By Laura Martin | September 23rd 2009 11:27 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Now picture an environmentalist in your mind. You may be imagining a man or a woman. That man or woman may be in a city chained to a tree, on a campus distributing pamphlets on the evils of capitalism, or in the rainforest studying parrots— regardless, you are definitely imagining an individual that votes Democrat.

    In the United States, the environmental cause has become tightly associated with the Democratic Party. In a recent Gallup Poll, 73% of Democrats said that changes in the Earth’s temperature over the last century are due more to human activities than to natural changes in the environment. Only 42% of Republicans agreed with this statement. 

    The extreme bipartisan nature of, well… nature, is a modern phenomenon.  The U.S. environmental coalition once represented a broad spectrum of political interests, both demographically and politically.


    The Civilian Conservation Corps was established as a public work relief program by the Roosevelt administration in 1933. In Nature’s New Deal, historian Neil Maher describes how local conservation projects completed by the CCC bolstered widespread support for the program as well as for other New Deal policies. According to a 1936 Gallup poll, 82 percent of Americans surveyed wanted the CCC to continue its conservation work in forests, farms, and national parks.  A remarkable 92 % of Democrats and 60% of Republicans supported the CCC, and in no geographic region did support for the CCC fall under 80 percent. The majority of Americans felt that the CCC was the most successful program of the New Deal.

    What about the 1930s accounts for such bipartisan support of a federal program centered on conservation? The Dust Bowl provides a partial explanation—natural resources degradation was clearly on people’s minds as soil from eroded prairie lands blew as far east as Washington DC.[i]

    The Roosevelt administration also strategically placed CCC camps in areas where they hoped to bolster support for the 1936 election (which was won by a landslide). The CCC and other New Deal programs united those worried about agricultural lands, recreation, public health, and forest conservation under one banner. It is a success story in coalition building.[ii]

    Support for environmental programs remained largely bipartisan from the time of the New Deal through the 1970s. Richard Nixon was responsible for signing some of the nation’s most notable environmental legislation into law (including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act), a fact that is rarely recognized today. Historians of conservation attribute widespread concern about environmental issues during this era to a number of events, including the first picture of the Earth from space, the
    Ohio River fire, and severe air pollution problems in Los Angeles.

    It was not until the 1980s that environmental issues became fractured along party lines. The Reagan administration generally took the stance that environmental regulations were a burden—a stance perpetuated by George W. Bush. An ideological divide over federal environmental regulation was first noticeable among members of Congress, and what began as a modest difference between Republican and Democratic pro-environmental voting became a definite gap after the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. However, from 1970 until the mid-1990s, support for increased spending on environmental protection in the general public was only around 10 points higher for the Democratic than for Republicans.[iii] It was not until the late 1990s that this gap began to widen. 

    Today, Gallup polls indicate that Democrats and Republicans widely differ in their opinion on whether the environment or the economy should be given priority; 50% of Democrats support environmental protection over economic growth, whereas only 31% of Republicans agree with this statement. Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans also differ greatly in their perception of the environment (see figure below).[iv]

    The poll numbers indicate that environmentalism has become a primarily Democratic cause. This assumption is certainly affirmed by the popular chant of “Drill, baby, drill” during the McCain/Palin campaign.

    But are all environmentalists really Democrats, or is there such thing as a Red Environmentalism and a Blue Environmentalism?


    American hunters, a group typically cached as right-leaning, are directly responsible for conserving millions of acres of habitat and donating billions of dollars to conservation efforts.  Federal legislation including the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act and the Pittman-Robertson Act, the sales of licenses, and donations to organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever provide a bulk of monetary contributions to national environmental protection.  Since its inception in 1937, Ducks Unlimited alone has conserved more than 9.4 million acres of waterfowl habitat and has raised approximately $1.6 billion for conservation.[v]

    There are few formal analyses of the political affiliations of dues-paying members of conservation organizations. The research that does exist suggests that preservationist groups (such as Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society) have higher membership rates in states with a higher percentage of Democratic voters and higher taxes, whereas stewardship groups (such as Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation) draw their members from states with low population densities, higher numbers of hunters, and a higher percentage of Republican voters.[vi]

    The existence of two types of environmentalists—those who support conservation and extractive use of natural resources (typically more right-leaning individuals) and those who support preservation of no-use or recreation-only use wilderness (typically more left-leaning individuals)—may have its roots in a much older schism. Even though conservation programs enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the early twentieth century, there was no lack of disagreement on how to conserve natural resources.  A famous example is that of
    Hetch Hetchy Dam.  In 1906 the city of San Fransisco applied to the federal government to gain water rights to Hetch Hetchy Valley. The action provoked a seven-year long struggle between John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Muir was a preservationist—he believed that the valley should be preserved inviolate for its beauty alone.  Pinchot, on the other hand, was a conservationist—he believed that natural resources should be used for human development, efficiently and sustainably. Pinchot won the battle, but the controversy was critical in gaining national support for citizen environmental groups.

    The philosophical divide between preservation and conservation now runs in parallel with the divide between the Democratic and Republican parties. Recent conservative backlash against both
    science and federal overreaching (e.g. accusations of “socialism”) has only widened the chasm between Red Environmentalism and Blue Environmentalism. The interplay of these worldviews is evidenced by the statistics on belief that global warming is human-caused (73% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans, as mentioned above).

