December 22, 2004

Conservative Conservationists

Marc Comtois
Rarely do I find myself in agreement with Providence Journal columnist, and pseudo-Republican, Froma Harrop, but today she writes of the much-overlooked conservative conservationist. The established stereotype is that conservatives/Republicans are less concerned about environmental issues than are liberals/Democrats. However, lest we forget, it was a Republican President, Teddy Roosevelt, who was one of the first major champions of environmental awareness. (Not to discount the contributions of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, or Ralph Waldo Emerson). While Harrop can't refrain from chastising President Bush, claiming his administration "has trashed decades of environmental protection," she does make mention of the observations of John C. Green from the University of Akron and head of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
"Over the last 30 years there's no question that environmentalism has risen in all the religious traditions," says Green, who studies politics and religion. The message is that God expects his people to be good stewards of the Creation.

That includes largely conservative evangelicals. Green's own polling found that more than 50 percent of evangelicals agreed with the strong statement: "Strict rules to protect the environment are necessary, even if they cost jobs or result in higher prices." [For example, here is a website dealing with environmentalism and the Bible while the Quakers, who are not necessarily conservative though they are religious, also have much to say on environmentalism. ed.]

Conservative members of the environmental majority don't have more pull than they do, because of the way issues get packaged. As Green puts it, "The American political system is not arranged so that you can be a pro-life environmentalist and have a candidate to vote for."
Green's explanation regarding the "arrangement" of the political system and Harrop's notion of the way environmental issues "get packaged" is a nice way of saying that stereotypes about the relative stances of both political parties regarding environmental issues have taken a firm hold.

In general, Republicans and conservatives are regarded as weak on environmental issues while Democrats and liberals are usually given high marks. (Stereotypes work both ways, however, as the public's perception of the political parties' stances on the military and defense usually result in the opposite dynamic). While it is true that in every stereotype there is a nugget of truth, I believe that the stereotypes have obscured the fact that conservatives and liberals simply have different approaches to environmental issues. Unfortunately for conservatives, liberals have succeeded in instilling their definition of environmentalism into the publics mindset. As such, when an average person thinks of environmental groups, the Sierra Club or National Audobon Society comes to mind, rather than, say, The Thoreau Institute.

To further elaborate on this point, the noted "objectivist" Ayn Rand, who was more of a libertarian than a conservative (but was denfinitely not a liberal), held a very antagonistic view of environmentalists.
"[O]bserve that in all the propaganda of the ecologists—amidst all their appeals to nature and pleas for "harmony with nature"—there is no discussion of man's needs and the requirements of his survival. Man is treated as if he were an unnatural phenomenon. Man cannot survive in the kind of state of nature that the ecologists envision—i.e., on the level of sea urchins or polar bears. . . .[Ayn Rand (1971), "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," Return of the Primitive, 277.]
This, I believe, exemplifies the type of rhetoric that is perceived to be the typical conservative stance on environmentalism. I cannot say that I disagree with Rand's assertions. They are indeed necessary to counteract the rhetoric of the radical environmentalists such as the radical Earth First! "movement," or the extreme eco-terrorist organization the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). The actions and rhetoric of groups such as these, while they don't necessarily reflect the beliefs of the typical liberal environmentalist, further entrench the liberal definition of environmentalism, whether negatively or positively, into the political dialogue. It is from this base of ideas that all debates on the environment tend to originate.

As Ayn Rand asserted, liberal environmentalists view humans as the "enemy" of the environment, with the most radical excoriating nearly anything that is "of man" in their environmental crusade. Liberals have been particularly successful in establishing their worldview as the initial perspective through which most of the media views environmental issues. For example, despite claims to the contrary, the press operates from the supposition that Global Warming is a fact, despite conflicting research that often goes unreported.

While it is true that much of the conservative school of thought could be classified as anti-environmentalist, (which is best defined as being against the positions held by the extreme left-wing environmental groups) that does not necessarily mean conservatism is anti-environment. As I alluded in my earlier mention of The Thoreau Institute, there are groups that are looking for innovative approaches to protecting the environment. One of the most common "conservative" theories is called Free-Market Environmentalism. The Thoreau Institute is one such proponent, as is the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). Acccording to their website, PERC believes that
[m]arket-oriented approaches to protecting the environment make sense for the private individuals who implement them and prosper from them, as well as for the public who enjoys the benefits of economically sound and environmentally sensitive endeavors.
They have four basic guidelines that they follow in applying their methodology:
1) Private property rights encourage stewardship of resources.
2) Government subsidies often degrade the environment.
3) Market incentives spur individuals to conserve resources and protect environmental quality.
4) Polluters should be liable for the harm they cause others.
Here in Rhode Island, Governor Carcieri has shown that conservatives can work with environmental groups, such as Save the Bay, to come up with answers to environmental questions. He created the Narragansett Bay and Watershed Planning Commission, which has made progress in defining a unified plan for Naragansett Bay, with input from various environmental, business and citizen groups.

As Governor Carcieri has shown, it is up to conservatives to more fully engage in the environmental debate by seizing opportunities to implement new ideas. They shouldn't shy away simply because the environment is a liberal issue. If conservatives can successfully implement new ideas that are environmentally sound, business friendly and acceptable to the general public, they can accomplish two things. First, by taking ownership of the environment issue, they will gain politically. Second, and more importantly, they can feel satisfied that they have contributed to preserving our world for future generations.
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I'm a Christian environmental scientist. Check out my conservative evangelical ecoblog at

Posted by: db at February 2, 2005 2:35 PM