Environmentalism has become partisan, and it tends to be clumped in with liberal ideologies. While there’s no denying liberal politics and movements have led the way towards a sustainable future, sustainability isn’t inherently a “left” versus “right” issue—or at least it shouldn’t be. Speaking in absolutes with regards to who cares about the environment is isolating, and misses the ways in which green policies can be non-partisan.
But how did we get here? Let’s begin by looking at the history of environmental activism in the United States, and how the ‘60s and ‘70s shaped sustainability.
The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and frequent civil disobedience drove the United States towards increasing conversations about human rights, as well as uncertainty about the future. Political turmoil in the United States created a counterculture movement, which included mostly hippies and environmentalists, and promoted non-violence and peace. The movement wasn’t too dissimilar from the 2019 climate strikes and youth activism movements that emerged, in part, because of the political turmoil in the US and the United Kingdom. There’s something about social unrest that unifies and connects people with higher causes—like the environment.
During the ‘60s, environmental pollution was getting out of control. Author Rachel Carson released her book “Silent Spring” in 1962 which detailed the extensive research on the adverse impacts of pesticides. In 1969, a river in Ohio, Cuyahoga, repeatedly caught on fire due to toxic chemicals and oils, and the Santa Barbara oil spill affected more than 35 miles of coastline. All of these catastrophes, alongside other events, led to public concerns about human and environmental health. As a result, 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day (1970), and President Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While the hippie movement had been viewed as liberal, all parties were now concerned about the environment and its role in human health. For the first time, bipartisan thought and action surrounding climate change were happening. But can it happen again?
Liberals, conservatives, and those in-between can agree on specific issues. For example, we all want to decrease unemployment numbers and better the economy, even if by different means. Recently though, even conservative politicians are looking towards green-energy to create jobs in communities abandoned by the loss of factory and coal jobs.
There’s a real and painful coal mining history in the United States. While it’s easy to condemn the exploitative companies involved in this environmentally-harmful work, there are families at the heart of the economic downturn that could use support through sustainable policies and jobs to ensure a better future.
Republican Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana is one of the conservative politicians relying on green energy for job creation. With a history of advocating for the environment, he created an executive order to bring electric and energy-efficient cars to his city and install roundabouts to conserve electricity while reducing air pollution. “The root word of ‘conservative’ is conserve,” is his political slogan.
Even before Mayor Brainard, The GOP has a history of environmental activism. Teddy Roosevelt established The National Parks and, in 1990, George H.W. Bush enacted the Global Change Research Act, a law requiring research and reporting on climate change and global warming. Even if it seems liberal politicians are responsible for the majority of environmental activism, conservatives are creating policies, too. There is room to work together, especially on initiatives that involve growing the economy with the addition of green jobs.
There’s no denying that liberal politicians and voters have advocated the most for green policies in the last few decades. In a recent survey, 95 percent of Democrats over the age of 39 agreed that climate change “was a serious threat,” compared to 51 percent of Republicans in the same age bracket. Younger Republicans are answering differently though; 77 percent of Republicans between the ages of 18–38 classify climate change as a serious issue. This shows promise. Hopefully, these numbers are a sign of change and progress. Because sustainability isn’t only a liberal issue; it affects everyone.
Leah Thomas is a contributing writer at The Good Trade with a passion for wellness, inclusion and the environment. She works on the communications team at Patagonia and is a sustainable living blogger at Green Girl Leah. You can connect with her on Instagram @GreenGirlLeah