Conservatives and the Environmental Question
These two books set out to correct the general public perception that conservatism and environmentalism are at odds. Peter Huber’s book goes even further. His manifesto argues that modern liberal environmentalism is fraudulent. It is akin to a totalitarian ideology that actually harms rather than protects the environment. John R. E. Bliese’s book is more of an apologia mixed with policy analysis. He divulges the reason why the Left has been so successful in framing environmental issues and defining the terms of debate. It is because conservatives have too often rejected environmentalism as a liberal fad and sided with industry against the public will on environmental policy. Bliese begins with conservative political theory and shows how conservative principles are compatible with environmental protection. He then spends the remainder of the book examining various environmental policy issues such as pollution, global warming, and biodiversity conservation. Current policy shortcomings are explained, as are ways to improve policies by applying conservative principles. Both authors see excessive governmental regulation as a hindrance to good environmental policy, and both also advocate a larger role for markets.
Peter Huber is more clearly the market ideologue. While he recognizes the importance of governmental intervention in dealing with large-scale environmental problems such as industrial pollution and wilderness protection, he argues that the government has overstepped its authority by trying to micro-manage the economy and people’s lives to protect every aspect of the environment. For example, by setting standards for waste recycling and energy efficiency, the government is engaged in social engineering that not only fails to attain environmental goals, but often wastes more energy and tax dollars in the process. Resources would be better used to set aside more wilderness, rather than trying to regulate every aspect of human behavior. He argues that this fixation on micromanagement is borne out of a general fear of imminent environmental collapse. Liberals believe that ecological catastrophe can only be averted by a strong government whose experts alone can safely steer society to a greener future. To Huber, this form of environmentalism is built upon the same abstract social theories that drove Rousseau, Marx and other leftist radicals. They were so sweeping and idealistic that they could only be implemented by state force. And, despite their grandiose social visions, they all failed.
The same is true of modern liberal environmental ideology. It is based on abstract computer models that are so complex and produce so many possible scenarios that they cannot be fully relied upon to make sound environmental policy. This brand of environmental ideology is what Huber calls “Soft Green.” In contrast, “Hard Green” is conservative. It relies on empirical evidence rather than theories. Its main focus is setting aside wilderness, which is the only scarcity that matters. All other environmental problems can be successfully dealt with through markets and advanced technology. Hard Green believes in using “hard energy”—oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear—rather than “soft energy” like solar and wind power. The former is more efficient and impacts less of the earth’s surface area. Huber also argues that it is the wealth created by capitalist societies, not poverty or forced reductions in consumption, that ultimately limits environmental destruction. The rich support conservation because they can; the poor do not because they cannot. Huber does not deny that there are serious environmental problems; but to change the status quo to try to avert them is foolish because the future cannot be known. Thus, the conservative proceeds with business as usual, and lets market forces and new technologies deal with environmental problems as they emerge.
In his defense of markets and technology, however, Huber seems to forget that big government was instrumental in developing modern capitalism. Enormous military spending created Internet, microwave, and rocket technologies. Governments also seized vast amounts of private property under the authority of eminent domain to build the infrastructure upon which modern commerce now thrives. Curiously, Huber is also an ardent supporter of nuclear power—a position that seems contrary to conservative principles. First, this industry will always invite massive governmental regulation because of its lethal potential. Moreover, the belief in a safe nuclear future also requires a fantastic faith in the future—that civilization will continue to be stable and produce the necessary human skills and technology to support it for at least the half-life of the waste material! Finally, Huber creates numerous false dichotomies and straw men to make his attacks. Take, for example, the division between rich and poor. By painting the lives of people in non-capitalist societies as nasty, brutish and short, he makes it appear that only enlightened modern capitalists can protect nature. But traditional societies provide many examples of conservation, not through markets and better technology, but through the exercise of social taboos and individual moral restraint.
