Green Conservatives: A Conversation with Brian Drake

Barry Goldwater, the five-term Arizona Senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee, voted against the Civil Rights Act, vigorously defended Senator Joseph McCarthy, attacked Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower for being insufficiently conservative, and raged against federal power so ferociously that his critics joked he aimed to repeal the twentieth century. And yet, Goldwater also bragged about helping to create the Environmental Protection Agency, authored legislation doubling the size of Grand Canyon National Park, and, in his words, “sounded off publicly to let big business know that keeping our natural resources clean and pure is going to have to be a cost of their operations or they might find themselves without any right to operate at all.”

Goldwater joins an expanded roster of the environmental movement in Brian Allen Drake’s Loving Nature, Fearing the State: Environmentalism and Antigovernment Politics before Reagan. Drake begins on Walden Pond and follows the suspicion of state power found in Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to post-WWII society, where he discovers dual commitments to small government and a healthy environment not only in Goldwater, but also in Edward Abbey, environmental economists, anti-fluoridationists, and even famed soaper Dr. Bronner. Today, in the face of what can seem like hopelessly partisan environmental politics, Drake offers a welcome reminder that environmentalism has not always been, and need not always be, handcuffed by ideology.

I sat down with Dr. Brian Drake to discuss his two recent book projects. Listen to our conversation here, or download the mp3. Edited transcript below.


Brian Hamilton: Was Barry Goldwater an environmentalist? Can we say that?

Brian Drake: I think he was. My definition of environmentalism is pretty broad and it’s pretty personal. Essentially, it’s this: an environmentalist is someone who believe there are actually environmental problems. There are real problems caused by our lifestyle, and those problems merit action. It’s, I suppose, a matter of debate what sort of action they require. But they are actually real and they need to be addressed. And certainly by that standard, Barry Goldwater was definitely an environmentalist. Many conservatives today, quite frankly, have abandoned not only the pretense of environmentalism, but they’ve denied there are environmental problems. And he certainly did not do that…

Why, despite his intense antistatism, did he come to see government as a necessary actor in protecting the environment? His love for nature—certainly his love for the Arizona desert—was sincere. There’s no doubt about that. Some have said to me, “Are you sure Goldwater wasn’t just pandering?” I have absolutely no doubt that he was not. It was something he cared for a great deal. He was also a middle-class American and, like middle-class Americans of the period, he—even though he would never put it this way—wanted “beauty, health, and permanence.” Those things were important to him.

I think they were important enough that they began to weigh against his ideology, which was equally sincere. He absolutely believed in small government and wanted to reduce the government’s influence, the government’s power, whenever he could. But then this other side hit. And it’s fun to watch him engage in mental and ideological gymnastics to balance those things. He wasn’t always successful; he could be pretty contradictory. His biographer Bob Goldberg once told me in an email, he said, Goldwater can walk around just full of contradictions and never really come to grips with them. That was true his whole life, and I think certainly true of the environment. In the end, I don’t really square it. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to square it. I learned from this project that some things defy clean analytical categorization.

BH: One of the many surprises of [Chapter 2] is that [Rachel] Carson had many supporters who were conservatives.

BD: Yes, yes. The fluoridation people really lit up her mailbox. If you were to stack their letters, they were probably a solid two inches thick of nothing but anti-fluoridation stuff. She had a couple files on them. They really glommed on to her as somebody who could champion their cause… She’s a Kennedy Democrat, as Linda Lear pointed out, and certainly not an antistatist. I don’t think she would have much in common with them at all, but they saw her as somebody they could trust.

BH: Opponents of adding fluoride to drinking water strike most people today as kin to the tinfoil-hat crowd. You make clear that you think they were wrong about the science, but you nonetheless seek to take them seriously and situate them within postwar environmentalism. What do we learn by doing so?

BD: I wanted to complicate the kook idea a little bit. We watch Dr. Strangelove and we all think about Jack Ripper and we think that he is [an anti-fluoridationist], a kind of John Birch nut. The truth is a little more complicated than them. I wanted to look at it in the context of the time and, as you know, there’s all kinds of anxieties about all kinds of substances in this period. Not just Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and DDT, but things like Strontium-90, Barry Commoner, the St. Louis Committee on Nuclear Information, and all sorts of folks. I thought that context made the anti-fluoridation people seem much less crazy. Even if they weren’t right, you could at least understand why they felt the way they did… I found less anti-modernist stuff than some of the other folks who have written about fluoridation, that it’s a revolt of the powerless against faceless people who control their lives. I didn’t see it that way…

[From them] we learn about the capaciousness and the widespread character of the environmental movement—that we even have concern about toxins, concerns about (for lack of a better phrase) environmental justice, bodily environmental justice, on the Right as well as the Left in this period.

BH: Edward Abbey’s politics, even more than Goldwater’s, elude easy categorization… As you write, at different times in his life he describes himself as “‘a liberal democrat,’ a ‘wild conservative,’ a ‘liberal and a libertarian,’ and a ‘Jefferson agrarian anarchist.’” How would you sketch out his politics?

