In his 2009 documentary Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore noted that while the content of President Jimmy Carter’s July 1979 speech about our need to abandon fossil fuels for cleaner forms of energy was accurate, it was something that most Americans didn’t want to hear at the time. Most Americans preferred to hear the convenient lie that we would always have plentiful oil at low prices, and voted for the candidate who embraced that vapid vision—Ronald Reagan.
Moore argued in Capitalism: A Love Story that Reagan was, in essence, our first corporate president, hiding his devotion to the one percent behind his Hollywood smile. Certainly, his anti-environmental actions as president (remember Anne Gorsuch and James Watt, and his proclamation that trees were greater pollutants than cars?) revealed Reagan to be a man who chose to treat Mother Earth the same way he treated Angie Dickinson in his final film.
I’ve learned from fifteen years in the eco-trenches that the fight to protect our planet from pollution is more than just a fight against ExxonMobil or Charles and David Koch; it’s ultimately a fight against the Reagan legacy. In order to have any real chance of holding off the havoc that our best climate scientists have predicted, those on the green side of the aisle must tear down the walls of red-state Reagan glorification.
In 1975, Reagan told Reason magazine, “…I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” He certainly must have believed that, for “Reagan conservatism” was little more than a euphemism for corporate libertarianism—an ideology that sees the EPA as the ultimate enemy, and Big Oil as the ultimate friend.
Reagan sold millions of Americans on the fiction that we could all be masters of the universe—that we could have unlimited growth powered by cheap energy. This was the core of his November 1979 speech announcing his challenge to President Carter. Reagan rejected Carter’s assertion that American conspicuous consumption had to end for the sake of our economy and our environment. Though the term did not exist at the time, he suggested that Carter’s warning was just so much political correctness. Is it any wonder then that author and Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich recently noted that “…[S]tarting with Ronald Reagan, almost all the advances that have been made in environmental protection in the United States and the world have been reversed…”
However, Carter’s warning was correct. Our dependence on foreign oil continues to imperil our national security. Our military has embraced clean energy (much to the consternation of fossil-fueled Republicans in Congress) not only to combat the climate crisis, but also to avoid the expense in money and manpower caused by a over-reliance on oil. That the Republicans who have attacked, and voted against, the military’s clean-energy efforts purport to be patriots is an absurd and unfunny joke.
If you asked these Republicans which politician they admire the post, all of them would likely say Reagan. That’s the problem. There is a direct link between Reagan idolatry and hostility to the idea that we need to do anything about climate change. To take the climate crisis seriously is to seriously reconsider the way we use energy and the way we consume resources. If your political hero is someone who convinced Americans that consumption and unlimited growth were by definition good, you’ll never accept the need for climate action.
How does one conquer the cult of Reagan? This is arguably the eco-challenge of our time. How do we convince our fellow conservative citizens that Reagan sold them a bill of goods? Is it even possible? Rather than reason with people who see Reagan as a quasi-deity, doesn’t it make more sense to simply defeat the Republicans these people support at the ballot box?
I can certainly understand being pessimistic about convincing Reagan admirers that their guy was wrong on energy and the environment. Perhaps the best way to reach out to them is to encourage them to follow Reagan’s famous advice: “Trust, but verify.”
The next time they tell you about a senior fellow at a conservative think tank who denies manmade climate change, ask them if they know the oil-based sources of that think tank’s funding. (Remind them of the controversy surrounding ExxonMobil’s donations to the denialist Competitive Enterprise Institute.)
The next time they tell you that Rush Limbaugh (or Sean Hannity, or Glenn Beck, or Mark Levin, or Laura Ingraham, or any other nationally syndicated talk-radio multi-millionaire) has insisted that it’s all a hoax, ask them if that host has ever acknowledged Margaret Thatcher’s warnings about global warming.
The next time they tell you that Reagan would have never embraced “cap and tax,” ask them why it has never been mentioned in conservative media that “Ronaldus Magnus” actually did.
And the next time a Reagan acolyte reels off another tired climate crock—“it stopped in 1998,” “Climate-gate was real,” “all the scientists predicted global cooling in the ‘70s”—just give them a big smile, and in your best faux-Ronnie voice say, “There you go again…”