Conservatives will appreciate many of Huber’s criticisms and welcome his market-centered policy suggestions. But, despite his harsh and often histrionic attack on liberal environmentalism, the book is really not a “Conservative Manifesto”, as the subtitle claims. It would better be labeled a “Libertarian Manifesto.” Huber is a trained engineer and lawyer who writes for Forbes magazine. His intellectual hero is Adam Smith, and his favorite environmentalist is T. R. Roosevelt, neither of whom can be considered authentic conservatives. Moreover, while he makes a few token references to God and religion at the end of his book, it is clear he believes that moral restraints imposed by religious teaching can no more control human appetite and ambition than can government controls. The market is the only effective allocator of social “goods” and “bads.” As such, it is the only social arrangement that can effectively deal with environmental problems. To Huber, protecting the environment is not done out of moral responsibility; it is done purely for aesthetic reasons. Traditional conservatives feel differently. Religion teaches morality, prudence and reverence. It is what guides personal behavior and should guide social policy as well. So, when Huber makes declarations like “consumption itself has nothing to do with anything,” he is mistaken. With respect to energy flows in an ecosystem this is true, but from a human moral standpoint it is not. Excess consumption is called greed, which is a deadly sin. Similarly, the wanton destruction of the environment, as Russell Kirk pointed out, is nothing less than sinful.
John Bliese’s conservatism rejects this fixation on individuals, markets and technology. Although he uses Frank Meyer’s “fusionist” definition of conservatism, as a movement comprising both libertarians and traditionalists, Bliese identifies more with the latter. He draws upon the writings of Edmund Burke, Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk to define the major tenets of this older brand of conservatism. He also engages in a substantial refutation of the belief that Judeo-Christian values are antithetical to environmental values and insists that the religious ideals of piety and prudence are critical in developing an environmental consciousness. Like libertarians, traditionalists do prefer market solutions over governmental ones, but they will also accept governmental authority to protect the common good, including collective environmental goods like clean air and water. Bliese also respects the scientific community and scientific consensus, rather than simply dismissing much of it as ideology. In the end, his lengthy and well-documented analysis of various environmental policy issues succeeds in demonstrating that conservative principles do support environmental policy. The book is even more significant in that it broadens the average reader’s understanding of conservatism. It demonstrates that there is a branch of conservative philosophy that goes beyond, and is even antithetical to, the fanatical market culture that has done a great deal of damage to the environment.
The excesses of the market have also caused serious damage to human cultures, and it is ironic that traditional conservatives, who have spent much of their intellectual energy decrying this destruction, have not yet understood that the destruction of culture and the destruction of nature are one and the same. When Nietzsche declared that God is dead, he should have added that Nature is dead as well. While this is an exaggeration, the point is that the juggernaut of modernization has clearly made life difficult for traditional (religious) societies and the natural world with which they co-exist. In other words, when nature is destroyed, the intimate human contacts with nature—which are the foundation of all culture—are also destroyed. The result is that traditional human societies, which are bound to specific ecological cycles and places, become distorted, weakened or die completely. Nature and the cultures that are associated with them are always subject to change, but they cannot readily adapt to an urban-industrial milieu that violently and totally replaces natural cycles with artificial ones. Such “systems” create tremendous wealth, but in the process obliterate native cultures and the ecosystems with which they co-exist. More significantly, this artificial milieu systematically devalues every human activity that is bound to the cycles of nature—farming, hunting, fishing, mothering, and all forms of physical labor. To modern urbanites like Huber, nature is removed from the intimate patterns of life itself. It is reduced to either an economic resource or pristine wilderness that serves as an aesthetic or recreative outlet.
Unfortunately, neither of these books ever delves deeply into the cultural aspects of environmental policy and thought, especially the intimate relationship between environmental destruction and cultural decline. More importantly, this relationship has never been fully examined by any of the dominant environmental schools of thought. In most environmental discourse, nature is defined in material terms—as ecological systems comprised of air, water, soil, plants, animals etc. As such, environmental policy is concerned with maintaining the stability and vitality of these systems and their various components. But, to traditional conservatives, nature consists of more than various arrangements of matter. Nature is also spiritual—it is Creation. And, since human beings are a part of Creation, the way we live individually and collectively has both physical and spiritual consequences. Perhaps the next wave of environmental thinkers will be conservatives who will examine the environmental question from a perspective that goes beyond the constructs given by natural science and stress moral, intellectual, and aesthetic factors. In order for conservation to be truly conservative, it must seek to protect our culture as well as the physical environment in which that culture grows and thrives.
Tobias Lanz teaches political studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Posted: March 29, 2007