I should like to begin with a quiz. What prominent person said the following:
"[There is an] absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment. . . The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our roads and other public projects must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance."
The most frequent guesses are: Al Gore, Barbra Streisand, and Ralph Nader.
The answer is: Governor Ronald Reagan, in 1970. And indeed, see Lou Cannon’s new book about Reagan’s governorship in California, which has a chapter about Reagan’s impressive pro-environment record, as opposed to his flamboyant rhetoric ("If you’ve seen one redwood you’ve seen them all").
Let’s try a second quote from a prominent political magazine:
"If [corporations] do not stop [polluting] we must find ways to compel them in some way to do so. . . important people must be interfered with before notice will be taken of disagreeable facts. Instead of demonstrating on Fifth Avenue on behalf of baby seals, the saviors of the environment would get far better results picketing the country clubs of Nassau, Fairfield, and Morris counties."
The Nation? The Progressive? In These Times? How about National Review!
The fact that no self-respecting Reaganite or National Review writer would talk this way today is a reflection of how deeply polarized environmental issues have become.
These comments were made back in 1970, around the time of the first Earth Day and the arrival of the modern environmental movement. It is often recalled that most of the landmark environmental legislation of the early 1970s passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, which contrasts sharply with today’s near-total legislative gridlock. It is amazing to recall that Barry Goldwater had been a long-time member of the Sierra Club--something that is unthinkable today even for his maverick successor John McCain--and one of the chief co-sponsors of the Endangered Species Act was Bill Buckley’s brother, Senator James Buckley.
At that time, the environment was seen as the new consensus domestic policy issue around which the nation could move forward in a bipartisan fashion after the train wreck of social policy in the 1960s. The irony, of course, is that by the 1990s, we had re-forged a consensus on several highly contentious areas of social policy such as welfare, crime, and to some extent education, while the environment has become a highly polarized domestic policy issue. In opinion polls the single greatest gap between the two parties on domestic issues is the environment.
Today, of course, few things are more fashionable on the right than to make jokes about the tastiness of spotted owls slow roasted on the grill, or to express gleeful contempt for tree-huggers and environmental whackoes. The issue has become yet another skirmish line in the culture wars. There are, as I shall dissect in a moment, some good and bad reasons for these affectations and attitudes, but we should pause at the outset and reflect on how odd this is.
If you were the proverbial Being from Mars dropped onto the American scene, nothing would seem more natural than to assume that environmentalism would be a conservative enthusiasm. Among other obvious things, conservative and conservatism share the same etymological root with conservation and conservationism, and while conservationism and environmentalism may not be identical, they are clearly blood relatives.
Beyond mere etymology, one can see a close kinship between conservatism and environmentalism on a deeper level; namely, that from a certain point of view they are both champions of lost causes; both are heralds against the remorseless imperatives of relentless progress--recall William F. Buckley’s famous mission statement for modern conservatism: "To stand athwart history yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." That could almost be the mission statement of Greenpeace, or Earth First. Both conservatism and environmentalism are powerless to stop progress in its tracks; hence both derive much of their imagination from an appreciation of the tragic sense of life.
Now and then I note with irony when an environmentalist will voice a critique that was made by a conservative 50 years ago. For example, consider the criticism the "smart growth" movement makes of interstate highways. Russell Kirk, author of the seminal book The Conservative Mind, and sociologist Robert Nisbet, both criticized the interstate highway system at its inception in the 1950s because of the effects it would have on urban neighborhoods the highways would uproot and bisect, and its effect on rural communities that would now be bypassed; Were Russell Kirk still with us, it is not hard to imagine that Kirk would be sympathetic with the people who dislike WalMart and Starbucks.
"The great error of our nature," Edmund Burke wrote in his book The Vindication of Natural Society, "is not to know where to stop, not to be satisfied with any reasonable acquirement; not to compound with our Condition; but to lose all we have gained by an insatiable Pursuit after more."
"It is an incontestable truth, that there is more havoc made in one year by Men, of Men, than has been made by all the lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, hyenas, rhinoceroses, elephants, bears, and wolves, upon their several species, since the beginning of the world..." said Burke, 100 years before John Muir, and 200 years before Wendell Berry or Bill McKibben.
