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A Conservative’s Conservation Works

Jim DiPeso
photo of a man, smilingJim DiPeso

A point of view is like a watershed. Different wellsprings of experience, culture, and philosophy combine to form a river of perspectives.

So it goes with being a conservative conservationist. One can locate the rivulets that lead to such a seemingly odd point of view, but it takes time to bushwhack through weedy thickets of stereotypes and misunderstandings.

Let’s go upstream and give it a try.

First, when it comes to the environment, much of what passes for “conservatism” today is a mutation of an honorable political tradition that emerged in the 18th century.

In its unadulterated form, conservatism reveres the quiet and diverse beauty of nature, frowns on grasping materialism, and has little patience with utopian hubris. Man is a flawed creature who should be prudent and avoid taking foolish risks. What we have inherited is not ours to possess and do with as we please, but to hold in trust for future generations.

That sums up my philosophical outlook, which emerged from both intellectual study and experiencing nature far from libraries.

I grew up in California, and I have vivid childhood memories of visiting many of the state’s beautiful natural treasures: granite mountains, redwood forests, lonely beaches on the central coast, desert wildflowers in the spring.

What stood out for me then, and still does today, was how nature connects us to both past and future. Often, when I’m standing on a bluff looking out at the ocean or strolling through a forest, I form a mental picture of how the scenery appeared 100 or 1,000 years ago. I see and touch an old tree, and imagine it as a sapling when Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence. I see a valley and wonder what it will look like in 500 years.

For a conservative, holding onto our inheritance from the past and bequeathing it to future generations is fundamental to maintaining a society of ordered freedom that fosters community and family. Nature is one of the abiding elements of our inheritance. Undoing what is whole and beautiful, for the sake of indulging unrestrained appetites or from a narrow sense of entitlement, is a betrayal that is morally abhorrent and ultimately self-defeating.

As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “No generation has a freehold on this Earth. All we have is a life tenancy, with a full repairing lease.”

Unspoiled nature imparts valuable lessons in humility, essential for a balanced approach to life. It gives us an unforgettable lesson of our place in a creation that extends beyond an individual person’s sense of space and time.

In the summer of 2004, I was lucky to be invited on a three-day rafting trip on the Canning River at the western edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. It is amazing how swiftly what Earth First! Founder Dave Foreman calls “the big outside” dampens down mental chatter and immerses you in the slow and timeless energy of the real world outside of our noise, machines, and self-important busy-ness. Call it God or call it something else, but you sense something ineffable and powerful when all around you is open tundra and big sky.

As John Saylor, the visionary conservative congressman who fought to enact the Wilderness Act, said half a century ago: “In the wilderness, we can get our bearings.”

Among conservative leaders today, such thoughts are a distinct minority. The environment is associated with the leftist politics of statism. As Newt Gingrich said in a recent debate with John Kerry, conservative aversion to environmental stewardship stems from fear of what will follow: a straitjacket of inflexible bureaucracy and government intrusion.

Bear with us, he intimated, while we work through this, because the time has arrived for a “green conservatism.” Liberals may scoff and conservatives may be wary, but his statement is a good sign. Gingrich’s idea is a new name for an old tradition, one that served us well in the past and can again in the future.

— Jim DiPeso is the policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection.


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