One answer is that we were not paying attention when we might have helped to move our politics in a better direction. While we were writing brilliant articles and books, they were taking over school boards and city councils. While we were holding great conferences in beautiful places, they were taking over state legislatures and governor’s offices. While we were doing science, they were doing politics taking over Congress, the Senate, the court system, and learning the arts of manipulation by television, radio, internet, and social media. While we were growing school gardens and talking about exciting possibilities for renewable energy and ecological agriculture, they were steadily forcing our politics to the right and taking over the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower.

While we were getting in touch with our inner selves, they were staffing up on K Street. While we were trying to make peace with capitalism, they were at Davos advancing the cause of neoliberalism and working to make the rich much richer and the poor that much poorer. While we were trying to be bi-partisan, they were doing zero-sum politics, that is to say heads they win tales we lose. While we were most often right about the issues, they were taking power. While we were trying to be reasonable, they were cultivating and exploiting resentment. While we were reading Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, they were marinating in the bizarre philosophy of Ayn Rand. And, perhaps most important, while we were doing our eco-thing, Richmond attorney and future Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell was drafting the memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (1971) that became the battle plan for a massive corporate counter attack against environmentalism and progressive movements. In the fevered politics of those turbulent years, his memo sparked the creation the organizations charged with legitimizing and justifying the politics of a new era of Robber Barons.

Who are they? Whatever else they may be, they are not conservatives in the mold of Edmund Burke or Richard Weaver or even Barry Goldwater. Many are descendants of the far-right of American politics with roots in the South with its long history of opposition to the Federal government as a countervailing force to racial discrimination and unbridled corporate power.

Their agenda includes a hodge-podge of ideas such as “getting government off our backs” (but leaving predatory corporations there), ending Social Security, further enlarging the military, terminating a woman’s right to choose, eliminating environmental protections, defunding social programs, ending restrictions on gun ownership, freedom from public obligations, and always more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. In other words, they don’t like government regulations, taxes, uppity women, assertive minorities, national forests, public parks, the Postal Service, science, a fact-checking, investigative media, controls on gun ownership, and, of course, “liberals.”

They include neo-Nazis, white supremacists, internet trolls, tea-partiers, climate change deniers, extreme evangelicals, FOX news true believers, Limbaugh “ditto-heads,” Ayn Rand libertarians, free market ideologues, and some well-heeled people who really ought to know better. Disproportionately, they’re angry white guys and their enablers who are aren’t as angry but are adept opportunists who know how to make money from those who are. They are well-armed, noisy, and increasingly well-organized. They are inclined to the kind of self-righteousness that justifies means by the unquestioned self-anointed holiness of the ends.

They now control what remains of the Republican Party that once stood for the kind of conservatism that included a commitment to fiscal integrity, personal probity, a regard for facts, public decency, balanced budgets, common sense, and the kind of patriotism that could cost you something. Donald Trump gave voice to their inchoate rage and created a world-class model of a kakistocracy, an ancient Greek word that means government run by the worst, least qualified, and most unscrupulous. They are a minority but an intense, highly organized, and well-funded minority and sometimes that is all it takes to cause political havoc.

The political immune system necessary to counter ignorance, fanaticism, gullibility, fear, misogyny, racism, and violence, begins early on in classrooms where the young learn the basics tenants of democracy: honesty, fairness, empathy, non-violence, and collaboration. None of this comes easily or naturally.
The young must be educated to be citizens of a democracy and to know the costs of careless and indifferent citizenship. They must learn to see themselves as citizens of the community of life as well. As citizens of a democracy, they must understand the intimate relationship between democracy, human rights, dignity, justice, peace, and the human prospect and so must become knowledgeable about history, politics, the law and the workings of government.

As citizens in the ecological community, they must understand ecology, natural cycles, and the web of life. As citizens of human communities they must be learn to value of the wider community and the common good. In other words, they must learn the intimate and reciprocal relationship between politics and our ecological prospects.

“The point is that environmental education has been predominantly about everything but the politics that got us into our predicament and might yet be the path out of it. Our environmental education in particular has mostly excluded civics and the role of politics and governance in our predicament. Often we did so to avoid controversy and the charge of partisan bias. In doing so we were in effect supporting the status quo and the forces that prefer a passive and ecologically illiterate public; consumers not citizens. Alas, there is no way to be apolitical or non-political. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, there is no such thing as “cheap grace.”