Sustainability Means Conserving Nature’s Valuable Gifts

It’s a curious thing that concern for the natural environment has become associated with  “liberal” and even “left wing” politics. Environmentalism grew out of the conservation movement—an effort to conserve the beauty and fertility of the land. Isn’t a conservative someone who wants to conserve the good things we have inherited—not only values and institutions but also the goodness of nature that maintains our very lives?

Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who more than any other political leader awakened Americans to the need for environmental protection, made this connection explicitly: “When I hear of the destruction of a species I feel just as if all the works of some great writer had perished.”

Republican Richard Nixon promoted the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and other initiatives. He argued that “These many proposals I have made, if enacted, would provide the authority to protect and preserve our natural environment for decades.”

Today’s more libertarian conservatives are more concerned about this authority than they are about protecting nature from the severe long term damages that industrial society undeniably causes. An ideology fixated on absolute freedom and unlimited economic growth trumps even objective, empirical evidence for environmental degradation.

Thus, on the same day last week that we read about Australia’s Conservative government repudiating that country’s carbon tax, becoming the first nation to deliberately retreat from meaningful action on climate change, two of my Vermont Standard columnist colleagues dismissed environmental concerns out of hand. Peter Behr called pipeline opposition  “nonsense” and “politically correct,” while Dick Tracy equated climate scientists with “Chicken Little”—a “politically connected, highly vocal minority” who aim to diminish “our individual freedoms and rights of property.”

Granted, science is not infallible, and we do not, maybe cannot, understand climate dynamics fully. Still, scientists’ urgency about the dangers of climate change and their claim that it is being caused by the combustion of fossil fuels are grounded in their careful analysis of the most reasonable empirical evidence available, not in some anti-capitalist agenda.

Their opponents, on the other hand, argue from an inflexible commitment to an ideological model that admits no evidence. Climate disruption can’t be a problem because their worldview does not allow it to be one. But simply labeling an argument “nonsense” or “alarmist” or “politically correct” without evidence does nothing to deal with the demonstrable realities of climate change, peak oil, pipeline spills and other environmental problems that we really do need to be concerned about if we want to conserve the life support systems of the planet.

And one does not need to be a flaming socialist to have these concerns. One can, as I do, distrust centralized political power, frivolous uses of taxpayer money, and overly intrusive governance yet still acknowledge that the free market, left on its own, does not do an adequate job of accounting for the “externalities” and long term costs of industrial production. To be sustainable, an economy needs to protect the commons from self-interested exploitation.

Many entrepreneurs in the “new” economy realize this. Socially and environmentally responsible businesspeople, like Judy Wicks (who will be speaking at a Sustainable Woodstock event this Saturday evening), demonstrate that sustainability and free enterprise can go together, as long as business respects more than just the bottom line.

Al Gore famously called climate change an “inconvenient truth” because it does challenge the comfortable belief that the unfettered pursuit of wealth is our highest good. It suggests that we might need to allow some reasonable degree of public authority over the market in order to secure our long term survival.

Taking this possibility seriously is not an insidious plot to trample on liberty or property rights. It is a sincere effort to grapple with challenges that reasonable evidence suggests could profoundly diminish our quality of life unless we act proactively, thoughtfully, and collaboratively. This is work that open-minded conservatives and liberals can pursue together.

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