BD: They are an intense jumble of left and right. They are pretty heavily influenced by political thinkers and writers and philosophers of his period. I think C. Wright Mills was fairly influential on him. I think if I had to sum it up, Edward Abbey is deeply suspicious of concentrated power, in whatever its forms. Mainly, he’s suspicious of the state; he’s also suspicious of corporations. He doesn’t see them as being separate, in fact. They’re sort of partners in crime. Anything that concentrates power, groups acting en masse, is going to give Edward Abbey the heebie-jeebies. Someone once asked me when I was giving a paper, “I just don’t get this Edward Abbey guy. What environmental organization would he be associated with?” And I laughed, and I said the essence of Edward Abbey is to not be associated with organizations. But there’s a kind of method to the madness of this fear of concentrated power that explains why he doesn’t like the government, he doesn’t like capitalism, he doesn’t like corporations, he doesn’t like unions—he doesn’t like a lot of people. He used to say, “Don’t homogenize. Balkanize.” That was his motto.

BH: We most often associate Abbey’s thought with a rabid defense of wild lands and with more than a little misanthropy, and racism in places. It’s easy to see that and just dismiss as just boilerplate wilderness ideology—this classic Romantic escapism overlooking the human histories of supposedly wild places and ignoring environmental struggles facing the places where people live. You say this is a mistake.

BD: I do think it’s a mistake. I know you know [Bill Cronon’s] very famous piece [“The Trouble with Wilderness”], and I read that a number of times in graduate school. Bill doesn’t usually do this, but people who sometimes riff off of “The Trouble with Wilderness” have a tendency to reduce all wilderness activists to a kind of rehash of [John] Muir. They tend to assume that all wilderness activists must automatically ignore human history whenever they talk about wilderness, that [these activists] read the Indians out and they read poor whites out, poor blacks out of the history of the landscape, that [these activists] are middle-class elitists.

Abbey is one of many examples we could choose [to contradict this]. He is certainly not an elitist. He doesn’t come from any kind of elite background. He comes from rural Appalachia and very modest means. As much as he talked about the rights of wilderness, the rights of nature—I think that’s one of the reasons folks on the Left don’t like him, because when he talked about wilderness, you seem to be excluding people, and they [on the Left] are people people. I think Abbey had a place for people in the wilderness. He wanted them to live in certain ways, wanted them to do certain things and not do other things. But, I kept going back during my research to his book Fire on the Mountain, about a rancher who lives in the wild lands of New Mexico. I described it once in a paper I gave as the “working wilderness.” Abbey calls it wilderness in the book, yet there are people there, living. They’re just living in a certain style. So that’s a little bit different from arguing for a wilderness without people and reading people out of it.

More importantly, though, is [that] Abbey’s wilderness is most definitely a product of consequence. One hundred years has gone by, by this point, since wilderness activists have been at work, and that’s a lot of history. Wilderness is like everything else: it gets complex and nuanced and changes with circumstances. So when I look at Abbey’s wilderness, it is very much a twentieth-century wilderness, very much a political wilderness. It’s not John Muir. It has some similarities to his, and to Thoreau and those sorts of folks. But it’s very, very different.

BH: Your most recent book, just published in January by the University of Georgia Press, is an edited collection: The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War. What do you find most exciting about the work environmental scholars are doing on the American Civil War?

BD: I’m excited mainly because there is so much to be done. Very, very little has been done. The first thing people assume about Civil War environmental history is that you’re going to talk about the battlefield and how the battlefield was blown apart. To me, it’s true—and it’s also obvious—and that’s not what we’re doing. I’m really excited for the potential for the big picture. I want to know how nature was an active agent in not just individual battles but in shaping larger strategy. I want to know how weather affected the harvest, which then affected the ability to provision troops. I want to know about droughts and cold snaps and big picture stuff. Personally, I’m really interested in mobilization and ecological effects of mobilization. That’s one direction that’s really going to be interesting. Mostly though, I’m excited for our potential to contribute to larger discussions of both the coming of the war and things like Reconstruction afterward, and memory and memorialization.

If you think about it, the Civil War, as you know, is the most important single event in American history, and it’s astonishing to me that environmental historians, when we think about the birth of conservation, when we think about the birth of the wilderness movement, it was twenty or thirty years later. As far as I know, none of us have ever sat down and wondered whether the former affected the latter. Did the Civil War not affect those things? I can’t imagine that’s not true. Personally I’m excited about—let’s call it—the “long Civil War.” When we flash forward fifty years, what effect did the Civil War have on our emerging environmental outlook?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Drake - BGGDr. Brian Allen Drake is a senior lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Georgia. He is the author of
Loving Nature, Fearing the State: Environmentalism and Antigovernment Politics before Reagan (2013) and the editor of The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War (2015).

Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writing a dissertation entitled “Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom.” He is also the lead author of Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement. TwitterContact.


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