Despite this philosophical harmony between conservatism and environmentalism on the surface, on several other levels it was always in the cards that the Right would be critical of environmentalism for at least three reasons.
The first and most obvious reason for conservative hostility to environmentalism is its absorption as a central enthusiasm of the left, and more importantly the costly centralized bureaucracy that environmental policy has entailed.
A good example of what I have in mind is New Republic columnist James Ridgeway, who wrote in the early 1970s: "Ecology offered liberal-minded people what they had longed for, a safe, rational and above all peaceful way of remaking society...[and] developing a more coherent central state..."
Statements like Ridgway’s give conservatives the heebie-jeebies, and hits all the Right panic buttons, so to speak.
But if you ponder this for a moment, this is entirely inadequate. After all, the big government aspects of other social policy areas such as education, welfare, and social security have not kept conservatives from active and positive interest in those issues. (Education is the best example: conservatives hate the education bureaucracy and dislike most educational advocacy groups, but do not hesitate to work with both in the service of incremental improvements.) What makes the environment different?
This leads to a second reason, which is the apocalyptic strain of thought that comes to sight in popular environmentalism, which, like all apocalyptic visions, fuels an extremely unpleasant moral unctuousness. One of the things that is interesting to watch is how the environmental movement struggles--like a devoted 12-stepper--to overcome this defect. But like an AA dropout who succumbs when walking by a well-lit tavern, orthodox environmentalism repeatedly stumbles and goes on a bender.
Consider the reaction to Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Now, there were several areas where Lomborg’s interpretation of the data deserved challenge, and to their credit a number of environmental scientists did just that in a sober and constructive way. In addition, one interesting general criticism was that Lomborg’s account of the doom and gloom "litany" of apocalyptic environmentalism amounted to a straw man; that few serious environmentalists still believe in the classic limits to growth view. [Michael Grubb, David Sandalow of WFF/Brookings, and Alan Hammond of WRI all made this argument.]
But far more common were the ritual denunciations of Lomborg as the equivalent of Holocaust denier or worse, culminating with the recent comment from the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, that Lomborg was "just like Hitler." This does not inspire confidence that the IPCC process can shake off the politicized atmosphere around it. The point is, the apocalyptic strain of thought makes it a moral offense to depart from orthodoxy.
And then, having worked so hard to shake off or at least refine the apocalyptic albatross, there will be a new spate of books such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse or Gus Speth’s Red Sky at Dawn that crank up the old-time religion anew.
This leads to the third and deepest reason for conservative antipathy toward environmentalism, which is the distinct echoes of Rousseau and his successors that one sees in popular environmental thought--the view, in a nutshell, that man is estranged from a benevolent state of nature, that human society and institutions corrupt man’s harmony with nature, and can be changed through a supreme act of will.
In addition to the overly romanticized and overly capacious understanding of nature one finds in popular environmentalism, one also often sees or hears grandiose pronouncements about the need for, and ability to make, wholesale changes in human society based on little more than our own will, and without regard for possible unintended consequences. The entire last chapter of Diamond’s Collapse is a textbook example of this, I think. After hundreds of pages of remarkably intricate detail about the problems of past collapsed civilizations, Diamond repairs to gauzy bromides about having the "courage to practice long-term thinking" and the "courage to make painful decisions about values." Not much there for a policy-maker to go on.
Similarly, there is Al Gore, in Earth in the Balance, describing our civilization as "deeply dysfunctional" and calling for a "wrenching transformation" of society, or Gus Speth in Red Sky at Morning, calling for "the most fundamental transition of all, a transition in culture and consciousness."
It is language like this that has led conservatives to distrust environmentalists as dangerous radicals--after all, as any conservative will tell you, "wrenching transformations" of society are difficult to bring about and almost never work out well; to the contrary, they are usually disastrous.
But this explanation has a major defect as well, which came to me in the course of long reflection about the case of Al Gore. I got to pondering the disharmony between calls for a "wrenching transformation" of society and the cautious practical politician that Gore was as vice president and as a candidate for president. Whatever else Al Gore may be, he is not a radical. (Proof of this, perhaps, was the fact that so many environmental organizations endorsed Bill Bradley and Ralph Nader in the 2000 campaign cycle because they found Gore deficient.)
