THOUGHTS OF A CONSERVATIVE ENVIRONMENTALIST, PART 1
By GORDON DURNIL, former Chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, former Republican-appointed commissioner on the International Joint Commission, and a REP member in Indiana
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the winter 1997-1998 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter
I usually start my speeches by saying: We have real environmental problems in this nation, in this state, in this community!
That’s a simple statement and many people agree with it. But for some reason, it’s a statement which attracts unusual attention when made by a conservative Republican like me.
The usual reaction to my remark is that “conservative environmentalist” is an oxymoron. I see no reason why that should be true, and as each day goes by I find more and more evidence that it is not.
As a delegate on the floor of the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, five or six GOP leaders a night would look me up to express their concerns about some serious environmental matter. As I travel the country, something I find to be quite common is the large number of Republican environmentalists I meet. And I have had a number of meetings with College Republicans and College Democrats who want to make careers out of erasing the line-in-the-sand attitude between the major players in the realm of environmental protection.
A Personal Saga
In 1989, President George Bush appointed, and the U. S. Senate confirmed, me as the United States Chairman of the International Joint Commission. For the first time in my life, I found myself enveloped in international scientific discussions about the dangers of onerous substances being discharged into our air, land and water.
I’d heard about cancer as an end point effect of pollution, but I did not know if I believed it. I hadn’t heard about persistent toxic substances, nor had I heard about subtle human health effects such as learning disabilities, reproductive problems and immune suppression in newborn babies. The IJC gathered volunteer scientists from both the U. S. and Canada—from government, industry, environmental groups and academia—to serve in their personal capacities, not bound by the views of their employers. Those scientists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines convinced me that we now know enough about the subtle adverse human health effects of such onerous discharges to begin virtually eliminating their use.
So I went to my long-time friends and colleagues to sound out their views and their suggestions about how to deal with a problem that could eventually result in under-population, not over-population, which is so popular to discuss in some circles.
My conservative friends reacted in two ways. First, some just presumed I’d left the farm and become a liberal. Second, and most prevalent, they would simply turn off their curiosity. The stimulating interest these friends have in almost every subject matter is somehow automatically lost when the word environment is interjected into the discussion.
Sometimes the response to the word “environment” is anger or disdain. But conservative anger shouldn’t revolve around the existence of real problems, because recognizing the existence of a problem, environmental or not, is not the focus of a political philosophy.
If you and I see that this podium is broken, should I say “I’m sorry, my philosophy won’t allow me to accept that the podium is broken”? That seems to be our traditional response when confronted with an environmental issue, and it makes little sense. How the problem is handled, however, is a matter for philosophical debate (by government, the polluter pays, etc). But too many of us want to believe an environmental problem is real or false based upon what we are told by the definers of our philosophy.
A Cultural Gulf
There is a cultural gulf between people on opposite sides of the environmental debate that gets in the way of success. My audiences are diverse, from the very conservative to the very liberal, and one thing is quite clear: neither side believes the other is sincere. That’s a problem that needs solving. Too often Republicans believe all environmental claims are false, and too often Democrats believe all such claims are true. One thing is sure: as long as the environmental issue is the province of but one political party, neither political party will give it the attention it deserves.
The environmental plank in the 1996 National Republican Platform is pretty good. There’s some good stuff in there, but we just couldn’t help taking shots at people. We say we are concerned, but only about real risks. That leaves the perception that we think there are no legitimate risks.
And we talk about “fear mongering,” which also doesn’t endear us to those who have an environmental victim in their family.
One of the things I learned is that most people who experience environmental concerns are not organized by any large environmental organization. They are just small groups of people worried about a sick child or spouse, but their numbers total into the hundreds of thousands. We Republicans don’t seem to recognize that fact and too often presume that anyone with an environmental concern is a member of some radical group. That’s naive, and it costs us votes.
A Time to Exercise Leadership
We are in an unusual period of change, a time when conservatives are promoting great change and liberals are digging in their heels to keep things the way they’ve been. An era such as this is a great time to exercise leadership, a great time for accomplishment, a great time to push the environment up several notches on the public agenda. But change can also present us with the worry of Albert Einstein when he said,”Everything has changed, but for our way of thinking.”
