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Why Do Conservatives Hate Environmentalism?

Appeals to respect, localism, and stewardship, not ideology, could turn the right green.
farm gate rolling hills

That’s a question Sean McElwee asks from the Left in an essay wondering why it is that European conservatives are a lot more green than their American counterparts. If you can get through the usual polemic about the Awful, Terrible, No-Good Racist Right-Wingers, there’s some good stuff here. Excerpt:

According to Dr. Robert Bartlett, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Vermont, the problem has been framing. “Environmentalists tend to frame the issue in terms of harm and justice, while conservatives respond to in-group loyalty, sanctity, respect and stewardship.” Aaron Sparks, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is studying the issue with Phillip Ehret, finds that about 20 to 30 percent of strong conservatives hold pro-environment attitudes (meaning they are willing to sacrifice economic growth to protect the environment). But Democrats must be “smart about how they frame their appeal,” Sparks says. “Conservatives can be persuaded to accept the environmental argument if is pitched in a way that is consistent with their morality, which tends to emphasize the sacredness of nature and a focus on local, community-building issues.”

But a 2012 study finds that climate campaigns overwhelming continue to frame the issue as harm and care, fairness and oppression of marginalized groups. These liberal values don’t resonate with conservatives. Environmentalists might take a page from E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful:

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity.

I wrote about this topic in my 2006 book Crunchy Cons. What this essays says here is true, and using Haidtan moral foundation theory is a good way to frame our understanding of the issue. Though I believe environmentalists, like most activists, too often take an unrealistic and purist view of their issue, one that ends up alienating people who could and should be their allies, it’s also true that many, many conservatives are unthinking about the proper relationship of mankind to nature — and even hostile to the idea that there is such a thing to be considered (“Drill, baby, drill,” anyone?).

To be clear, I think very few people in America do nuance very well when it comes to the environment. When I interviewed Wendell Berry for Crunchy Cons, I asked him why he, a well-known prophetic voice against corporate and economic depredations of the natural world, would not openly stand with environmentalists, he said that it’s because they usually go too far in the other direction. That is, they make an idol of the natural world, and forget about the legitimate needs of human communities, which is part of the natural world too. I think Berry is right, but that complicates a discussion that relies far too much on emotional response, both from the pro-environment folks on the left and the antis on the right.

I think, for example, about what Sam M. keeps saying to us on this blog about fracking and western Pennsylvania, where he lives. Is fracking harmful to the environment. Possibly; it’s arguable. Is fracking good for the human community? Undoubtedly, says Sam, in that it brings jobs to a region that has been down and out, more or less, for a generation. A clean environment is a good thing — but so is a community that can sustain itself economically. These are rival goods that exist in tension. The problem that the more thoughtful people on the right (as distinct from the knee-jerkers) have with environmentalists is that so many of them treat environmental protection as an absolute good, and don’t see it as bounded by anything.

Here in my own Louisiana parish, we are starting to see a lot more oil exploration in the Tuscaloosa shale, which encompasses our part of the world. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the South, and the most sparsely populated parish in the state of Louisiana. The beauty of our woods and fields means a lot to local folks, such that there’s a strong anti-development sentiment among our people — even among the most conservative. The problem with this is that our local economy has been sustained heavily for the past generation by a nuclear power plant at the parish’s southern end. The tax revenues have given us one of the best public school systems in the state. But those tax revenues are winding down, and there’s nothing to replace them. You can’t run a parish on nothing, and besides, if there are no jobs, people will leave. The woods will stay pristine, but only because no people will be living in or around them, because there’s no way to sustain human settlement.

Last night, my dad told me a man contacted him about leasing a piece of property my dad owns on Highway 61. He wants to store materials there that will be used in the oil exploration and drilling business in the parish. That land has sat fallow for a long time; of course my dad is interested in the income it might bring. He’s not rich; he’s got bills to pay. The idea that a piece of land that was doing nothing but costing him money in property taxes might suddenly become productive is naturally interesting to him. Why shouldn’t it be? Now, my dad would never rent to someone who misused the property and damaged it environmentally; that would not be in his interest. But if this prospective tenant runs a business that will sit lightly on the land, that’s a good thing, right?

