Tom Burke’s political commentary: Nixon’s environmentalism is a lesson from history

ENDS Report 438, p. 55, July 2011.

Under President Richard Nixon, the US led the world in environmental protection. But his ideologically driven heirs in the Tea Party threaten to destroy this legacy.

Modern environmentalism began in the US. In September, Friends of the Earth (FoE) UK will celebrate its 40th birthday. Few of its supporters know it was founded as a result of a chance meeting between an American corporate lawyer and a Scottish businessman in Ireland.

The lawyer, Edwin Matthews, had been appointed by David Brower, who founded FoE in the US, to develop offshoots in Europe. Mr Matthews, and his holiday acquaintance, Barclay Inglis, hosted a dinner at the Traveller’s Club in London. Graham Searle and Richard Sandbrook, both former student leaders, attended the dinner. The rest is, as they say, history.

The inspirational environmental voices then were also American: Brower himself, Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, Dennis and Donella Meadows, authors of ‘The Limits to Growth’ and many others too. We looked on enviously as an army of well-resourced NGOs began winning case after case in the US courts to compel compliance with environmental law. And what law! There was nothing like it then anywhere else in the world.

The National Environmental Protection Act introduced the world to the delights of environmental impact assessment. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Hazardous Wastes Act were all passed in six years. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed to make sure these laws were properly enforced.

Remarkably, the president who signed all of these acts into law and created the EPA was Richard Nixon. This name does not normally appear in any environmental pantheon. Nor will you find much about his environmental thinking in any of the library of books written about him. Nevertheless, none of his successors have come close to matching his environmental activism.

So it is ironic that his political heirs are now waging war on the environment in the US Congress. His EPA is a particular focus for their environmental animus. Hardly a day goes by without one Republican member or another introducing legislation to diminish its powers or cut its budget.

The Tea Party headbangers that have seized control of the Republican Party are the direct descendants of the Nixon style of politics. He began the ‘stop at nothing and take no prisoners’ partisanship that has now bulldozed any semblance of common decency from political debate in America.

As political commentator Will Hutton pointed out recently: “These are politicians who in some respects have more in common with Islamic religious fundamentalists than the Enlightenment tradition which gave birth to western democracy.” He was discussing their approach to deficit reduction but he may just as well have been talking about the environment.

A paradox presents itself: how did the grandfather of the Tea Party become America’s most environmentally successful president? The answer is through gritted teeth. At the time, Congress was dominated by the Democrats, who forced through the seminal legislation that had such an important global impact.

Nixon, ever the calculator and never very confident in his popular appeal, did many things that conflicted with his political philosophy when it was expedient to do so. In the wake of ‘Silent Spring’, the environment had become a hugely popular cause in the US.

What is different now is the absence of calculation. There is little evidence that the American public has fundamentally changed its mind on the environment. American businesses, like businesses everywhere, need certainty and predictability from environment policy. It is hard to see who, other than the talking heads on Fox News, really buys in to the current vogue for environment-bashing.

This is more about stomachs than brains. For Nixon’s successors, the environment is a visceral issue. Facts and consequences are immaterial. All that matters is commitment to the cause.

If you belong to the Tea Party, certain truths are self-evident. You believe in lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation, fewer constraints on personal choice and that markets are always wiser than governments. Any proposition inconsistent with this theology is an attempt to defeat the cause, to be dismissed as either a hoax or a malign conspiracy to destroy the nation.

No wonder the right has a problem with climate change. It is not going to be solved without more taxes, more regulations and more management of personal choice. It certainly cannot be left to markets alone. Climate denial, therefore, is no longer anything to do with the evidence but an essential shield to protect the cause. If dealing with climate change demands governments interfere with personal freedom, then it cannot be admitted to be happening.

It is more than two decades since the UK looked to the US for an environmental lead. Today some people on this side of the Atlantic still look to America enviously, but they are searching for inspiration to reverse the tide that saw Britain’s first ever Green MP elected to the House of Commons just over a year ago.

These voices can be found in the weirder reaches of the Conservative Party. The primitivism of the Red Tape Challenge (see p 36) was a rare opportunity to see them at work. To his credit, prime minister David Cameron has worked hard and successfully to marginalise them. But they may become rather more difficult to control if his current woes continue.

They are also found to be elsewhere in the world of politics. There is a definite taste for weak tea by some in the upper reaches of the civil service, especially within the Treasury. It is present in some of the print media and, surprisingly, even a bit within the BBC. The disgraceful anti-environmental documentaries that Channel 4 has a habit of commissioning drink from the same well.

We should not imagine that these forces will weaken as pressures on the environment grow in the course of this decade. If anything, they will grow stronger. This will require an environmental community able to craft political narratives as compelling as its scientific and economic ones.