Slowly I have come to the view that the sweeping portentous language we hear from orthodox environmentalists reflects not a deep and serious attachment to Rousseau or Heidegger, but is rather a reflection of the unhappy truth that there are a lot of environmental problems, especially on a global scale, about which we simply don’t know what to do. Even the problem of climate change, which in the abstract appears straightforward, is obviously proving very hard to deal with. What about much more complicated problems like species extinction and habitat loss? There is scarcely the beginning of an answer to this problem on the global scale. It is at this point that orthodox environmentalists figuratively throw up their hands and repair behind gauzy bromides such as Al Gore’s call, in Earth in the Balance, for a "wrenching transformation" of society, or Gus Speth’s call, in Red Sky at Dawn, for "the most fundamental transition of all, a transition in culture and consciousness." These are not serious, thought-out views on what should be done--they are cries for help. This kind of rhetoric should be regarded clinically rather than philosophically.
In other words, what this kind of Rousseauian language really represents is the limitation--one might even say the bankruptcy--of the conventional environmental imagination.
But this also means that conservatives have overreacted to these radical-sounding tendencies in conventional environmentalism.
Now, why should anyone who is not a conservative care especially whether conservatives have anything serious to say about the environment, or care whether the issue is a liberal monopoly? I think people should care because the liberal monopoly on environmental issues is a disaster for the environment.
It is a disaster for at least three reasons. First, it has led to the corruption of many environmental organizations--not corruption in the criminal sense, but in the old-fashioned civic republican sense of the term, of cheapening the language by which the issues are discussed, and above all by putting their organizational self-interest ahead of the public interest. Here one should lodge an important caveat that there is tremendous diversity among environmental organizations and sometimes even within the same organization. The Sierra Club seems wholly politicized, for example, while the NRDC is schizophrenic, on the one had doing some serious research and thinking on many issues, and on the other hand lobbing partisan grenades along with the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, other groups, like the World Resources Institute or the World Wildlife Fund, generally try to stay out of the partisan fray and stick to their work.
However, despite this diversity, the increasingly politicized environmental groups are seldom called to account by their peers. Quite the opposite: departures from orthodoxy are frequently punished, such as occurred when the NRDC praised a Bush administration rule-making on off-road diesel emissions in fulsome positive terms, only to be blasted by other environmental organizations for having departed from the "Bush-is-evil" party line.
Second, by making themselves an adjunct of the Democratic Party in the same way that the NRA is an adjunct of the Republican Party, the politicized environmental groups deepen policy gridlock. The important difference between the NRA and the Sierra Club, however, is that the NRA is mostly happy with the status quo and exists to block change, while environmental groups would like to see major changes, which they are not likely to achieve in the current circumstances.
Policy progress works best in the country when the two parties, and left and right, compete over an issue. What we call consensus represents not easy agreement, but the practical compromises that arise between the clash of the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s arguments. And so it is possible, for example, to get the No Child Left Behind Act, which no one fully likes, and no one fully hates--a typical legislative compromise that delivers some progress and sets the stage for further productive debate and reform. But under the present climate of environmental polarization, there is no chance that we could pass a No Species Left Behind Act.
This leads to the third point, which is that the monopolization of the issue by the left is having the effect of marginalizing environmental issues. I think you see this if you look closely at public opinion polls on the salience of environmental issues.
I have been making these points for several years now, and in recent months I’ve started to see their general vindication. There has been much discussion of overhyped "death of environmentalism" memo that first circulated last year at the Environmental Grantmakers Association conference. More recently, Nick Kristof, the New York Times columnist with decidedly green sympathies, wrote that "it's critical to have a credible, nuanced, highly respected environmental movement. And right now, I'm afraid we don't have one. . . environmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise."
If the orthodox environmental movement keeps going on as it has, it will eventually be as forlorn as the World Esperanto Association.