Successful pollution prevention will require change in the way we do things. And to encourage positive change, we will need to consider not just our goals of environmental protection but how we get there. To date, in my opinion, our way of thinking and the so-called environmental-protection processes which have evolved, are major barriers to success.
But I am becoming encouraged that many people from diverse backgrounds are recognizing that the way our environmental protection systems have evolved does not protect the environment. Not all have come to agreement on solutions, but many do agree it’s time to overhaul the current system and time to find a common ground on which to begin a serious debate.
Finding common ground in a joint pursuit of environmental protection and economic growth will require bringing reason to the debate. Extreme statements and actions, by either side, are barriers to success. Finding common ground means overcoming the three-decade-old culture ravine between the pin-stripe set and the graduates of the antiwar movement who have led many environmental organizations. Young people now entering the environmental debate, from the full political spectrum, do not have those biases, and they can be our salvation.
What could be helpful in finding common ground is an understanding that battles between ideology and truth are a waste of time. From a sperm-count perspective, today’s young males are only half the men their grandfathers were, and the science supporting concern about endocrine disrupters is quite serious.
Some dueling scientists are trying to debunk those studies, but still, why isn’t science of such magnitude a matter for serious debate? Why are we still choosing up sides, calling each other names such as greedy or wacko? The line-in-the-sand mentality of the active players on all sides of the environmental-protection debate is a primary barrier to environmental success without economic distress.
“Good Science” vs. “Bad Science”
We hear a lot about good and bad science. We Republicans say we care about environmental problems but we want decisions based on good science. That says to the people expressing concern about the problem that we think they have bad science. It’s like calling them liars.
Scientists put their data on the public table and other people criticize it. The critics say it doesn’t match their science, but I was surprised to find that people alleging bad science quite often have no science of their own.
It’s easy to say someone has “bad science.” Reporters will always quote you if you say that, but few reporters and few people in general will ask to see the “good science.” Few ask for an explanation of the differences. What I have learned is that a public use of the words “bad science” usually represents a dilatory or diversionary tactic. It’s a way to deny something without any basis of fact to back up the denial.
As a part of my learning process in environmentalism, one thing became clear: the “good science—bad science” debate has to do with point of view, not science.
I came to the table with a pro-industry bias, but consider this observation of a midwestern politician dumped into the midst of the debate about what’s good or bad science:
I observed environmental groups putting their science on the public table; standing alone, it’s easy to debunk. Government science seems to get buried for long periods of time by lobbyists from all sides fighting to get their favorite people on the peer review panels.
Academic science occasionally breaks out of its ivied walls, but not often. Meanwhile, industry doesn’t put its science on the public table, supposedly because it fears industrial espionage by competitors.
The result is… public science is debunked by industry as bad science because it doesn’t comport with their non-public science. Representatives of industry ask the public to trust them when they say their science doesn’t show what the public science shows, even though they don’t trust each other not to steal secrets if they do publicize their science. The “trust us, even though we don’t trust each other” scenario leaves the public in the dark.
I suggest to my friends in business that they not accept the tactical “bad science” dodge from lobbyists. Demand to see their health-effects science. You may find they don’t have any.
Know the facts before you debunk scientific findings indicating we may be putting our children at risk.
ORIGINAL 1998 CREDIT: Gordon K. Durnil, the author of The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist (1995, Indiana University Press) and Is America Beyond Reform? (1997, Sligo Press), is much in demand as a speaker. In August, 1997, he chaired a session called “Republicans and the Environment” at the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference in Indianapolis. He invited REP President Martha Marks to be one of the speakers at that session.
Mr. Durnil served as Indiana Republican State Chairman for eight years. He has been a delegate to every Republican National Convention since 1968 and was on the Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee during the Reagan presidency. A founder of Young Americans for Freedom in 1961, he subsequently raised more funds for the Indiana Republican Party and GOP candidates than anyone else in Hoosier history. President Bush appointed him to serve as U.S. Chairman of the International Joint Commission for water quality in the Great Lakes and all other boundary-crossing waterways, a position he held for four and a half years. During that time, he gained international recognition for leadership in developing new ideas regarding the use of persistent toxic substances and for finding ways to update environmental protection concepts. He is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Business and the Indiana University School of Law.
REP is proud to claim Mr. Durnil as a member. The two articles that we published in The Green Elephant come from recent speeches at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Wayne Township Republican Club. We thank him for letting us condense them.