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The Politics of Ecology: Environmentalism and Liberalism in the 1960s

From: Journal for the Study of Radicalism
Volume 2, Number 2, 2009
pp. 53-84 | 10.1353/jsr.0.0008

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For most Americans the terms “environmentalist” and “liberal” are more or less synonymous. For many historians the set of ideas called environmentalism and the set of ideas called liberalism are similarly—and for similar reasons—connected. But it is not at all clear why these associations make sense. The environmental historian Roderick Nash provides one explanation for the pairing of environmentalism and liberalism in The Rights of Nature, where he argues that “one can regard environmental ethics as marking out the farthest limits of American liberalism.”1 For Nash, the association is a direct one: environmentalism and liberalism are related because the one is an expression of the other. Liberalism, in Nash’s view, centers on granting rights based on intrinsic worth to the previously marginalized and defenseless. As liberal thinkers have argued for the moral consideration of more and more subjects—a process that Nash calls the “ethical extension of liberalism”—they have helped break down prejudices based on social distinctions like class, race, and gender. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this ethical extension came to include all people, and then expanded its reach to nonhuman animals and, finally, the entire natural world. Environmentalism, in this schema, is the logical extension of liberal thought and the ultimate expression of liberal ethics.

Perhaps following Nash’s reasoning, historians have tended to describe the rise of modern environmentalism aligned with the various issues championed by the student movement of the 1960s.2 Environmentalism gained the attention of activists late in the decade, when revolutionary sentiments were waning and once-radical causes were becoming part of a more mainstream liberal agenda; environmentalism, this narrative suggests, grew out of the same principles as did civil rights and feminism, and so followed the same post-1960s trajectory from campus protests to party politics. There has been little need, therefore, to investigate the distinct histories of environmentalism and the other movements that characterized the 1960s and early 1970s.3

Those histories, however, are distinct. The New Left ’s focus on poverty, civil rights, and later, feminism was not a product of the same set of values that led New Left activists to embrace environmentalism at the end of the decade. The student movement’s fundamentally humanistic ethics underlay its commitment to social justice, and prevented it, for most of the 1960s, from treating environmentalism as a serious concern. The movement’s growing radicalism— and, in particular, its increasingly anarchist philosophy—opened the door for a sudden turn to ecological issues after 1969. Even then, as radicals used pollution and environmental destruction as evidence of American society’s decay, the New Left ’s devotion to matters of social justice left many activists skeptical of environmentalism’s relevance.

The environmentalism of the student movement at the end of the 1960s did not set the stage for the first Earth Day, in 1970, and the surge of environmental awareness in the United States in the decade that followed. Nash’s formulation of environmentalism as a direct product of liberal thought, slowly unfolding over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tells us little about the relationship between environmentalism and other movements and philosophies in the 1960s. The New Left’s shifting stance on ecological matters revealed the points of tension between environmentalism and liberal humanism, as well as the thorny social implications of environmental radicalism.

Whether with admiration or regret, most historians of the 1960s have described the New Left as both nebulous and nonideological. The student movement was nebulous because it stretched itself out among many smaller movements, constantly admitting more causes into its fold; it was nonideological because it rejected established philosophies like liberalism and socialism, or else it embraced several philosophies at once. These are fair characterizations to a point. But the New Left was more issue oriented and ideologically committed than many historians allow, especially from the perspective of the environmental movement. The student movement’s fidelity to some causes over others led to its dismissal of environmental concerns for most of the 1960s, while the movement’s evolving ideological principles set the terms for its brief embrace of the growing environmental movement at the end of the decade.

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