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Look Back for the Future of Conservative Environmentalism

Conservatives are bad at talking about the environment. They shouldn't be.

There was a point, or rather a month, when Theodore Roosevelt became the specimen we know him to be. At the prompting of his father, as every American child should recall, he had spent his youth building the body nature had not given him, a body worthy of his mind and vaulting aspirations. Still, TR had never cut an imposing figure. He was wiry, his learned athleticism and inborn energy wound into a slender frame. His voice squeaked. One noticed his glasses, whiskers, and teeth before anything else.

But as Edmund Morris explains in his celebrated Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the West changed all that. “Some extraordinary physical and spiritual transformation occurred” when Roosevelt rode nearly a thousand miles over 32 days with a cattle roundup across the Badlands in 1885. “The anemic, high-pitched youth who had left New York only five weeks before was now able to return to it ‘rugged, bronzed, and in the prime of health,’ to quote a newspaperman who met him en route.”

The open range of the Dakotas awoke something in TR. The weak flesh finally had the strength to reflect the willing spirit. Bill Sewall, one of his hunting guides and manager of his cattle ranch, reported that Roosevelt had become “as husky as almost any man I have ever seen who wasn’t dependent on his arms for his livelihood.” TR’s Harvard classmate and fellow historian William Roscoe Thayer, upon seeing him after a separation of years, confessed surprise “to find him with the neck of a Titan and with broad shoulders and stalwart chest.” The man with the near-superhuman tolerance for pain at last looked like it.

The wilds remained a place of escape for Roosevelt throughout his life. There he could become more fully himself, the man of vital energy and purpose he had forged by will. It is impossible not to see TR’s passion for conservation and the Badlands as the need to preserve the space in which he could grow, and where he hoped others would grow and develop, too. Morris writes of a later trip westward: “With his belly full of antelope meat, and the oily perfume of sage in his nostrils, he rejoiced in rediscovering his other self, that almost forgotten Doppelganger who haunted the plains while Commissioner Roosevelt patrolled the streets of Manhattan.”

The frontier thesis is an old one, exhumed and put to bed again in magazines like this one with the regularity of the seasons. But Theodore Roosevelt illustrates it in the individual person, a human need for animal room to roam. The vastness of the frontier allows for development. We are what we do, and the space in which we do things, which itself shapes those actions, affects directly who or what we become.

This is a simple observation, and largely self-evident. But it is missing from conservative messaging (to use an ugly consultant-class neologism) around environmental policy. A lot else is missing, too.

Conservatives, it turns out, are bad at talking about the environment. It has mostly been ceded territory, hic sunt dracones, its mapping abandoned to the left. Which is a shame, because there should not be a tension between human flourishing and the ecosystems of which we are a part. We should be able to, as the EPA is tasked with doing, “protect human health and the environment.”

We do not need the abstract apocalypticism of the green movement to take seriously pollution’s dangers to man. Conservatives can aspire to something more humble than the arresting of the climate and higher than rolling back the overreach by the “other team.” To do that, we must begin by acknowledging that the task is to shape ourselves, to become more fully human, to have room to develop to our full potential through our lived environment.

The conservationist’s dream of parklands and gardens, of greenspace city blocks and wetland preserves, gets us halfway there. But it is not a guide to policy as such, only an individual’s first motive, the need to flourish. Recognizing the importance of the plains and wilds to himself, Theodore Roosevelt and his Boone and Crockett Club gave us the National Parks. Wanting to remain hunters, hunters maintain the habitats of their game. Loving beauty and feeling more at peace in the forms of nature, urbanists and homeowners cultivate their surroundings.

Ecology takes us another step toward environmental policy. Looking at the relationship between habitat and species, seeing humanity’s place in the chain of life, ecology makes the simple observation that all is connected. The ecological cast of mind notes that a certain volcano erupted in the south Pacific just before northern Europe had a spell of unusual cold. Thales of Miletus engaged in some light ecology when, while others expected a bad harvest, he anticipated a bumper crop of olives, and so leased the city’s presses to become a monopolist. The human being is not just a conservator of the space in which he lives, but a species among many, an integral pivot point on which the natural world turns.

When “the environment” first supplanted conservation and ecology in the American imagination, it reflected a shift in focus from the frontier to the city. The health of the built living space became of immediate concern. Conservationism had successfully preserved wildlands. Ecology gave a secular account of the sixth day of creation. But it was a dry theology without a heaven or hell. Environmentalism sprang up as a mortal call to Eden again, promising human extinction and future catastrophe if the sins of pollution were not expiated. It was a powerful preaching, apparent in its truth, bipartisan in its acceptance.

