In October 1969, six months before the first Earth Day, columnist James Kilpatrick challenged fellow conservatives to help solve the nation’s environmental problems. He feared that the Right would make little headway unless it overcame its image as “the negative party,” and he argued that the issues of pollution and sprawl and DDT poisoning of the environment provided perfect opportunities to “translate broad conservative principles” into “affirmative actions.” The degradation of the environment, he concluded, was essentially “a problem of conservation — of conserving some of the greatest values of America; and conservatives, of all people, ought to be in the vanguard of the fight.”
When I first read Kilpatrick’s call to action, I was dumbfounded. Republicans today never make similar arguments. Yet Kilpatrick wasn’t a fringe figure — I grew up watching him on Martin Agronsky’s weekly television show. Did anyone accept Kilpatrick’s challenge? Were conservatives once more concerned about the environment than they are now?
To answer those questions, I decided to explore the conservative reaction to Earth Day 1970, and what I found should prompt today’s Republicans to do some soul-searching.
Though some intellectuals and politicians argued that Earth Day was a communist plot, others refused to cede the environmental initiative to their ideological opponents. They were keen to show that conservatism offered a more compelling approach to solving environmental problems than liberalism. A few examples will show how much has changed since the first Earth Day.
A prominent publisher of right-wing political tracts, Devin Adair Garrity launched the Ecological Book Club in May 1970. The club wouldn’t ignore the environmental “danger flags,” a 1971 ad promised. “Our books not only face these problems, but also offer fresh thinking on how the world can be left habitable for tomorrow’s children.”
Senator Barry Goldwater devoted a chapter to “Saving the Earth” in his 1970 manifesto, The Conscience of a Majority. “There can be no doubt about it,” he wrote. “We are in trouble on this Earth in our continuing efforts to survive.”
Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, argued a month after Earth Day that “only the unscrupulous or shortsighted can defend pollution and degradation of the countryside.” Though he usually took a dim view of youthful protests, he was encouraged that students were standing up for the environment: “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.” A year later, Kirk touted a new guide to “ecology action” by a young libertarian activist, Alan Bock. Bock believed that Americans could save the environment without relying on a big government bureaucracy, Kirk wrote, and Bock’s book offered “plenty of ideas” for the “millions of Americans, of all ages, who know or sense that we are spoiling the world around us.”
John Chamberlain –- the dean of right-wing columnists at the time –- devoted a dozen columns in early 1970 to environmental issues. He hoped to prove that the nation could have both a healthy environment and a prosperous economy: In his view, forcing people to choose between jobs and environmental protection invited attacks on capitalism as anti-environmental.
The National Review provided a forum for letters and essays on “conservative conservation.” One contributor even urged “a tax on the sulfur content of fossil fuels” as the most efficient and least intrusive way to control air pollution. Another contributor suggested non-regulatory ways to encourage business managers and consumers to take environmental costs into account.
The people I’ve cited were just as concerned as Republicans today about the danger of big government. They were just as devoted to the free-market economy. But unlike many Republicans today, they accepted the scientific consensus that environmental degradation posed a serious threat to the nation’s future well-being. They knew that the air in most cities was dangerously polluted, that many rivers and lakes were too contaminated for swimming or fishing, and that open space was fast disappearing.
Some of the conservatives who weighed in on environmental issues in 1970 were longstanding conservationists, but most had no more love of nature than the average citizen. Their concern was ideological. They worried that Americans would begin to question both capitalism and conservatism if the environment continued to deteriorate. They hoped to convince Americans that embracing conservative political ideas and political candidates still made sense in a dynamic, technologically advanced society.
Why don’t Republicans today feel the same imperative? I can think of two plausible explanations. Perhaps they have become apologists for a set of powerful economic interests, not true defenders of a time-honored philosophy. The other possibility is that they no longer believe that they can win arguments about how best to protect the environment: Deep down, they aren’t sure that they’re right. Either way, they are failing to live up to the best in the conservative tradition.
Adam Rome is the author of The Genius of Earth Day. He teaches environmental history and environmental non-fiction at the University of Delaware.