Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Conservative Case for Conservation

Conservative Thought, Liberal Thought, and Conservation

Conservatives are often portrayed as being anti-environment, and not for no reason. Very often it is conservatives that stand reflexively against the many environmental groups who tend toward the political left. This is unfortunate, because conservative and conservation don’t have the same root merely coincidentally—rather, the modern environmental movement owes its roots to classical conservative thought.

Early liberal thought held that the environment was a resource which could be assigned value by the use that could be put to, whereas early conservative thought held that the environment held value in and of itself. Oddly enough, both of these positions can be said to be true, but not in the absolute. A natural resource does have economic value, but extracting that resource may destroy a park that has more value in other terms—both factors must be considered.

Conservative thought holds that humans are imperfect and a limited level of government is necessary to restrain the more harmful impulses, which is a stance generally rejected by libertarian thinking. While an extreme libertarian position might state that a landowner should be free to do whatever they want on their own property, such sentiment ignores the fact that the landowner is part of a larger community and some actions have repercussions beyond the landowner’s own property and lifetime. For example: dumping waste oil in one’s backyard has lasting repercussions beyond a particular piece of property—the oil can seep into the groundwater and from there into the food chain at all levels. Clearly, the community’s interests trump the individual’s supposed right to do as they will on their property in a case like this—governmental regulation is warranted in the interest of the community.

Some view the free market as the best guarantor of the environment: clean and green should sell better and as a result the environment should fare better. This takes a decidedly non-conservative view of human nature. A more conservative view of human nature would hold that unrestrained commercialization is a threat to the environment, because some people do not hold to community values.

One conservative criticism of the environmental movement is that it bases its positions on bad or incomplete science, and there have been times when this is not altogether unwarranted criticism. Another criticism has been that some extremists in the modern environmental movement value nature more than humanity—again, not an altogether unwarranted criticism. There is a need for balancing the needs of the environment and the needs of people; in the final analysis humanity is another part of the natural world.

Notable Conservative Conservationists from the Past

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”
–Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
President Roosevelt, who was without question the most conservationist President in American history, had a lifelong interest in wildlife and the outdoors. During his Presidency, he more than quadrupled national forest lands. His passion for conservation was more than personal interest—he believed that carefully and efficiently using natural resources was the best way to protect the nation’s strength, prosperity, and future.


In 1929, Herbert Hoover became the 31st President of the United States. Today he is remembered for his ineffectual response to the Great Depression, but in his time he expanded the national park system by 40%. The monuments he protected are some of the most famous in America: The Grand Canyon, White Sands, and Death Valley. He also felt that conservation was a moral imperative, that outdoor recreation was the cure for excess.


“There is a need for relief for jaded minds and tense nerves, a need for the restoration of peace and the reassurance of sanity. It is a need that for many people can best be met beyond the end of the road, away from the ring of the telephone, where electric lights cannot lengthen the strains of the day, but rather where early sleep rests a man to wake at dawn and know the inspiration of the sunrise as well as the colors of the sunset.”
–Congressman John Saylor, 1956
Conservative Republican congressman John Saylor of Pennsylvania served in Congress from 1949 until his death in 1973. He co-sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act and led the fight for the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He felt that unspoiled lands were important for physical and mental well-being—that everyone needed a place to get away from the noise and pace of modern life and reconnect with a more traditional pace of living.

Conservation, Energy Policy, and National Security

The Set America Free Coalition is a group of conservative hawks who feel that our dependence on oil is a threat to national security. Part of their mission is to push for serious national policies to improve fuel efficiency and develop non-petroleum transportation fuels.

America simply can’t become self-sufficient in oil; the only way to lessen our dependence on foreign oil is to lessen our dependence on oil altogether—starting with improved fuel efficiency. This is crucial because most of the global oil supply is controlled by countries that do not care about America’s best interests. Oil is the Achilles’ heel of America’s economy, and thus conservation becomes a cornerstone of our national security.

Upon leaving his office at the end of his second term, George Washington warned against being overly entangled in foreign countries. Our dependence on oil from foreign countries forces us to become entangled.

Within a matter of mere decades, China will almost certainly become the world’s largest economy—and the largest consumer of oil. Without a serious conservation effort and a drive to become energy independent, we may well find America on a tragic collision course with a nuclear rival.

The less oil we consume, the more secure we will be.

Conservation and Development
"You cannot be a conservative and be on the side of the concrete pourers and the cement mixers."
–John Lukacs
Conservative historian and speaker John Lukacs was not making a statement that conservatism should be opposed to blue-collar workers, nor was he making a call to reject development outright. Rather, he was stating that unbridled development is a threat to the present and future of the communities that we cherish.

A community has every right to live by an unstated social contract of their own design, and development that is contrary to this social contract is a threat to wellbeing of that community. In other words, Wal-Mart (to take an oft maligned example) has every right to purchase land and build a store in communities, just as every community equally has the right to enact zoning that prohibits such land use to protect a cherished standard and style of living. Some things are more valued than mere economic development, and this is the true meaning of the science of economics.

The conservative case for conservation is simple: by insuring a healthy environment and wise use of natural resources, we secure our standard of living for ourselves and future generations.


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