CONSERVATIVE PRINCIPLES AND THE ENVIRONMENT
By JOHN R.E. BLIESE, Ph.D., a REP member in Texas
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the fall 1997 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter.
In recent years many politicians and pundits who call themselves “conservatives” have been notorious for opposing any and all measures to protect the environment. In the 104th Congress they attacked virtually every environmental law on the books, and these are laws that had been passed with broad bipartisan support over the last thirty years.
The general conception now among politicians and the public seems to be that conservatives are supposed to be anti-environmentalists. But nothing could be further from the truth. If you put aside today’s politicians and talk show hosts and go back to the “founding fathers” of the modern conservative movement, if you go back to the scholars who laid the foundation of our conservative political philosophy, you will find a solid basis for environmental protection and conservation of natural resources. It is the current crop of “conservative” politicians and journalists who are wrong and who are violating the principles of conservatism.
What I want to do here is to go back to the conservative political philosophy and see just what it has to say to us today about environmental policy. First I want to present a few quotations from some of the “founding fathers;” then I will consider several specific principles of conservatism.
In 1948 Richard Weaver wrote Ideas Have Consequences, the book that started the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement in America. Weaver wrote this long before our environmental problems had become so critical, but even in his day he could see serious problems developing. He contended that we need to adopt an attitude of “piety” toward nature, and that our attempt to “conquer” nature is nothing less than a “sin.” In 1964 he wrote an essay in which he stressed the importance of a correct attitude to nature:
“Nature [is] something which is given and… inscrutable. This is equivalent to saying that… it [is] the creation of a Creator. There follows from this attitude an important deduction, which is that man has a duty of veneration toward nature and the natural. Nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to any human whims. To some extent, of course, it has to be used. But what man should seek in regard to nature is not a complete dominion but a modus vivendi: a manner of living together, a coming to terms with something that was here before our time and will be here after it. The important corollary of this doctrine, it seems to me, is that man is not the lord of creation, with an omnipotent will, but a part of creation, with limitations, who ought to observe a decent humility in the face of the inscrutable.”
Russell Kirk’s 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, may be the most important “classic” of modern conservatism.
“the modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining… is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors.”
He also believed that
“‘piety’ includes respect for the natural balance in the world.”
T. S. Eliot
For one last “classic” I will turn to the poet and critic T. S. Eliot, whose short book on Christianity and Culture Kirk recommended highly.
Eliot believed that we need to distinguish
“between the use of natural resources and their exploitation.”
He believed that
“a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly.”
For example, soil erosion is the result of
“the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale for two generations… immediate benefits leading to dearth and desert.”
He concluded that
“a wrong attitude towards nature implies…a wrong attitude towards God… It would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.”
These quotations are not from liberals, nor are they from “deep ecologists” or eco-freaks. They are from the founders of today’s conservative movement. How far have so many of our politicians and radio entertainers fallen!
When these scholars (and others) started the new conservative intellectual movement, of course they did not start from scratch. They developed two schools of thought, a libertarian or free market school that traces its lineage back to Adam Smith, and a traditionalist one that has its basis in the writings of Edmund Burke. Just as Burke and Smith were friends in their day and found themselves in general agreement, so their heirs have collaborated in forming contemporary conservatism.
From the political philosophy they developed, I want to take several fundamental principles, and we will see that they clearly support protection of our environment.
Society is Intergenerational
In the often quoted words of Edmund Burke, society is
“a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Therefore, we have obligations and duties to future generations. We have no right to trash the earth in an orgy of consumption and leave our children and grandchildren a polluted and depleted planet. The idea of “sustainable development” is a perfectly conservative one. We have a moral obligation to design our economy in such a way that we can produce our goods without reducing the ability of the planet to support future generations.
We are not doing that now.
Russell Kirk underlined the problem:
“In America especially, we live beyond our means by consuming the portion of posterity, insatiably devouring minerals and forests and the very soil, lowering the water table, to gratify the appetites of the present tenants of the country.” And he set the standard for conservative policy: “Turning away from the furious depletion of natural resources, we ought to employ our techniques of efficiency in the interest of posterity, voluntarily conserving our land and our minerals and our forests and our water and our old towns and our countryside for the future partners in our contract of eternal society.”
Prudence is Needed
For conservatives, the most important political virtue of all is prudence. And right now we face several environmental problems that call for prudence above all else. In several ways we are performing uncontrolled and irreversible experiments with the entire planet, and the results could be catastrophic. Three problems are particularly daunting: global warming, the rapid extinction of species, and the contamination of the entire globe with persistent chemicals that can disrupt our hormone system. Here I can only deal with one, global warming, as an example, but it is necessary for conservatives to exercise prudence and design appropriate policies to solve all of them.
Primarily by burning fossil fuels, we are changing the composition of the atmosphere of the entire earth in ways that are causing it to warm up much faster than occurs naturally. No one knows exactly what the final results will be, but the best scientific evidence indicates that devastating storms and floods may increase, agricultural productivity could be drastically reduced, coastal cities could be flooded as the polar ice melts, and entire ecosystems may not have time to adapt as climate patterns shift. All of that could happen, but it may take another decade or so of study before we will know.
With risks like these, what would the prudent policy be? Surely not to continue on our merry way, waiting to see what happens. By then it will be too late to do anything. The prudent policy would be to reduce our emissions of these greenhouse gases now, so that the rate of climate change will be slowed down close to its natural rate. And that would not be terribly difficult to do. We use fossil fuels so very inefficiently that we could cut our greenhouse gases drastically without affecting our standard of living. Adopting energy efficiency measures would not only reduce global warming, it would save money to spend on better things than wasted fuel.
