper by taking money out of the GISS and criticising NASA’s work. The fact that NASA funding was cut during Reagan’s presidency is no coincidence and displays the ongoing work the administration was doing at the time to raise doubts and trivialise the seriousness of climate change and global warming.

To add insult to injury, Reagan also appointed some very controversial figures for heads of certain offices. The two most notable are Anne Gorsuch, director of the EPA, and James Watt, Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Both resigned early. During Gorsuch’s twenty-two months as head of the agency, the EPA had its funding cut by 21 percent and staff by 26 percent. Gorsuch reportedly did little to resist these cuts. Dennis Turpak, a mechanical engineer who worked at the EPA at the time, recalls that “the agency was really under a lot of pressure with the new administration to really cut back regulations and to cut back on personnel.” Evidently, the Reagan administration was purposefully encouraging relaxation in policies, most likely to respond to the increasing conservative ideologies. The downsizing in personnel also indicated a desire to limit funding for agencies like the EPA during the Reagan era (6).

As Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Watt was in charge of maintaining all public lands and natural resources. He began his time in office promising Americans that they would “mine more, drill more, and cut more timber,” demonstrating the new general governmental attitude on resource usage. Watt’s statement also insinuated that anyone can be involved in energy production, encouraging citizens all over the country to take advantage of American land. While he was in office, he auctioned off billions of tons of coal and proposed to sell 4.4 million acres of western federal land. Watt also likened environmentalists to Nazis and described Native American tribal rights as socialism. Before he resigned, Rolling Stone magazine reported that James Watt had created a “clever form of job security for himself: the more audacious he is, the more he appeals to right-wingers whom the administration can ill afford to offend.” Their assessment highlighted how vital Republicans, especially in the west, were to the Reagan office. His declarations on environmentalists and Native Americans also demonstrated his strong capitalist and somewhat intolerant philosophies on how the government should be run (7).


Many other Americans at the time maintained opinions similar to James Watt’s on capitalism and publicized its benefits, rejecting other economic systems. Thus, the environmental movement’s connection to socialism and the movement’s efforts to distribute resources equally also played a big role in the backlash to the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies. Out of all the books skeptical about research on environmental issues, none were published outside the western world (Europe and North America), suggesting that skepticism might have been specific to the “affluent global North.” As the previously mentioned study on CTTs puts it, “skepticism may be Northern because the conservative counter-movement sees itself as defending Northern lifestyles and Northern-dominated economic systems and Northern privileged identity.” Considering the contentious racial history of the United States, it is no surprise that the elite, white, portion of America, many of whom at the time held hierarchical views of society, reacted negatively to global environmentalism, a movement which aimed to, amongst other things, equalise resource distribution for every member of the human race. Thus, environmentalism became inextricably linked to the label of socialism, a red flag for any typical Republican. For those who grew up with the privilege to never worry about limiting natural resource consumption or restricting access to natural resources, the new laws and regulations on resource usage and environmental conservation discussed around the world would certainly provoke a kind of protective mechanism.

This elite-driven response peaked during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, a conference hosted by the United Nations to address the dire situation of the global environment. An interview with Dixy Lee Ray, seventeenth governor of the state of Washington and renowned environmental skeptic, demonstrates how the Earth Summit changed the conservative party’s attention “from the ‘Red Scare’ [of the Cold War] to the emerging ‘Green Scare’.” In the interview, Ray agreed that the environmental movement was the next greatest threat to freedom. She argued that the International Socialist Organisation, which aims to replace capitalism systems with socialism ones around the world, had taken control over the United Nations (as many of the International Socialist Organisation’s leading members were also leaders in the UN) and that “the radicals [were] in charge.” She ended her statement by insinuating that nations may be “coerced… by threats of environmental damage” into giving up their sovereignty. Once again, any threat to a nation’s liberty and rights was a cause for concern amongst Republicans, and the environmental movement was no exception. The thought of socialism and its effects on society alarmed the conservative sector of American society and elicited a counteraction against environmentalism.