    If environmentalists hope to be more successful in the 21st century, it is essential that a broader environmental coalition is built, and soon. One means of broadening the coalition would be for environmental groups to collaborate with conservative religious groups.  There is no reason that environmentalism and religion need be kept apart—a good example is that of the Church of England, which has recently undertaken serious initiatives to promote green lifestyles both in sermons and in their carbon footprint.

    It is unlikely, and I would venture to say impossible, that issues such as global climate change, habitat protection, agricultural reform, and profligate waste are going to be tackled by one political party working alone.  Blue environmentalists, you'll need to mix in some Red to make Green.


    [i] Photo: "Fleeing a dust storm". Farmer Arthur Coble and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimmaron County, Oklahoma. Arthur Rothstein, photographer, April, 1936. (Library of Congress)
    [ii] Maher. Nature’s new deal.  Oxford University Press, 2008.
    [iii] Dunlap et al.  2001. Politics and environment in America: Partisan and ideological cleavages in public support for environmentalism. Environmental Politics 4: 29.
    [iv] See Frank Newport, "Americans: Economy takes precedence over environment." Available at  Figure from Jeffrey Jones, "In US, outlook on environmental quality improving." Available at
    ] See Ducks Unlimited website:
    ] Lowry.  1998.  Religion and the demand for membership in environmental citizen groups.  Public choice 94: 223-240.

    Environmentalist. Defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “one who advocates the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment.” Also known as: tree-hugger, hippy, greenie, ego-warrior, flower child, disciple of Gore.


    What an interesting article! I had never thought about conservation in these terms. I didn't realize that the Anglican Church was actively pursuing environmental causes - hopefully there will be some carry-over in the churches here in the United States.

    Perhaps your are conflating Republican versus conservative. The Republican Party has changed dramatically since Reagan became President. A great article nonetheless.

    IT has always puzzled me to notice how little English people seem to know or care about the history of America. 

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the start of On America, by G.K.Chesterton.
    At election time, I seem to remember the Democrats waving blue placards.  So that would make the colour symbolism the reverse of that in Britain, and a lot of continental Europe as well.  Could you please confirm this?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    I was happy to see this make the finalist list.   I agree that conservation and nature does not come down on simple party lines.  As a conservative and therefore de facto Republican in a two-party system, but also a hunter and guitar player, I am sure there are maybe 5 people in California who care more about nature than me, despite claims about how much friendlier Democrats are to environmentalism.    No "Keep Tahoe Blue" stickers on the back of a gas-guzzling SUV for me.

    The term 'granola conservative' was invented for people who care about nature and their health but don't think the answer is a government that will spend $24,000 per car in a 'cash for clunkers' program.

    James Watt was a reactionary response to rampant legislation in the 1970s - and not a good guy by anyone's estimation - but professional environmentalists need to take back the middle if they want to get the majority opinion and they haven't learned those lessons yet.   It's a no-brainer;  "Like nature? Want to enjoy it with your grandkids?"  is fine marketing but instead we get coalition-of-the-oppressed 'if you do not agree with all of our ridiculous positions you are with Big Oil' rhetoric which does little good.
    James Watt was a reactionary response to rampant ......
    Can't find him on Wikipedia, and certainly he's not man after whom the unit is named.  A link or two please?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    James Watt, secretary of the interior.   If the big knock on a guy is he doesn't rush to name a bunch of obscure critters as endangered species, it usually reeks of politicking - Watt was not great but nowhere near as bad as he was painted, just because he wasn't a crazed anti-logging activist.

    Astronomy is dead in America because environmentalists file lawsuits, making new telescopes uncompetitive with a place like South America.  Like hunters, the weirdo activists don't get that astronomers care more about the environment than most anyone and more telescopes would mean less light pollution and cleaner skies.    What we need is fewer zealots only reading what affirms their pre-held beliefs and more people showing some nuance in their positions and not just coming down on a red/blue party line.

    I'm a Lord Monckton fan.
    In any case we have to be aware and cautious of our one and only environment.

    I appreciate the way Laura framed an important question, did thorough research, and provided objective results from which reasonable conclusions may be drawn. Particularly from science writers, we need facts and figures, not opinions and sound bites.

    Good article.

    There have been some interesting new coalitions looking to bring different groups into the environmentalist camp. Religion seems to be the largest one. Check out or the PBS story "Is God Green?"

    The only way true change will occur is with broad and diverse public support. Environmentalist need to reach out to people of all colors, both political and racial!

    Interesting article - I like the use of historical examples. I think that both sides of the environmental issue would benefit from considering more how seemingly different issues are actually quite connected - for example, rather than asking whether the economy or the environment is more important, we should be striving to understand how economic policies affect the environment and vice versa. The message that blue environmentalists should reach out to other sides is a good one - the issues that affect the earth and our country are all connected on a basic level.

    Interesting article

    Excellent article. Highlights the fact that political idealogies, affiliations and such can often get in the way of what often is a common objective.

    Interesting. Shows that people on both sides care about their world. We should all remember nothing is ever balck and white.

    Gerhard Adam
    We should all remember nothing is ever balck and white.
    Of course not, it's blue and red :))
    Mundus vult decipi

    Wow - That was quick. Black and white or Blue and Red. (Spelled Black RIGHT this time). What the diff. We all turn out the same "color". Brown Dust.