Polluters Should Pay
This is a fundamental principle of the free market. Technically stated, in terms only an economist could love:
“Negative externalities should be internalized in prices.”
This means that a producer of a product should pay all of the costs of its production, and include them in its price, which the customer then pays. But producers frequently avoid paying some of their costs by imposing them on innocent victims; and those costs are called “externalities.”
Pollution is a prime example. If a factory does not properly process its wastes but dumps them into the air or into a river, it saves some money, but all people downwind or downstream suffer. The polluters should pay to clean up their wastes; no one else should have to suffer from them.
CLOSELY RELATED TO THIS ARE TWO MORE CONSERVATIVE PRINCIPLES:
1. Respect True Property Rights and Individual Freedom
Pollution invades the property rights of all of its victims. And it infringes on their freedom by imposing costs on them that they should not have to pay.
In other words, if the conservative principles of the free market, property rights, and individual freedom had been followed, most of our air and water pollution would never have been permitted in the first place.
We often hear objections to the costs of pollution control regulations the government has enacted. These are in part misleading; to a great extent, those costs may simply show how much the polluters used to get away with and how much damage they used to cause society. And the objections are often exaggerated; all of our spending on environmental protection is only about 2% of our gross national product. But there’s also some truth in them. Our regulatory system is too burdensome, so conservatives should look for alternative policies; and there are many market-based alternatives that would be both more effective and cheaper at reducing pollution. But no principled conservative could advocate letting polluters get away with fouling our air or water or land.
2. Eliminate Harmful Subsidies
Another fundamental principle is based on the free market concept that governmental subsidies are undesirable. For our concern here, government should stop subsidizing environmental destruction. In all sorts of ways government takes our tax money and uses it to subsidize waste of natural resources and damage to the environment.
To take just two examples: Our national forests have been devastated because the Forest Service sells timber at prices that do not even cover the cost of preparing the sales. Taxpayers lose hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Many forests are clear cut, with all the destruction that causes, that would never have been profitable to log without the subsidies. Similarly, public lands in the west are “cow bombed” by over-grazing, because the government sets grazing fees far below the going market rate, and picks our pockets for other subsidies as well.
Without those subsidies, our forests and grazing lands would be in much better condition, and we taxpayers would not be losing billions a year for the privilege of seeing our natural areas destroyed.
Finally, these days we need to beware of insidious attempts to deceive the public by denying the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence about some very serious environmental problems. Some popular commentators are doing just that, but there is nothing conservative about it.
In sum, the principles of conservatism clearly support environmental protection. It is up to us to remind our politicians of that fact, and to recall our Republican party to its principles.
Of course, that is precisely why REP exists.
CREDIT FOR THIS PIECE: This was the first feature article that John R. E. Bliese, Ph.D. — a REP member from 1996 until his death in 2009 — wrote especially for The Green Elephant. Taken all together, these pieces make a significant contribution to the body of literature that Dr. Bliese built up around the theme that Conservation is Conservative.
Dr. Bliese retired in 2002 as Associate Professor of Communications at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He published numerous articles and monographs on the link between conservation and conservatism.
We remain grateful for all four of these essays and are proud to continue making them available on our website. We also know that he would be happy to know that they are still available for future generations to read and learn from.
“Conservative Principles and the Environment” (Fall 1997, The Green Elephant)
“The Great ‘Environment Versus Economy’ Myth” (Summer 1999, The Green Elephant)
“Facts and Myths about Global Warming: A Conservative Perspective” (Summer 2001, The Green Elephant)
“Saving Life on Earth: Doing Noah’s Job Today” (Spring 2004, The Green Elephant)
We also highly recommend Dr. Bliese’s important book, The Greening of Conservative America, which elaborates on many of the themes discussed here.
NEWER READERS MAY BE INTERESTED IN OUR ORIGINAL 1997 CREDIT FOR THIS PIECE: John R. E. Bliese, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, has published several articles exploring the relationship between conservatism and the environment. We thank him for writing this essay especially for The Green Elephant.
We first learned about Professor Bliese when Alabama REP member Bob Mount sent us a copy of Dr. Bliese’s “The Conservative Case for the Environment” from the Fall 1996 issue of The Intercollegiate Review.
By the time Dr. Bliese’s “Richard M. Weaver, Russell Kirk, and the Environment” appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of Modern Age, we were pleased to be able to tell people who sent that article to us that the author was a member in good standing of REP.
More recently, Dr. Bliese published “Traditionalist Conservation and Environmental Ethics” in the Summer, 1997 issue of Environmental Ethics.
Here’s part of a letter that Dr. Bliese wrote to REP as we were preparing his “Conservative Principles and the Environment” for publication:
“I am one of those Republicans who became an active environmentalist as a result of the appointment of James Watt and company. That was not at all what I had in mind in voting for Reagan!
“Then, as an environmentalist and a conservative, in the early nineties I became increasingly concerned as ‘conservatives’ became harsher and harsher in criticizing environmental protection laws. And I did not see anyone, except for a handful of rather implausible libertarians, arguing the obvious thesis that a conservative should be for conserving things like nature and the environment.
“Then the 104th Congress went crazy, and I decided to divert much of my time to do what I could on conservatism and environmentalism. I hope my essay makes some ‘conservatives’ stop and reconsider. This notion that conservatives should be anti-environmental is absurd and dangerous.”