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.

People hear “non-profit” and tend to think of ragtag operations run on a  shoestring by selfless activists; the large, well-known ones are major corporations with multimillion dollar budgets, and people who operate multimillion dollar companies tend to have nice salaries and nice offices.

Increasingly, being an environmental activist, at least in the upper reaches, is becoming a well-paid, high-visibility job.

What these activist groups have to “sell” is their ability to get things done in Washington, which means their ability to get access to politicians. Environmental groups could offer this through access to their membership and by encouraging their members to support the politicians who were friendly to their issues. Voting power meant re-election for the politicians, re-election meant moving up the seniority ladder, and seniority meant exercising power — which made the politicians more attractive to the environmental groups. What’s more, for every elected politician, there are dozens of staff positions, committee staff, and dozens of staff positions within the non-profit groups.


Quickly, there arose an “environmental activism industry” — thousands of people whose livelihoods depended on environmental activism. The environmental activism industry, in turn, depended on one thing: the government’s power to effect change in the environmentalists’ favored direction.

Now, forty years later, we see the results. As the Examiner pieces today show, the environmental movement has become a billion-dollar industry, providing thousands of people with jobs, all devoted to managing — and, in general, to increasing — the government’s power.

There is “green power” — but it’s big government political power. There are “green jobs” — but they are for the politically connected people who direct and wield the political power.

And there are the rest of us, who wonder how such a worthy endeavor  became just another power bloc.


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