Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican who fought to protect the environment

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“Mr. Conservative,” I smiled as Barry Goldwater welcomed me enthusiastically at The Stockyards, a favorite steakhouse of his in Phoenix.

“I ordered two bourbons to kick off our conversation,” he said kindly.

“What’s happening in my beautiful Arizona?” Goldwater inquired, as it had been more than a quarter of a century since his passing.

I recalled his love for the outdoors, growing up surrounded by the stunning landscapes of the upper Sonoran Desert.

Republicans once passed great legislation

Barry Goldwater, pictured near Tuba City around 1938.
Barry Goldwater, pictured near Tuba City around 1938.

Goldwater voted against the 1964 Wilderness Act, but two decades later he was instrumental in the passage of the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. His views softened with the passage of time.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” I said somberly. “The Republican Party seems intent on ruining Arizona’s natural environment.”

“That’s impossible,” he replied bluntly. “Republicans were at the forefront of environmental causes. Teddy Roosevelt created the Forest Service, Eisenhower signed the first federal legislation to combat air pollution, and Nixon created the EPA, signed the 1970 Clean Air Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.”

“You’re right,” I interjected. “Republicans passed important environmental legislation in the 20th century, but today’s Republicans are different from those of yesteryear.”

Goldwater’s puzzlement was interrupted by the waiter. He ordered steak, beans and cornbread. “Same for me, but mix in a salad, too,” I said.

“Ditto,” he added.

Now, their work hurts the environment

“Let me give you an example,” I continued. “In 2024, Arizona Republican lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 1195, which forbids public funds from being used to reduce motor vehicle travel with walking, biking or public transit.”

“That’s insane,” he replied irate. “Since the late 1960s, I was already fighting to make our cities’ air cleaner. In my 1970 book ‘The Conscience of a Majority’ I asked, ‘Will man bring himself to accept a substitute for the internal combustion engine, if that proves necessary?’ ”

“To make matters worse, this bill does everything to make us bury our heads in the sand with respect to climate change,” I added.

“Times have changed,” the five-term senator added wistfully.

“I wrote about this unambiguously with respect to pollution: ‘I feel very definitely that the [Nixon] administration is absolutely correct in cracking down on companies and corporations and municipalities that continue to pollute the nation’s air and water. Although I am a great believer in the free, competitive enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in clean and pollution-free environments.’ ”

“That’s a powerful statement from a conservative,” I remarked, prompting him to clarify: “Conservatism, at its core, is about preserving traditions, institutions and values. Natural resources are part of our heritage, and protecting them ensures our well-being and that of future generations.”

Goldwater's love for nature has been lost

As the glasses of Old Crow kept flowing, I asked, “Don’t you think that when we analyze the causes of the environmental crisis that the failures of capitalism are most evident, through its incessant drive for profit, growth and the commodification of nature?”

Without missing a beat, Goldwater replied, “One of my economic advisers in the 1960s, Milton Friedman, summarized my economic views this way: ‘Throughout history, the great enemy of freedom has been concentrated power — private or governmental. If freedom is to be secure, power must be limited and it must be dispersed. The most effective way is to rely primarily on voluntary exchange through a free market: competitive capitalism’.”

I felt a profound contradiction in his views.

He correctly wanted to protect the environment with more government intervention, but he also supported Reagan’s Revolution of more privatization and deregulation, and today’s Republicans are the heirs of that revolution.

My conversation with one of the most influential and fascinating American conservatives of the second half of the 20th century was drawing to a close.

Our deep ideological differences didn’t prevent me from seeing a mostly comrade-in-arms when it came to the environment.

Goldwater’s profound love for nature was evident throughout his life, and as he wrote forcefully, “Our job is to prevent that lush orb known as the Earth . . . from turning into a bleak and barren, dirty brown planet.”

Hopefully, today’s Republicans will learn a thing or two from Mr. Conservative’s latter environmental ideology.

Alberto Tico Arenas is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Arizona, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Environmental Education. Reach him at arenasa@arizona.edu.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Barry Goldwater was a conservative who protected the environment