Two centuries of industrial revolution reached a crisis point in the 1960s. In the aftermath of world wars that had scarred the planet and summoned forth the prospect of nuclear winter, the dangers of unregulated manufacturing became too obvious to ignore. Denis Hayes, who helped coordinate the first Earth Day before a long career in environmental advocacy, encapsulates the mood of the time: “If the environment is a fad, it’s going to be our last fad.” Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring brought the potential human health impact of pesticides home to a reading public, eventually leading to the near total ban of DDT. Air pollution was visible and its effects felt every day, prompting formation of what a wit at the Wall Street Journal called the “Breathers Lobby.” In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire more dramatically than usual. Something had to be done.

Democrats were not alone in making an issue of the environment. No doubt in large part for reasons of political expediency, but also perhaps as a California farmer’s son, Richard Nixon stepped up. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969, to “declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment.” It was up to Nixon to give the law teeth.

While the country prepared to celebrate the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Nixon’s team sat down to organize the federal response to the pollution crisis. What would become the Environmental Protection Agency began as the recommendation of the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization, colloquially known as the Ash Council, after president of Litton Industries Roy Ash. On April 29, arguing that an interconnected systems problem like the environment required an integrated, systematic solution, the council put forward a memorandum calling for the creation of the EPA.

The Ash Council Memo clearly articulated the environmental crisis. “Pollution is essentially a by-product of our vastly increased per capita consumption, intensified by population growth, urbanization, and changing industrial processes,” it said. Plastics and new synthetic organic chemicals multiplied with every year. No time had passed to know their effects or where they would end up after use (everywhere, it turns out; if you look for plastic, you will find it). “The economic progress which we have come to expect, or even demand, has almost invariably been at some cost to the environment.” We had been living large, and not thinking about the bill.

In the simplest terms possible, as the memo observed, environmental policy is about taking out your trash. It is waste management. “Some means must be found by which our economic and social aspirations are balanced against the finite capacity of the environment to absorb society’s wastes.” Anti-pollution efforts fall under two categories: not producing new garbage, and improving disposal, with some sort of minimum accepted amount of dirt in mind.

Localized conservation was not enough, because everything was interrelated. And because everything was interrelated, the environment as a reified whole could become a unitary domain for national regulation. In support of combining 15 programs from five pre-existing federal agencies into a new EPA of 5,800 employees and a $1.4 billion budget (now about 14,000 and $9 billion), the Ash Council Memo states: “The environment, despite its infinite complexity, must be perceived as a unified, interrelated system. Present assignments of departmental responsibilities do not reflect this primary characteristic.”

Nixon accepted the recommendation. In the EPA, he proposed the construction of a “strong, independent agency” that could “make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food.” A systems approach to regulatory standard setting would now, in theory, allow dangers to the environment to be addressed as a whole. Of course, it would always be more complicated.

Nixon tapped William D. Ruckelshaus, an assistant attorney general at the DOJ, to be the new EPA’s first administrator. Ruckelshaus brought an eager energy to the task of setting national standards, and did not expect to be popular with industry or states as he enforced them. He quickly ran into the conundrum of environmental policy: how to reconcile the natural worlds encountered by individuals with the idea of a monolithic environment to be regulated by a centralized institution. In his first speech to the National Press Club, Ruckelshaus said, “An environmental ethic is needed. Each of us must begin to realize our own relationship to the environment. Each of us must begin to measure the impact of our own decisions and actions on the quality of air, water, and soil of this nation.”

The attempt to maintain an ecological approach—an integrated systems approach to environmental controls—failed. Air, water, and land form one environment for pollution to degrade, but the national scale is too broad to regulate them as a whole. Instead, as enforcement efforts developed, each became addressed as a separate medium. A. James Barnes, chief of staff to Ruckelshaus and later an EPA deputy administrator, said of the EPA’s early days, “We were not as true as we should have been to this notion of dealing with environmental problems as a whole.” Enforcement called for looking for discrete violations, and thus the setting of measurable standards, not seeing the big picture.

Part of the difficulty is inherent to the American experiment. The country spans an entire continent; it possesses a stupendous wealth of ecosystems in stunning variety. But the American political ideal of federalism—the maintenance of local character, devolved authority, and limited sovereignty for the individual states—presents a problem. It is in tension with the idea of national regulation and unified standards. This puts the primary regulated entities at odds. The political interest of states and regions is counter to the financial interest of large industries, which desire consistent regulations and the flattening of geographic advantages. As in so many other areas, there is a conflict between establishment conservatism’s stated civic and economic priorities.

