The economy is in shambles, but the president tells us to bear with him, to lower our expectations. Our relationship with Russia is worse than ever, and in the Middle East we fear rebellion by Islamic radicals.
It is not 2013, but 1980, and Ronald Reagan is running for president.
A foreign power threatens to declare a resource war, denying us access to strategic and critical minerals vital to national defense, the economy, and environmental technologies. Vast areas of the United States — federal lands owned by the American people — are off-limits to energy development despite containing untold amounts of oil and gas resources. Coal, our most abundant energy resource, is under attack by an out-of-control federal agency; as a result, coal mines in Appalachia are shutting down. Out West, elected officials are livid about their treatment by Washington. A Sagebrush Rebellion is brewing.
Environmentalists appear in control of federal decision-making. When they do not get their way, they file federal lawsuits to stop projects and kill jobs. In the beginning, the primary concern of the conservation movement was about mankind’s needs, whether for food and water or for the spiritual, emotional, and psychological nourishment derived from experiencing God’s creation in its natural state. Today, environmentalists care nothing about human need. They say mankind is at war with the planet, and his faith in technological solutions is infantile. Environmental groups are an arm of the Democratic Party, endorsing only its candidates. Eventually, the media chooses sides, accepting the claims of environmental extremists, the need for big government, and the inevitability of less personal freedom.
Reagan intended not only to transcend the Soviet Union (“We win and they lose”), he also intended to transcend what he called “modern-day Luddites” or “environmental extremists.” Reagan believed that he had to do so, because environmental extremists opposed his plans to transcend the Soviet Union. Reagan saw the issues — energy, the economy, and foreign policy — as being interrelated. He could not restore the economy without developing domestic energy, nor could he remove the threats posed by the Middle East and the Soviet Union unless he strengthened the United States economy. That would take oil, gas, and minerals. Reagan knew exactly where to get all that: from the third of the country and the billion acres of the outer continental shelf (OCS) owned by the federal government.
Environmentalists opposed Reagan and his plans for a bright American future. Their solution was a powerful, New Deal-style government run by progressives and technocrats to coerce compliance, to mandate scarcity, and to restrict personal freedom. Furthermore, argued environmentalists, mankind was not part of the solution, but the problem. In fact, nature itself was to be valued more than man, a belief system that some claimed rose to the level of “nature mysticism,” taking on the “trappings of a religion.”
Reagan advocated for limited government, individual liberty, and economic freedom, including vigorous use of the marketplace and its ability to generate technological innovations to solve America’s energy, natural resources, and economic problems. Reagan, the devout Christian, countered environmental extremists’ anti-mankind zealotry with: “People are ecology, too.” His “human-centered management philosophy” put people at the top of the resource-use hierarchy.
Environmentalists were horrified by the prospect of Reagan as president. Given his actions as governor, his thousands of radio addresses, and his straight talk during the 1980 campaign, Reagan left no doubt that his victory would mean the end of business as usual — the “bipartisan consensus” on natural resources and the environment — that had prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s with the ascendancy of the environmental juggernaut. Environmental extremists had another reason for their rage toward Reagan: he was an unabashed Sagebrush Rebel who pledged to end Carter’s war on the West. Carter’s war was inspired by environmental leaders from headquarters in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, and implemented by a Carter bureaucracy filled with environmental activists.
In October of 1979, environmental groups met in Denver to plot their counterattack on Westerners and their champion, Reagan. In September of 1980, leaders of twenty-two groups, on behalf of ten million members, went to the White House to endorse Carter and excoriate Reagan. The New York Times called it “another step in the politicization of the environmental movement in recent years.”
Once environmental groups crossed the Rubicon and endorsed Carter, they never looked back; today they are an arm of the Democratic Party. With them came the mainstream media, which on a host of so-called environmental issues gave up objectivity and took on the role of partisan advocates. In an utterance of pure fantasy, for example, the New York Times in 1983 called the environment “a dominant feature on the nation’s political landscape.”
Undaunted, Reagan forged ahead. He slashed federal expenditures, cut taxes, and reduced regulation, including opening federal lands to the private sector to discover and develop energy. The economy bloomed. His policies of lower taxes, reduced regulatory burdens, and a return to federalism produced years of sustained economic growth. Furthermore, his aggressive energy policies — promoting federal onshore oil and gas development, unleashing America’s technological know-how to discover vast oil and gas resources in the OCS, and ensuring the production of a billion tons of coal annually — have never been equaled.
Of greater importance today than the specific energy policies he pursued was his belief in American exceptionalism and in the ability of the American people, if unfettered by burdensome regulations and given reasonable access to the nation’s rich natural resources, to improve their lives and the lives of other Americans. Politicians would do well to follow Reagan’s lead today.