ABSTRACT

Former California governor Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency in 1981 vowing to undo almost every major environmental legislative achievement of the 1970s and “set business free again.” The conventional narrative of anti-environmentalism dates the revolt against federal environmental protections to this moment. In fact, Reagan’s presidency anchored a counterrevolution that had begun much earlier. The Reagan administration slashed the EPA budget, slowed implementation of toxic substances regulation and Superfund, and gutted environmental enforcement. These actions were devastating. Nonetheless, the backlash against environmental reform had deep roots. The Reagan counterrevolution is best understood within the much longer trajectory of the conservative movement in the U.S., a movement that placed opposition to environmental reform at its center. In fact, as environmental historian Mark Fiege has argued, “The modern conservative movement might be understood fundamentally as an argument about nature.” 1