On the other hand, though this particular business might not be environmentally harmful, it is at least arguable that it’s part of a larger business operation that is. It’s impossible to compartmentalize all these things morally.

The other night, I was giving my two younger kids a bedtime catechism from this excellent Russian Orthodox book, which is just the kind of catechism Julie and I have been looking for. We’ve just started going through it at Lent, a chapter at night for the little ones. Reading the first chapter, about Genesis, I emphasized to the kids the book’s lines about how all the world — the trees, the rivers, the animals — are gifts from God, and have to be treated as such. Yes, we humans are given dominion over them, but that’s not license to treat the natural world as we like. We are bound to be good stewards of this gift from God.

This is basic Christianity, with obvious practical, quotidian implications. But it’s amazing how so little of this resonates with American Christians. It didn’t resonate with me until I read Matthew Scully’s phenomenal book Dominion, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. Scully, a former presidential speechwriter, is a pro-life conservative. Here, in National Review Online, he discusses his philosophy. Excerpt:

In presidential speechwriting, during the first term of George W. Bush, my colleagues and I put special care into the “culture of life” theme, and I’ve sought to do the same in various campaigns going back to Bush-Quayle ’92. The abortion question, rightly a defining concern of modern conservatism, will always center on mercy for the child, who is just as we once were, on our way into the world, waiting to be born and needing to be loved. Let compassion for mother and child alike be the spirit, leaving anger and sanctimony to the other side, and a decisive majority of Americans — in both parties, in every age group, women and men alike — will always be with you. In Sarah Palin’s 2008 convention address, no words at all were needed on the subject: Just the sight of the governor and her infant son Trig, a child with Down syndrome, said it all. If there was any provocation in the text directed at the pro-abortion lobby, it was simply to call the child “a perfectly beautiful baby boy.” And when that is heard as a rebuke, you know your cause has serious problems.

This cursus honorum of pro-life commitment — and you could throw in a good many columns on the matter in National Review and elsewhere — is offered by way of asking readers, and especially those of shared conviction, to consider another moral concern, cruelty to animals, in the same merciful spirit. I kept thinking of the connection between abortion and extreme cruelty during the trial last April and May of Dr. Gosnell, the specialist in late-term abortions (right there in Governor Casey’s state) who is now in prison, because it was a case of people numbed to horrors that had become routine and normalized, and a case of euphemisms dragged into the light of day. Conservative commentators seized on the hypocrisy of pro-choice liberals, deriding all the cant and rationalization that the Left uses in defense of abortion, and finally shaming the major media — thanks above all to columnist Kirsten Powers, a Democrat — into covering the trial after weeks of silence. I completely agreed, but just wished that those same conservatives might think as clearly and forthrightly about other horrors and other euphemisms.

There’s quite a bit of both, to take just the example closest to home, in the modern animal factories we call farms. One could equally cite other routine forms of abuse inflicted on animals — for spectacles, for bloody recreation, or in the name of science — but this is the abuse that is the most widespread, and the most directly affected and sustained by the choices that you and I make. The factory farms — producing almost every animal product we see sold or advertised, in our country and most others — are places of immense and avoidable suffering. And though the moral stakes are not the same as with abortion, the moral habits are, relying in both cases on the averted gaze and a smothering of empathy.

We are cautioned in some quarters that a concern for animals — especially if carried to eccentric extremes like not eating them any more because the brutality involved is morally untenable — is somehow “anti-human,” coming at the expense of our human dignity and moral concern for one another. The point is lost on me, and least of all have I ever sensed any contradiction in being vegetarian (actually, if that’s not hardcore enough for you, vegan) and pro-life all at once. Come to think of it, I first learned about the “abortion rights” cause and about the ruthlessness of industrialized farming around the same time, at the age of 13 or 14, and my reaction to both was similar: You just don’t treat life that way. Look at pictures of the victims in each case, at the thing itself, and you know that whatever problems the people involved are facing, this cannot be the answer. Routine abortion and systematic cruelty are not merely bad things of the kind that happen in any society; they are really bad things that no just society can learn to live with. As complicated, personal, and emotional (oddly so, in the case of meat and the methods that produce it) as both issues can be, in all the years since, I have never heard a single compelling argument for why the unborn must die or why the animals must suffer.