Unwarranted technological optimism is the other hurdle to effective environmental regulation. The green movement’s approach, an ever-tightening ratchet, is built on precisely this. New regulations set standards that cannot be met under current economic or technological conditions, with the implicit assumption that the technology will grow to fit and enable the standard. This is despite the fact that such an approach behaves as if all economic restrictions or slowdowns must represent improved environmental management.

Ruckelshaus’s reflections on his time at the EPA make the problem explicit: “We thought we had technologies that could control pollutants, keeping them below threshold levels at a reasonable cost, and that the only things missing in the equation were national standards and a strong enforcement effort. All of the nation’s early environmental laws reflected these assumptions, and every one of these assumptions is wrong.”

Though ostensibly resisting this sort of unrealistic thinking, conservative environmental policy has generally fallen into the same trap. In a mirror of the left’s technological optimism, conservatives, too, fail to distinguish between the waste streams of a consumer-oriented economy and that of a production-focused one. The more industry-deferential piece of the conservative coalition assumes that wealth generation will produce the technology needed to solve any ongoing environmental problems, precluding the need for strong regulation. A clean environment is, from this perspective, a luxury good, which can only be bought when there is enough money to buy it.

The trouble is that technology has stalled. Sure, our digital information tech has improved, and maybe that will help us manage pollution better, but our hardware has been largely stuck since 1970. It may get smaller in size, or more efficient, but improvements are incremental, not categorical. In an odd coincidence (or is it?), the EPA was founded in 1970. In an excellent essay for American Affairs, “Peter Thiel, Rachel Carson, and Regulatory Double Standards,” William Murray suggests the shift to software was driven in part by capital reallocation to avoid the regulatory hurdles of the new enforcement-focused environmental regime. Of course, as anyone paying a power bill for a server farm can tell you, zero moving parts does not mean zero emissions.

Offshoring and financialization is the other trick that, along with the shift to information technology, both conservatives and progressives have played to fudge pollution numbers. Indeed, an air-focused anti-emissions strategy centered around carbon and greenhouse gas only doubles down on the globalizing economic decisions of the last 30 years. Carbon pricing and cap-and-trade open up new markets for speculation. They are thickets of rules that the already rich can navigate easily while squeezing the working and middle classes. The smokestacks will not go away; they will go somewhere else. China’s record remains worse than ours. We, at least, try on non-Olympics years.

Of course it’s better to prevent pollution than to clean it up. But we should have an honest conversation about how far we have come and what is possible in the emissions sphere. The focus on air is a holdover from the original dream of a unitary systems approach. Moreover, the shift to a consumption-based economy merely shifts the American wastestream from chimneys to landfills. The low-hanging fruit has been picked; America is objectively cleaner than it has ever been in living memory. Regulation by both parties has achieved enormous gains in cleaning up our air, water, and land.

A more realistic environmentalism, which doesn’t pretend hardware will suddenly catch up with software in technological development, is focused on compliance with existing standards and adaptation to changing conditions. If we come back down to earth from the abstractions of climate, we can protect the health of the country because it is the place where Americans live, and because it is our home. When an American regulatory agency is tasked with protecting human health and the environment, we should remember it is American human health and the American environment. The goal is a clean America, and space for the flourishing of the American human being.

We understand and can do more about solid and chemical waste than greenhouse gases. To let global temperatures distract you from whether atrazine and glyphosate are building up in your body to unknown effect, or heavy metals are leaching into your water supply, is to be conned by the system that got rich off you in the first place. The factories closed and left poor Americans stuck in industrialized, polluted neighborhoods. Programs like Superfund or the Brownfields, which facilitate and finance a “shovels first, lawyers later” approach to cleaning up, exist to rectify that, and need to be used. Under the leadership of Andrew Wheeler, the Trump administration EPA fully or partially delisted as many Superfund sites as the Obama administration did in two full terms, 82. It is that kind of community-focused, practical approach to policy we need more of.

Conservative environmental policy should harken back to conservation and take seriously ecological regionalism. Our task is to make sure that every American, no matter where they live or what their income is, has clean space to develop in, to grow into their best self. The task is not to pile new rule upon new rule, to tell people how to comply with national standards, but rather to help them come into compliance in a manner appropriate to their region. Cleaning up Brownfields and Superfund sites, working alongside states as they continue to work towards cleaner air and cleaner water, those sorts of successes can be measured by actual improvements.

Of course enforcement must sometimes be punishment—“speak softly, and carry a big stick,” after all—but success is not measured by added rules and fines. Teddy Roosevelt’s dream can be made real for people in depressed areas across the country by helping make where they live a better place to be today than it was yesterday. In places where it is already beautiful and healthy, we can promise it will stay that way.



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