James Watt, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983, is remembered primarily for a short, business-friendly tenure that ended with his resignation soon after an ill-judged remark about women, minorities and the disabled. And yet, as MIT professor Judith Layzer observes in her new book about environmental politics, “Open for Business,” there is good reason to regard Watt’s impact differently.
For one thing, Watt, among others on the political right, managed to cut government funding for conservation efforts. For another, he installed staff members who emphasized the development of natural resources, rather than just the protection of land. In so doing, Watt was one of many Republicans who instituted fundamental changes in U.S. environmental policy.
“I will build an institutional memory that will be here for decades,” Watt once said of his department, as Layzer recounts.
These kinds of under-the-radar changes, Layzer argues, are one of two ways conservatives have dramatically altered environmental politics since the 1970s, when environmentalists probably reached the high point of their political influence.
The other, says Layzer, an associate professor of environmental policy at MIT, is ideological and rhetorical: Conservatives have gained enormous traction by touting “the virtues of the market system and the horrors of regulation,” thus limiting public backing for stricter government-imposed controls on natural resources. By arguing that the market economy, when left alone, is effectively self-policing and morally sound, conservatives have put environmentalists on the defensive, making them tentative about arguing for environmental protections as a good in themselves. So whereas President Richard Nixon once green-lighted the Environmental Protection Agency, today’s political debates often touch on the necessity of opening further federal lands for oil exploration.
“The set of conservative ideas has really pushed the framing of issues to the point where many people today aren’t even aware of the [older] alternatives,” Layzer says. “Only if you’d been involved or lived through this history would you know it hasn’t always been thus.”
“Open for Business,” published last month by MIT Press, takes a chronological look at the last seven presidential administrations, starting with that of Gerald Ford, and examines four in depth, starting with that of Ronald Reagan. Layzer regards the Reagan years as shifting American policy, on the environment and many other areas, toward a greater free-market orientation. And yet, as she observes, the administration stumbled at times on environmental policy due to overreach; Congress rebuffed efforts to change the Clean Air Act, for example.
“In the Reagan administration, there were people who were direct about gutting laws, and that didn’t work,” Layzer observes. “The movement evolved to be more subtle and creative, as it became clear [it] couldn’t go straight at these laws.” Still, the administration did manage to stall legislation on acid rain, among other conservative causes.
After an initial couple of years in which President George H.W. Bush appeared more welcoming to environmentalists than Reagan had been, Layzer says, “the conservative voices gained ascendancy” within the GOP for good by the late 1980s. “The George H.W. Bush administration … was where the struggle within the Republican Party was fought and won by conservatives,” Layzer says. The anti-government ideology of the Republicans became stronger still after the party gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994.
By the George W. Bush administration, as Layzer sees it, the GOP was committed to a fully pro-business agenda on the environment, but had become far more strategic about it: In her confirmation hearings, Gale Norton, Bush’s Secretary of the Interior from 2001 to 2006 and a former Watt protege, disavowed her previous statements criticizing the Endangered Species Act and denying the presence of a scientific consensus on climate change. She then moved aggressively to open up even more federal lands for resource extraction, calling such actions “partnerships” with local authorities.
Over three decades, Layzer asserts, the outcome of all this conservative activism both weakened existing laws — the Endangered Species Act, for instance, is more difficult to enforce than it once was — and prevented new ones from being passed. Climate-change legislation stalled in Congress during President Barack Obama’s first term, perhaps due to concerns about limiting business activity during economic hard times. Only 41 percent of the public called “protecting the environment” a priority in 2009, compared to 56 percent a year earlier, according to a Pew poll.
Fighting ideas with ideas?
“Open for Business” has received attention from a variety of scholars studying environmental politics; Harvard University sociologist Theda Skocpol has called it a “brilliant book” that shows “how conservative and business interests have not only blocked major new legislative breakthroughs to address climate change, but have also chipped away at existing regulations and enforcement.”
As Layzer makes clear in the text, she herself would like to see more government action on the environment, although she says significant action on climate change “is going to be incredibly hard.” Greater energy efficiency, she argues, will not have enough impact to mitigate climate change, given the world’s rapidly growing population. To usefully limit the effects of global warming, Layzer says, “I think what really has to happen is quite drastic,” and, she concludes in the book, has to include a rethinking of the central importance we place on economic growth and consumption.
That means not just a new set of policies, but an ideological shift in society — even if, as Layzer acknowledges, such a change seems unlikely. “That’s what the conservative movement did that was so clever,” she says. “It really was about ideas. And you have to fight ideas with ideas.”