Confronting the Environmental Crisis: Anti-Environmentalism and the Transformation of Conservative Thought in the 1970s
Boynton, Alex John
University of Kansas
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“Confronting the Environmental Crisis” examines the role anti-environmentalism played in the unification of conservative thought in the 1960s and 1970s. American conservatism during these decades was no monolith. Rather, it was an incredibly diverse political philosophy capable of sheltering a number of disparate strains of thought under its broad canopy. But these strains did not always exist in harmony with one another. In fact, for much of the period under consideration, the four major conservative philosophies – traditionalism, libertarianism, fusionism, and neoconservatism – existed in explicit tension within one another. Unless the ideological barriers separating these contrasting impulses were somehow smoothed over, American conservatism would remain fractured and incapable of influencing national politics in any meaningful way. This dissertation argues that opposition to environmentalism in the 1970s served as a unifying force for American conservatism. It served as the glue that held together the opposing varieties of conservatism despite the persistence of ideological divisions in other areas of thought. The emergence of conservative anti-environmentalism in the 1970s owed much to the transformation of the American environmental movement. In the 1960s, many conservative intellectuals supported the environmental protection because they believed their philosophical principles supported environmental protection. But beginning in the 1970s, the environmental movement transformed into something that American conservatives no longer recognized. They perceived that their values no longer aligned so neatly with those held by environmentalists. Some conservative intellectuals continued to support environmental measures, but for many more this divergence in values led them to repudiate their former position and to embrace an unyielding opposition to environmentalism. By the end of the 1970s, anti-environmentalism had become a defining feature of American conservatism. The unification of American conservatism around anti-environmental ideas created aftershocks that altered not only the political landscape of environmental issues in the 1970s, but the whole of twentieth and twenty-first century America. Translating these ideas into politics in the 1970s and subsequent decades proved extremely difficult. But, as “Confronting the Environmental Crisis” demonstrates, conservative anti-environmentalism in the 1970s helped contribute to the polarization of American political rhetoric concerning the environment in lasting ways. Contemporary polarization of issues such as global warming and climate change, for example, demonstrates the impressive resilience of the conservative intellectual opposition to environmentalism. The contemporary American political landscape bears scars that can be traced back to the tumult of the 1970s.
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