The Green Conservative

By Gord Gekko
web posted July 1996

Since its inception the environmentalist movement has been liberal. More disturbing is the fact that the activist segment in that movement is often times anti-capitalist, anti-property rights and prone to issuing alarmist calls to action spotlighting problems that do not exist.

It is no surprise then that the issues that fall under the environmentalist tent are those that conservatives find difficult to relate to or support. Indeed it is hard to support any agenda that relies on emotion over rationality, symbolism over substance.

Be that as it may, the environmentalist movement has done some good. We can credit them with showing us that our actions to have repercussions. They can be lauded for showing us that a healthier environment is to all our benefits. We can do this without buying into the extremist agendas of many of the movement's participants. More so, we can also put forward a conservative environmental agenda that is based on common sense, facts and market based solutions that work.

Our first task is to combat the extremists in the environmental movement. We all remember Paul Ehrlich's assertions that the world was doomed, that over-population, waste and depleted resources would effectively end humanity's reign on planet Earth by the 1980's. We've seen U.S. Vice-President Al Gore play the part with his Earth in the Balance and the major media has played into this doomsaying either by design or ignorance. Fact - The environment in North America is cleaner than any time in the past half-century. "All trends -- cancer rates, air and water quality, human health, acres of wooded lands, and a dozen other indicators of environmental quality in the U.S. -- show improvement, not decline." (Eco-Sanity, p. 9). The planet is not in a perfect state but it is not about to be destroyed by humanity. As the studies pointed out by Bast, Hill and Rue in Eco-Sanity show, food production is going up, oil reserves are constantly discovered, global warming is a no-show, nuclear power is safe, over-population is not a problem, etc. The doomsayers often use inaccurate information, poor models and emotion to create a case. Let's not let them get away with it. Learn the real facts.

We must also assert the case that only under capitalism can we protect the environment. A myriad of studies have conclusively proven that capitalist countries are cleaner, their citizens live longer and they provide incentives to keep it clean (such as property rights). Among the legacies of mass murder, a denial of the individual and a system of pure evil, communism has also left us the immense problem of environmental disaster. Decades of using out of-date-equipment, no environmental controls, and no property rights have left a huge clean-up project in waiting. There are literally thousands of sites all across Eastern Europe alone that point to a callous disregard for humanity. In contrast, the North American environment never approached this condition, and never could of, no matter what the doomsayers say.

Property rights are the greatest incentive for the protection of the environment, not governmental influence. "A market system uses transferable property rights to create incentives to do the right things. Property rights, in turn, consist of having control over the use of a resource. The owner of a resource stands to benefit if the resource is put to its best use. Conversely, the owner will suffer a loss if the resource is misused or squandered. And if the property right is transferable, then owners must consider not only the value they place on a resource, but also the values that others may place on it." (Eco-Sanity, p. 193).

Capitalism also rewards innovation. We live in a cleaner society, not because government mandated controls, but because individuals created solutions to common problems. It is a comforting myth for environmentalists to believe that corporations are evil entities intent on destroying the environment, but that is all it is, a myth. The people who own these companies are rightly in interested in making money, but they are also human beings who desire to live in a clean world. It is they who most often create the inventions that help clean up the world.

We must also stay away from the environmental organizations themselves. In the past they have relied on emotion, not facts. I've often believed that they are their own worst enemies. Instead of creating rational solutions to problems, they deal in campaigns that focus attention on high-profile (but minor) problems that capture public attention for a brief moment and are soon forgotten. Have you heard anything about the rain forest lately?

The movements themselves are also often times anti-capitalist. Their pro-Socialist/neo-Marxist 'solutions' rely on massive governmental intervention in the economy and environment. Many in the movement have argued that the free market and property rights must be chained to their agendas. Even more dangerous though, is the hidden layer of hatred towards man and industrial society.

Dr. Michael Berliner, Ph.D. Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute posited recently in his article Environmentalists: The New Life Haters, "The ideal world of environmentalists is not 20th century Western civilization; it is the Garden of Eden, a world with no human intervention in nature, a world without innovation or change...Had the environmentalist mentality prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries, we would have had no Industrial Revolution, a situation environmentalists would cheer..."

Berliner explains, "The guiding principle of environmentalism is self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of longer lives, healthier lives, more prosperous lives, more enjoyable lives. But an individual is not born in servitude. He has a moral right to live his own life for his own sake. He has no duty to sacrifice the needs of others and certainly not the needs of the non-human."

While I doubt that most environmentalists know that this would be the end result of their belief system, it is a logical conclusion. As conservatives we have to make sure that we do not fall in with this group.

So what specific ideas should conservatives articulate? Here are some basic steps that should be advanced:

  • Conservatives should stress continuously the argument of private property. It is the most important principle that we should be fighting for. Owners of property and resources know best how to manage their individual cases. A government cannot set realistic standards for every person in their jurisdiction and their programs do not offer the incentive of private ownership.

  • Federal government regulation must be removed. We are all familiar with the cases of how regulations have created ludicrous situations for individuals and businesses all across North America. The costs of these regulations have eaten up enormous sums of money and created an atmosphere where the environment is in conflict with capitalism.. As Jonathan Adler points out, "Emphasizing economic costs sets up a dynamic that pits environmental protection against corporate profits, a debate that is difficult to win." (National Review, The GOP Goes Green, May 6, 1996.)

  • Emphasize that only free market capitalism provides incentives for a cleaner environment. Capitalist countries have the best living conditions and are cleaner than their less freer counterparts. If something is in the self-interest of a human being, then they will pursue it. And only an individual can decide what that is.

  • Combat the alarmists who preach crisis at every turn. They have an incredibly poor record and never recant. As Eco-Sanity points out, these alarmist campaigns are an excuse for fund-raising and little more. Greenpeace itself is merely an advertising vehicle for the environmental movement. They operate no preserves, protect no wild-life directly and yet they raise millions every year. The alarmist uses fear...we use common sense and facts.
The above suggestions are merely a general platform as specific recommendations have been made elsewhere. I hope though that I have made the point that you can be a conservative and be concerned with the environment. The conservative movement can capture the high ground in this debate if we remember to stress smaller government, more freedom of action and a cleaner environment. As long as we stress individual freedom and choice, we do not compromise conservative sensibilities.

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