How the Environmental Movement Became Just Another Washington Power Bloc

Starting today, the Washington Examiner is publishing a five-part special report in association with Pajamas Media on "Big Green": the alliance of the Democratic Party, environmental groups, and activists in the progressive movement. It's not just a band of flannel-shirted environmentalists any longer; it's become a big-money, major player in Washington power politics and American elections.

In this first of our five-part series in coordination with the Examiner, we consider how the consensus for environmental regulation in the '60s became a source of political power and big money when it was taken up as a cause by the ruling class.

Starting today, the Washington Examiner is running a special report on "Big Green": the alliance of progressive activists, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, and the Democratic Party that has become perhaps the most powerful single lobby in Washington today.

It was, to some extent, a "stealth" campaign. "Conservationists" had been around for a hundred years, and the original Environmental Protection Agency was, after all, pushed through by Richard Nixon. Partly because of events like the Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland in 1969, there was a general agreement in the 1960s that pollution of the air and water had become too obnoxious and that something had to be done.

The environmental movement quickly got involved with the New Left, becoming a sort of side-show for anti-war demonstrations while pollution became one of the litany of evils of what had been traditional American life.  Along with real issues like river and lake pollution, there had been Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb, published in 1968; the Club of Rome's book The Limits to Growth, in 1972; and a succession of other doomsday scenarios in the popular press.

What started as a largely bipartisan issue in the 60s began to transform into a more distinctly partisan issue in the 70s. Looking back, what was happening was a natural agreement of interests: in all of these groups, there was the general assumption that the various evils of humanity could only be remedied by government action, led by the enlightened. This meant that government must become stronger, have more power, and broaden its authority to deal with these new problems.

The environmental movement was quickly co-opted.

There is a natural progression in these things. It began as a mostly grassroots effort organized into non-profit groups, with dues and boards and presidents. The dues were used, as with any interest group, to lobby the government, either in Congress or in executive branch agencies like the EPA. The environmental movement began to develop a constituency, and that constituency was increasingly identified with groups like the Sierra Club.  As those groups grew, they became big businesses themselves, although organized and run as non-profits.