The Republican Party has experienced a dizzying downward spiral in environmental sensitivity, especially in the last four decades.
That is the theme of my new book, From Green to Mean (The Way Things Are Publications, 2016). In the book, I explore why and how the GOP has retrogressed, and what hope there is for redemption.
There were no signs of regression in the early days. For example, President Abraham Lincoln displayed incipient conservation credentials by among other things creating a preserve that was to become Yosemite National Park. By the beginning of the 20th Century, outdoorsman President Teddy Roosevelt emerged to become the father of the modern national environmental movement, launching the National Wildlife Refuge System along the way. Later on, even Richard Nixon got into the act by establishing the U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) in 1970.
In 1972, the Republican National Platform was filled with effusive praise for the EPA and its regulatory mission. Yet 40 years later, the Platform denounced EPA's regulatory activity as a threat to the economy and personal liberty.
Environmental regulation was no longer routinely portrayed as protecting the nation against air and water pollution, sprawl, and loss of critical habitat. Instead, Republican leaders generally characterized it as a sinister partisan maneuver by Democrats to empower big government with the intent of rallying a voter base at the expense of individual liberty and a free market economy.
Environmental activism was dismissed as a means of redistributing wealth to a burgeoning minority population in order to instigate class warfare and curry votes.
How did it come to this?
Much of the anti-government impetus can be traced to the administration of Ronald Reagan, who infamously quipped that "the scariest words in the English language are 'I'm from the federal government and I'm here to help you'".
An early pivotal development was a widely circulated 1971 memo written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by the soon-to -be appointed Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. In the document, Powell warned that the federal environmental regulation imposed on the business community threatened economic prosperity and individual freedom and could turn the nation into a socialist state. The memo is regarded as setting the stage for today's GOP lawmakers. Most of them don't dare stray from the party line for fear of retaliation in the form of a primary challenge from the Far Right.
How did environmental regulation become such a virulent target? Republicans quest for political power has led to a pursuit of substantial financial reserves and invariably the deep pockets of corporate polluters. These donors' quid quo pro for campaign contributions was the rollback of environmental regulations. Republican members of Congress by and large dutifully sought to keep their end of the bargain. As justification, they frequently have castigated the regulations as excessive, unnecessary, counter-productive or just plain discriminatory.
Republicans also perceived environmental protection as a Democratic instrument to attract a rapidly growing minority population who favor continuation of extensive government services.
In addition, environment was a legacy issue for Barack Obama. It thus became an object of Republicans' disparagement, given their widespread enmity towards the president.
Can the GOP snap out of its environmental rut before time runs out? The answer is probably in the negative if the Party needs a major global ecological catastrophe to bring it to its senses.
One can only hope that the incremental advance of environmental degradation will deliver a wake-up call before it is too late. After all, the most environmentally derelict jurisdictions (e.g. the coastal Southeast) are heavily Republican and happen to be the most geographically susceptible to nature's wrath.