During the Rio Earth Summit, in fact, the American position was so “extreme” that when Austria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland tried to have signatory nations dedicate to immediate stabilization of emission levels, the U.S. Government responded with a threatening letter. This reaction was a clear sign that, at this point, the government had become hostile to any major commitments to work on climate change and environmental protection.


Thus, the combination of the Sagebrush Rebellion, Reagan’s presidency, and an association with socialism pushed many conservative Americans to a new position on the environment, one of skepticism and retaliation to any governmental efforts to increase regulations and protection. The events that took place in the seventies to nineties created a conservative retaliation that resulted in a bipartisan division in the government regarding anything environmentally-related. Unfortunately, it seems that the effects of the environmental countermovement in earlier years have lasted until today. While general public support has only continued to grow, the conservative side of American government has become polarized on environmental issues, steadfastly voting against most environmentally-beneficial policies. With Donald Trump, a known skeptic of climate change, as president, the country seems to be experiencing a revival of the Reagan years. With more skeptics like Ryan Zinke as secretary of the Department of the Interior and Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator leading government agencies affiliated with the environment, one cannot help but notice the similarities to what transpired during Reagan’s presidency as well. Will the backlash to environmentalism continue to grow or will there be a stopping point? Unfortunately, the fact remains: as humanity approaches a tipping point in terms of climate change, it’s clear that we, as citizens of the world, need to get our act together to stop this impending global crisis.



(1) These scores were computed by the League of Conservation Voters, a non-profit based in the United States. The scores take into account how members of the Senate and House of Representatives vote. The scores are all rated out of a hundred, with a hundred being a perfect score (the party always votes to pass environmental resolutions), and zero being the worst (the party never votes to pass environmental resolutions). In 1994, the average Democrat score was around seventy and the average Republican score was around twenty.

(2) The BLM and the Forest Service put forward their findings and suggestions to Congress, which recommended that 15 million acres be designated as wilderness areas, 36 million classified as multiple-use land, and almost 11 million subject to further study. The 11 million acres that were awaiting more evaluation were cut off from human development in the meantime.

(3) Jimmy Carter also highlighted how the country could triple the amount of coal it could produce within the next fifteen years if it maintained the health and pollution standards that it did now. He then criticised Governor Reagan's approach to the energy policy, which was “to repeal, or to change substantially, the windfall profits tax - to return a major portion of $227 billion back to the oil companies; to do away with the Department of Energy; to short-circuit our synthetic fuels program; to put a minimal emphasis on solar power; to emphasize strongly nuclear power plants as a major source of energy in the future.” Carter found Reagan’s propositions, although profitable, much too short-term and unsustainable. He blamed Reagan for over denouncing the government’s progress on energy production. 

(4) Reagan, while serving as the Governor of California, was also opposed to the air pollution laws and acts passed during his tenure. When someone during the presidential race suggested that the Occupational Safety and Health Act, an act that protected employees nation-wide, should be abolished, Reagan responded, “amen.”

(5) In fact, the number of environmentally-skeptical books began increasing the most during Reagan’s presidency but peaked in the late 1990s (an almost direct correlation with the Reagan era). The vast majority of environmentally-skeptical publications and CTTs are also based in the United States, with the next country with the most CTTs/publications being the United Kingdom.

(6) However, when Gorsuch withheld important documents from Congress as they were investigating Superfund (a toxic waste cleanup fund), pressures from both within the administration as well as from the public forced her to step down, revealing that the anti-environmental ethic, which was undeniably connected to the growing Republican presence in politics, was still not strong enough to keep Gorsuch in office.

(7) By offering a lot of the western coastline to oil and gas companies, however, Watt also upset western Reagan supporters who, when later polled, said they were favouring the Democratic Party more after Watt’s policies. The results of these polls may be another reason for his departure from the Department of Interior. Watt resigned when he was deemed a “political liability” after he made a politically incorrect statement regarding the employees, specifically the people of colour, who were working on one of his advisory boards.



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