The environment problem has long been an intellectual problem and political albatross for conservatives. In the abstract, nothing should be more natural for a conservative than care for nature. After all, the earliest form of environmental activity—conservationism—shares an obvious etymological root with conservatism. And indeed, conservatives initially had some enthusiasm for environmental initiatives. Sen. Barry Goldwater was a member of the Sierra Club for a time in the 1960s, and Sen. James Buckley was an enthusiastic co-sponsor of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, only later coming to regret the law because of its perverse implementation. A prominent conservative delivered a major speech in 1970 on the theme of “the absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment.” That conservative was Governor Ronald Reagan.
In the real world, however, the elevation of the environment into a nature-warping ideology—environmentalism—has compelled conservatives into opposition. No self-respecting conservative can embrace the misanthropic, utopian, centralizing doctrines that drive environmentalism as it is currently constituted. The trouble is that the environment is very popular with the average citizen who approaches the issue from the common sense point of view that clean air, clean water, abundant wildlife, and healthy ecosystems are good things. And the common sense view is of course correct. These are good things much too important to be left to the environmentalists. So it is necessary for conservatives to find a way of engaging the issue seriously.
Starting in the 1980s, conservatives began to get out of their defensive crouch with the idea of “free market environmentalism,” which came in two parts. Bureaucratic regulation of pollution and public ownership of land produced poor—often even perverse—results. Free markets and private ownership of environmental goods would deliver superior environmental protection. FME (as its devotees call it) has made sufficient headway that the idea of using markets instead of regulation has become widely, if grudgingly, accepted in the environmental establishment and ferociously attacked by the leftward bastions of environmentalism that remain wedded to socialism.
But FME has limits. There are some “commons problems,” such as urban air pollution, where in practice, property rights are difficult to define and market exchanges are not easily facilitated. And even in areas where the abstract principles of FME seem clear—such as assigning property rights to ocean fisheries—in practice such remedies will require politics, at which point most FME devotees get sour looks on their face. At its core, FME derives its energy from a libertarian/public choice disdain for all things political, which means it is a self-limiting doctrine in the end. A more comprehensive account of a conservative environmental ethic is needed.
Peter Huber, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and Forbes magazine columnist, offers one ambitious view in Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists. Huber sets out to establish a middle ground on the issue that is considerably to the right of where it rests today. Huber’s argument comes in three parts. He borrows and extends an environmentalist distinction from the 1970s—the distinction between “hard” and “soft” energy sources. Hard energy is the traditional kind of fossil fuels—coal, oil, natural gas, along with nuclear power that we currently use. Soft energy—solar, wind, biomass, recycled Ralph Nader speeches—is what the environmental movement advocates. Huber turns the green presumption on its head, arguing persuasively for the environmental superiority of traditional hard energy sources over soft ones. (The chief advantage is that they use much less land—”Softs prescribe the environmental equivalent of suburban sprawl,” Huber rightly notes—and that technology is making their use progressively cleaner.)
Huber broadens the hard-versus-soft distinction on energy into a general outlook: “Hard Greens,” such as himself, are concerned with genuine but remediable environmental problems such as air and water pollution and land conservation, while “Soft Greens” are obsessed with “microenvironmental” threats that depend upon a metaphorical understanding of the natural world that is without serious scientific foundation. Vice President Al Gore, among others, endorses the “sandpile” metaphor about human interaction with nature. A single additional grain of sand may cause the entire pile to tumble down catastrophically. But science cannot meaningfully demonstrate such a hypothesis, while the political implication of taking this metaphor seriously is totalitarianism. Huber elegantly discusses the manifold problems of the sandpile understanding of nature, which culminates in a succinct warning: “A democratic society pays a real price when accurate information and objective reason are displaced by myth and metaphor.”
While environmentalists think just about everything is scarce, Hard Greens think there is only one genuine scarcity worth worrying about: wilderness. The third part of Huber’s argument is that conservatives should favor public land conservation measures. Although Huber acknowledges the superiority of private land conservation, he thinks that the problem of scale requires a large role for public ownership because of non-market values. “Hard Greens will never call for federal management where private, local, or state initiative will do. But an incontrovertible fact remains: Some values depend on doing things on a scope and scale that is inescapably public.” This is the most controversial aspect of Huber’s book, in large part because he does not adequately come to grips with the FME criticism that current, publicly owned lands have been managed very poorly from and environmental standpoint. Huber, however, has other reasons for public land-ownership. He writes:
In every way an accountant, economist, or even an ecologist might measure, Disney would operate Yellowstone much better than the National Park Service. But Yellowstone would be diminished nonetheless. A vital part of its grandeur, and our own, is that it belongs not to Wall Street but to America. Value that inheres in citizenship, nation, patriotism: Such values cannot be contained or conserved in any private market. With such values, to privatize is to destroy.
It is possible to acknowledge that Huber is right about this point while concluding that his argument is incomplete or inadequate. His conservation philosophy is that the government is good at doing nothing, which is indistinguishable from the fundamentalist environmental view that land should be simply locked away for humans. In fact, neither the politics nor the science of land conservation is so simple. So it is dismaying that Huber endorses President Clinton’s western land-grabs, saying that Teddy Roosevelt would have approved.
This won’t do. A new politics of conservation will require more detailed thought about what kind of principles should govern how we decide which lands are given exalted status, and how, in turn, those lands are to be managed in order to preserve their ecological integrity. In Conservation Reconsidered, Professor Charles T. Rubin of Duquesne University (and author of a previous classic, The Green Crusade) has assembled a roster of writers who rethink the issue of conservation from the beginning.
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The essays in this book recall the outlook of the founders of modern conservation in the Progressive Era, such as Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and of course Teddy Roosevelt, along with an even longer look back at their precursors, such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Frederick Law Olmstead. Notwithstanding the policy an scientific defects of Progressive Era conservation ideas, these older conservationists were palpably more serious and substantive than their would-be successors among today’s environmentalists (a fact Huber notes in a fulsome dust-jacket blurb for the book).
Above all, the older conservationists actually knew something about the particulars and heterogeneity of nature, unlike many modern environmentalists who merely pose about unitary “nature” from their office suites in northwest DC. This is made most clear in Jeffrey Salmon’s comparison of Teddy Roosevelt and Al Gore, concluding that the former would have little use for the latter. (It is worth noting that Roosevelt gave up on becoming a scientist because of the debased way science was taught at Harvard—only minute laboratory work was considered truly “scientific” at the time—not unlike how contemporary political science discourages countless students from a serious interest in politics.)
But the most important distinction between the older conservationists and today’s environmentalists is that the Progressives didn’t view man as the enemy of nature as their modern variants do. For Roosevelt and his contemporaries, man was an integral part of nature, and the preservation of wilderness was an important part of the moral education of Americans. For Roosevelt in particular, the harsh test administered by a wild nature contributed to the manliness of citizens—a test that was becoming increasingly lost in the comforts provided by modern industrial society.
Even though the idea of “scientific management” of the Progressive Era conservationists contributed to the edifice of the administrative state, they had the politics and metaphysics of the issue largely right. It may be possible to dissociate the bureaucratic consequences of their thought from their political bedrock in a way that provides a reformed conservationism fit for today’s needs. Matching up the best parts of Hard Green with Conservation Reconsidered may begin to provide for conservatives a way out of the political wilderness.