Unexpected Links between Edward Abbey and Barry Goldwater


Environmental issues have not always divided people along party lines. Anyone who teaches American environmental history probably gets a kick out of bursting this bubble among students, when showing how many crucial environmental initiatives were initiated or backed by Richard Nixon, a U.S. president from the Republican party. Yet it is hard to ignore that this bipartisan support was fleeting, and by the late 1970s a distinctly anti-regulatory, anti-government, and pro-business stance put many conservative politicians into a predictable position vis-à-vis environmental issues. As a political platform, “the environment” eventually seemed a better fit for the Democrats, who were comfortable assigning the federal government with a regulatory role.

As scholars, perhaps we should be less concerned with the irony of early Republican support for environmental issues, and more concerned with trying to understand what motivated them. Were those Republicans any less “environmentalist,” simply because their brand of nature-protection did not fit the mold of subsequent years? It may be that their anti-government, individualistic visions of the natural environment shared a great deal of common ground with those whose environmentalist credentials remain completely intact today.

In Loving Nature, Fearing the State, Brian Allen Drake challenges us to reconsider what it meant to be an environmentalist in the postwar United States, and he does it by exploring the place of anti-statism within the movement. He juxtaposes two figures whose reputations could not be more different, yet who shared remarkably similar outlooks. One of them is a staple of environmental literature—Edward Abbey, whose Monkey Wrench Gang and other writings provided enough inspiration to nature-loving saboteurs to forever mark him as a radical environmentalist. The other was no radical, but instead was a paragon of conservatism—AuH2O himself, U.S. senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. Not only was he the 1964 Republican presidential campaign rival to Lyndon Johnson, he also was a passionate nature photographer and believer in nature protection. Drake links these men using the concept of anti-statism, and draws them together with others, too, such as those who opposed government-mandated fluoridation of water.

I invited Jeff Crane to participate in this roundtable because of his expertise in environmental politics, especially in the western United States. An associate dean at the University of the Incarnate Word, he is the author of Finding the River, which explores the story of the Elwha, a river in the far northwest corner of the country. Crane’s book traces the winding history of the river’s salmon, dams, and people through tumultuous changes in public perceptions about nature, land, and resource use. [1]

Our second commentator, independent scholar Ryan H. Edgington, has written extensively about environmental issues and politics in the southwest United States. His book Range Wars explores the tangled relationships between the federal government and local people in a different context—that of the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico. Anti-statist rhetoric animated local ranchers who tried in vain to pry the land out of federal hands throughout the Cold War.[2]

Offering our final comment is independent scholar Thomas Jundt, author of Greening the Red, White, and Blue. Like Drake, Jundt sees environmental consciousness arising from quarters not typically appreciated. For Jundt, love of nature has been linked to consumer culture, with “green consumption” acting as a kind of resistance against the excesses of corporate capitalism. He perceives nature protection as connected closely to distrust of big business.[3]

The whole roundtable is here.

Before turning to the comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

[1] Jeff Crane, Finding the River: An Environmental History of the Elwha (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011).

[2] Ryan H. Edgington, Range Wars: The Environmental Contest for White Sands Missile Range (Lincoln: Universi of Nebraska Press, 2014)

[3] Thomas Jundt, Greening the Red, White, and Blue: The Bomb, Big Business, and Consumer Resistance in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).