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Stewardship of the Land: James Watt, Populist Evangelicalism, and the Rise of Modern Anti-Environmentalism


James G. Watt, secretary of the interior under Ronald Reagan, was one of the most controversial figures to hold the office. Much of the historical legend of Watt stems from a 1981 House Committee Briefing where Watt casually referred to the Second Coming of Christ in discussion of his obligations as secretary. But what role did evangelical and populist rhetoric actually play in Watt’s political language and policy decisions? How did he use this language to justify anti-environmental policies? How does Watt’s particular anti-environmentalism fit into the movement’s broader history? Watt both reflected and led a critical shift in anti-environmental politics and rhetoric—away from the disorganized, states’ rights emphasis of the Sagebrush Rebellion and towards the hyper-individualist and anthropocentric Wise Use Movement. This shift stemmed from Watt’s unique blend of Western anti-environmentalist sentiments and the broader policies and strategies of the New Right. Watt employed evangelical and populist language to justify and support his policies against political opponents. Watt failed to achieve many of his policy aims due to constant political battles with environmentalists and members of Congress and was quickly forced to resign after he made a widely condemned joke about minorities in 1983. Nevertheless, Watt’s legacy of an anthropocentric, individualist, and pro-developmental conservative “environmentalism” continued to dominate anti-environmentalist discourse for years afterwards.

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