A fervent conservationist and an environmentalist himself, Reagan believed in being a good steward, but above all, he believed in people, who are, as Reagan put it, “ecology too.” Reagan knew that, from its beginnings, the conservation movement held human beings at its center. Whether the issue was the need to sustain humans by the wise use (conservation) of nature’s bounty, or the necessity to restore humans—emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually—by setting aside (preservation) a portion of God’s great creation, the focus was always on human beings.
In the 1960s and 1970s, to Reagan’s great dismay, environmental groups no longer put people at the center. For them, people were part of the biota, no greater and often worse than all other living things. Not only was mankind on a par with the flora and the fauna, all the terrible things that had happened, were happening, and might happen were mankind’s fault. In fact, the worst was yet to come because human beings had drained the world of its resources. Unless they adapted to lives of government-managed scarcity and sacrifice, only pain and privation lay ahead. Mankind’s faith in ingenuity and belief in technology were infantile. Even then, it might be futile!
Reagan would have none of this gloom and doom; he depicted the stark contrast between his vision of the future and that of President Jimmy Carter. Reagan adhered to what one social scientist called the “human exemptionalism paradigm,” in which “human technological ingenuity can continue infinitely to improve the human situation.” Carter and the environmental groups embraced a neo-Malthusian “ecological paradigm,” which posits environmental limits on economic growth. It was much more, however. Reagan saw a battle between two competing systems of government: between big and powerful New Deal-style government run by progressives and technocrats, like Carter, and a limited government that emphasized individual and economic freedom.
By battling environmental extremists, Reagan deprived them of the aura of inevitability, invincibility, and infallibility with which they had been cloaked for over two decades. Environmentalists had become a high priesthood; they were the oracles elected officials approached with reverence and awe to obtain their approval. Reagan denied them their moral high ground. When they said they spoke for the planet and the needs of all living things not human, he responded that he spoke for the dream of the American people and for unborn generations to be free and prosperous. Reagan countered the radical environmental movement’s religious mysticism with his own deep religious faith, which insists on the preeminence of human life. With his sensible approach to natural resources and environmental policies, he exposed the childishness of radical environmentalists, who are incapable of being satisfied, always demand their own way, and, like the tyrants they are, never bring anything to the negotiating table—not even their good will or a sense of fair play. As one scholar expressed it, Reagan changed the debate on these issues from “an ecological/preservationist perspective to a human-centered/ development orientation.” That was a “revolutionary change.”
In a curious twist of history, what allowed environmental extremists to get their way after Reagan was the economic recovery for which he was responsible. Reagan’s successor could be “the environmental president,” another president could accede to every demand made by radical environmental groups, another could permit foreign policy concerns to distract his attention from domestic policy, and yet another could “go green” with no discernible harm to the economy or the American people.
Because America is today much as it was in 1980, Reagan’s common sense policies could not come soon enough.
Mr. Pendley, an attorney, is president of Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver and author of Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle With Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today (Regnery, 2013).