Scully’s NR essay is long, but very, very, very good. Please read the whole thing.

An aside: As it happens, I stood in my backyard one night this week, watching my wife, who keeps chickens, take one of the hens into her arms and prepare to break its neck. The hen, we thought, had a particular poultry disease that is 100 percent fatal, and causes the dying chicken to suffer. The vet told Julie how to break the chicken’s neck to put her out of her misery. Julie had never done this, but was going to try, because that’s what a chicken-keeper has to do. It was the kind thing to do to the hen. The moment before she broke the hen’s neck, I turned away, unable to watch it. As it turned out, she didn’t succeed; something about her technique wasn’t right. The hen was unharmed. The next day she took the hen to the vet for instruction in the technique. Turns out that the poor hen did not have the chicken disease; she’s just somewhat deformed. She’s clucking happily in the backyard as I write this.

Anyway, the point here is that in that moment between turning away from the moment of the hen’s killing, and Julie telling me that it didn’t work, I thought of Matthew Scully. Seriously, I did. I do not believe it is morally wrong to eat meat, yet I felt a strong pang of conscience in the moment I looked away. Why? It’s because I do not have it within me to kill an animal (well, land animals; fish I’ve got no problem with). Hear me: I do not believe it is morally wrong to slaughter and eat animals. But in that instant in the backyard this week, I thought about whether I should be eating meat if I couldn’t bring myself to kill animals. Mind you, I’m a very squeamish person, and that squeamishness accounts for my inability to look on while the chicken had its neck broken. But beneath the visceral aesthetic squeamishness, there is, I think, a kernel of moral squeamishness. This is where Scully’s argument finds purchase in my moral imagination, such that I’m wondering seriously if, after Lent, I will return to eating meat.

I will not be surprised if that moral sense dissolves the first time I smell meat on the grill after Lent. The smell and taste of barbecued ribs is a powerful practical solvent of moral principle. But isn’t that the problem? We want what we want; desire is its own justification. Conservatives often criticize liberals for this pseudo-reasoning when it comes to sexual morality, but we are guilty of it ourselves in our own spheres. Moral questions involving the environment, including animal welfare, offer test cases that reveal the shallowness of our own moral reasoning when it’s our oxen being gored, or brisket being threatened.

I’m not telling you to go vegan, or vegetarian, but I am telling you that we on the right need to give these questions a lot more serious consideration than we do.  “Conservation” and “conservative” have the same roots, etymologically and philosophically. For me, Lent, during which time Orthodox Christians fast from meat and dairy, is a natural season to think about one’s relationship to the created order. A couple of years ago, I went to a small conference in the UK about Christian thought and environmentalism. I was the only non-Evangelical present. All of us there had expressed, in our writing, preaching, or activism, interest in the relationship between Christian conviction and environmental concern and stewardship. It was fascinating to me to observe the incredulity of our English Christian brothers as we Americans tried to explain to them that most American Christians don’t think about these issues at all. They were right to be nonplussed.

If American conservatives are ever going to take up environmental concern and conservation in a serious way, it’s going to have to be because, as Robert Bartlett and Philip Ehret say above, environmentalists have made the case in moral and philosophical terms that resonate with conservatives: sanctity, respect, localism, and stewardship. They’re also going to have to step back from their ardent purity, and recognize that the jobs issue is not simply a matter of “greed,” and that humanity is part of the natural world too. I’m not sure how to make the sanctity/respect/stewardship issue convince economic conservatives and libertarians — the great Joel Salatin being a notable exception — but it should be a no-brainer for social and religious conservatives. Indeed, it is Joel Salatin’s convictions as a Christian libertarian that informs his work at Polyface Farms. If you go out to Rehoboth Ranch in the country outside of Dallas, you will find politically and religiously conservative Christians raising livestock for human consumption with respect and profound care for the sanctity of their vocation as stewards of the land and the creatures on it. They do this not in spite of being conservative, but because of the kind of conservatives they are.

UPDATE: Great comment by reader TTT:

The problem that the more thoughtful people on the right (as distinct from the knee-jerkers) have with environmentalists is that so many of them treat environmental protection as an absolute good, and don’t see it as bounded by anything.