All of this means that, like several other dead-end areas of politics and policy in recent decades, the field is now wide open to conservatives to generate meaningful new ideas for real progress. But to do so, to paraphrase Jimmy Carter, requires that conservatives to get over their inordinate fear of environmental issues.
The reason for this is that the environment is much too important to be left to environmentalists--they’ll just screw things up.
What would a conservative environmentalism look like?
I have a number of broad and narrow gauge thoughts on this, enough to fill a whole book. Tomorrow we shall hear from Terry Anderson, whom I think of as the Columbus of Free Market Environmentalism, so I won’t try to cover themes that he has worked out far better than I can.
Let me try a little different direction.
One thought experiment I have been having for a while is to ask whether there might be an environmental policy equivalent to the "broken windows" theory of crime control. I am sure you all remember the days when the unrelenting cliché was that we couldn’t hope to reduce crime in any significant way until we got at the "root causes" of criminal pathologies. This reminds me very much of some of the overarching themes of environmental discourse, such as how we have a dysfunctional civilization that must be changed if there is to be any hope, or our dangerous addiction to inherently evil fossil fuels, and so forth.
In the case of crime, it turned out that it was possible to make major improvements without reaching to the root causes. Fix the broken windows, James Q. Wilson said, and you’ll make a difference. There were other factors involved, of course, but I think you grasp the point.
I have often broadened this thought experiment with other political scientists by asking about how Tocqueville would think about the environment if he were alive today and updating Democracy in America. I think he would see the issue in exactly the same terms that he observed two aspects of American life in 1835; namely, the impulse toward voluntarism in America, and the distinction between centralized government and decentralized administration, which was always one of his more subtle and difficult distinctions to understand.
But in this case I think he would make a distinction between the national environmental groups that exist chiefly to lobby, legislate, and litigate, and the by now thousands of local groups engaged in direct conservation activities.
I think Tocqueville would notice the way in which conventional environmental thought connects the singular fragilities of nature seriatim through metaphors like the "butterfly effect"--you know, the old saw about how a butterfly beats its wings in Indonesia setting off a chain of causation that results in a hurricane in the Caribbean. Instead I think Tocqueville would concentrate on problems like the Karner Blue butterfly in New York. The Karner Blue butterfly, if you know the story of that now tiny and perhaps doomed species, is a good way to see the difference between orthodox environmentalism and how conservative environmentalism would think about environmental problems.
If the Karner Blue butterfly is to be saved, for example, it is much more likely to be done by the local efforts of committed individuals and local organizations in New York than by a dictate from Washington or a protracted lawsuit.
This would be a nearly exact transliteration of Edmund Burke’s notion of how society is transformed through "little platoons."
I have necessarily skipped over a number of significant differences between how conservatives and conventional environmentalists think about nature, concepts such as sustainability, and so forth, all of which are important. But this Tocquevillian or Burkean emphasis on the "little platoons" of society points to one important point of harmony between what I have been describing as orthodox environmentalism and a conservative outlook, and that is the emphasis on the ethical obligation individuals have toward nature--the kind of ethic perhaps best laid out by Aldo Leopold in his famous book, A Sand County Almanac.
Implications for philanthropy:
Take seriously the old saying: Think globally, act locally. For along time this popular slogan was taken in reverse; it seemed to be a totem to wring our hands about the global crisis, while we recycle our cans and bottles. I think taken seriously the slogan requires more substantial involvement of motivated individuals and local groups in environmental protection. As a general matter, I think donors are best advised to avoid the big national, Washington and New York-based groups in favor of local direct action--fixing broken windows--the cumulative effect of which will be to spread and reinforce an ethic of environmental responsibility.
These are few opening themes. I am not sure how to save the Karner Blue butterfly, or a great many other species. The way we’re going about it now isn’t going to work. It maximizes cost and political friction, and minimizes results. If there is ever going to be and end to gridlock and any significant policy change, it is going to require that the environment become fully a consensus issue, as it was briefly 30 years ago, rather than a polarizing issue as it is today. And conservatives will have to take the lead, as they have with welfare reform, crime, and entitlements. I am not wildly optimistic that this can happen in the near term (long term, different story), but there it is.
Stephen F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.