Time to Put Conservation Back in Conservatism

I used to be what you might call a “conservative.” While an economics student at Georgetown, I believed that progress was the removal of government oversight and barriers to trade. I believed in the power of the unfettered market to solve all problems. I agreed with George Will when he compared environmentalism to “a green tree with red roots… a socialist dream.”

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Yet as I began a career at a preeminent polling firm, I began to suspect that my livelihood was hardly conservative. I spent my days recasting palm oil as a “green” product, shilling for a coal company, and greenwashing the image of a Detroit automaker. What, exactly, was I conserving? Shareholder value? Corporate profits? I now realize there was nothing remotely conservative about my views. They were scientifically-uninformed. They were radical.

Let’s take a step back. What were the original conservatives conserving? Many thinkers in the late eighteenth century were troubled by the excesses of revolutionary fervor. In particular, British parliamentarian Edmund Burke was alarmed by the violent reordering of society in France. He said society ought to be a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Conservative intellectual Russell Kirk, in his authoritative review of Burke in The Conservative Mind, wrote about the conservative impulse to preserve the “permanent things.”

If that’s the measure of a conservative, then today’s conservatives are failing at the task. “Drill, baby, drill” appears to be the height of their moral vision, a vision dismissive of ecology, biology, and the limits of physics. In the more than 200 years since the first conservatives took to the pen against the Jacobin excesses of the French Revolution, advocates of laissez-faire economic policy have themselves ascended to utopian heights. This takeover of conservative thought by market fundamentalists has ushered in nothing short of a Reign of Terror against the environment. Short-term corporate interests are placed above the interests of humans today and, especially, humans tomorrow. Their fanatical mantra is: “nothing above The Market, nothing against The Market, nothing outside The Market.” The intellectual rigor that once called for prudence has yielded to an ideological fervor that accelerates ecological collapse.

Who, then, are the real heirs of the conservative disposition? Quite simply: environmentalists. And I’m not talking about conservatives who paint themselves green like Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons, who offers a vague “cultural sensibility” instead of any policy ideas. Dreher recently reposted Senator Rand Paul’s claim to be a “crunchy conservative.” I’m unconvinced that Paul’s home composting makes up for his efforts to limit the EPA’s power.

In contrast to the voluntary conservation measures advocated by the crunchy conservatives, a real conservative (an environmentalist) respects Burke’s vision of a society with intergenerational responsibility, which is essential for a habitable planet. This is an effort that will necessarily require top-down regulation, not just optional lifestyle preferences. A real conservative is sparked to action by atmospheric CO2 concentrations that are higher than at any time in our species’ history. A real conservative confronts the Reign of Terror that unfettered capitalism has unleashed upon “permanent things” like aquifers, oceans, and forests.

We environmentalists ought to reclaim the word conservative and use it proudly to describe our movement. Arch conservative William F. Buckley Jr. said a conservative is someone who stands “athwart history, yelling ‘stop.’” Why, then, are environmentalists alone in their skepticism toward unfettered capitalism in a closed system called Earth?

George Will was wrong; environmentalism is hardly “red.” It relies more on conservative caution and less on dreamy predictions about history’s inevitable path toward material progress. In contrast, faux conservatives are today’s revolutionary utopians pursuing a “workers’ paradise” for the One-Percent.

I became an environmentalist because I am inspired by the original conservative impulse against utopian radicalism. I’m a conservative because I am an environmentalist.

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