Sadly correct. I’ve been an environmental activist and science teacher for many years, and you will find fewer conversation topics more prone to brick-walling among someone purportedly educated and science-minded than asking an environmentalist to make a solid prescription on energy sources. The conversation is entirely based on negatives and all are supposed to be of equal severity, ie “You can’t go with windmills because they kill birds, you can’t go with nuclear because of the waste, you can’t go with solar panel fields because of the destruction of habitats where they are sited…..” It becomes a litany of excuses to do nothing, then complain that the problem hasn’t solved itself. Again, I’ve been on the “inside” of these conversations for years and am not exaggerating at all.

Humans are part of the biosphere and are going to stay here as long as we can. Our damage to the environment is part of a positive feedback loop: the worse things get, the more desperate people will become and the more they will discard and destroy in order to preserve their standard of living. We need to make trade offs that make sense and stick with them, and hope they can last at least a few generations.

I’ve encountered many Christians who, after some ritual throat-clearing about Gaia worshippers and snail darters, will admit that they find mountaintop removal to be obscene, that fracking scares them, that they want to be able to eat fish again without worrying about mercury.

Scully’s book was an eye-opener for me because it reframed the topics I’d been fighting for my whole life (wildlife conservation) and framed it in a language I’d not used before. It also does expose some of the actively anti-environmental / anti-conservationist subcultures on the right, which do exist and whose practitioners felt “safe” in outing themselves to Scully because he worked for National Review. I wish it was more widely read. Green groups have tried outreach to the conscience of these conservatives, but I don’t think it was ever strongly organized.

I should also point out that there is tension on the left over eco issues as well. The people who work most intently on water pollution and toxins often hate the climate change experts, for picking such an abstract and un-scaled problem – and both groups hate the wildlife conservationists for hitching up to the collectible calendar / coffee table book / themepark breed of consumerism.

I myself struggle terribly over abortion, because of my background in the natural sciences. I know from personal experience that if a pregnant female Sumatran rhino were to be poached, my colleagues and I would be dismayed at the death of the baby – and all involved would agree that it was exactly that. The barrier of existence between unborn animals and unborn humans strikes me as unreasoned and hypocritical.

Lastly I’d say that Richard Nixon did more to help the environment than any liberal Democratic president; mind you, he didn’t entirely grasp what he was doing and later regretted it, as he was a sentimental bunny-hugger type and never imagined it would be necessary to protect things like plants, invertebrates, and really anything that doesn’t have fur and big brown eyes; he thought that was stupid and opposed basically all such efforts. But none of that matters and we’ve been taking full advantage of the tools he made available to us to protect as much of the food web as we can.

UPDATE.2: And an excellent comment by Sam M.:

So, so much of this is framing. Back in the late 1990s, after the spotted owl, environmentalists went on a campaign against logging on all the national forests. The one where I live is one of the few that ever made money on its timber program, because there is NO virgin forest left, and for a lot of reasons the native hemlock and birch that was here was replaced by high-dollar black cherry.

The locals thought, with good reason, that they had saved the forest themselves. It was a brush patch in the 1920s. Today, it’s maybe the most valuable stand of hardwoods in the world. All the animals are back. Etc.

Then, in the late 1990s someone found a single Indiana bat on the forest. Lawsuits ensued. Young environmentalists from New Jersey showed up and started chaining themselves to things. ELF burned something down.

Locals asked, hey, if we are cutting too much, what’s the right amount? The answer? Zero. You can’t cut a single tree. And we will keep suing you until we win. It was part of a national zero-cut campaign. That took none of our local history into account. Funded by money from out of state and activist lawyers working in Pittsburgh.

I said at the time, you wait until the oil and gas becomes a hot button issue. Environmentalists will be screwed because they burned all their local bridges.

It happened. Someone invented horizontal drilling and now gas is the hot button issue. And locals who might otherwise be open to discussions about limits are so angry about the bat, so angry about those lawsuits and sit-ins, that they won’t even give them a listen.

PS: The lawsuits were overturned, and they are timbering again on the national forest.

I don’t know what the lesson is there. But that timber battle really set people off. Zero. Not a single tree. Not one. On 500,000 acres.

People lost their livelihoods over it. And people remember.



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