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What Environmentalists Can Learn From Conservatives, And Vice Versa

It seems to be there’s little ground left for compromise. But, in the spirit of all interfaith conversations, I’ll take a crack at it.

To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much ground for interfaith efforts of this sort anymore: it seems to me that the polarization of things is nearly complete with the two “Joe” bookends of Joe Romm at the Center for American Progress, and Joe Bast at the Heartland Institute. Two Joes, both of whose last names are four-letter words to their opponents. Think about that.

Anyway, I think there is a profound (and perhaps unbridgeable) conflict of visions involved. At the most basic, in my view, environmentalism has been almost-wholly captured by people who are misanthropes: they view humans as inherently destructive entities to be corralled, controlled, constrained, and, cut back over time to a tiny fraction of the current human population. This is the alpha and omega of their world view.

Conservatives, by contrast, start from a standpoint of anthropocentrism, and the belief that every new human can be the next Einstein, Darwin, Curie, Van Gogh, Beethoven, etc. They reflexively oppose proposed policies that would cut against such human flourishing, and as recent studies show, they’ll interpret “impact-based” scientific studies as a hammer in search of a nail with which to beat humanity down.

As for the idea of compromise, I have my doubts. Environmentalists have generally resisted compromise, and in fact, tend to slander anyone who does try to compromise with them, or to use compromise as a weapon in the future.

Hence, when conservatives responded to early environmentalism with the idea of “wise use,” they were immediately branded as evil tobacco scientists.

When they raised the notion of sound science guidelines like transparency, data access, and data quality laws, they were called “anti-science” and, evil tobacco scientists.

When they raised the radical idea that we might be guided by things like cost/benefit analysis, they were branded as, well, evil tobacco scientists.

When anyone criticizes climate science, even now, they’re akin to tobacco scientists (or much worse)

When they put forward toll-roads as an answer to air pollution, they were accused of being racists in search of Lexus Lanes.

When they put forward cap-and-trade as a good solution to a localized, single-value pollutant, the idea was perverted into the monstrosity of Waxman-Markey, and conservatives abused for “walking away from their own creation.”

When they accept that perhaps a modest, revenue-neutral carbon tax might be acceptable, they’re shot down, and later, when a non-modest, revenue-raising carbon tax is floated, they’re accused of flip-flopping on a carbon tax.

It seems to be there’s little ground left for compromise.

But, in the spirit of all interfaith conversations, I’ll take a crack at it:

What environmentalists can learn from conservatives

  • Wealthier is healthier and cleaner. We’ve known this for some time, but it bears repeating: poorer societies cannot afford environmental protection, and they rank it lower than meeting their other needs for housing, food, education, healthcare, etc. Until they’re wealthy, they will consume environmental resources without much regard to aesthetics or future generations. Making people wealthier is the ultimate environmental act.
  • Societies that foster, as Arthur Brooks would put it, “freedom, opportunity, and enterprise” enrich themselves more quickly, and empower people to express their diverse values effectively, including environmental values. Social structures that divorce people from individual responsibility do exactly the opposite. Freeing up markets is an environmental act.
  • One should be cautious in intervening in complex economic systems, as one can easily trigger unintended consequences that do more harm than good. Ethanol. ‘Nuff said.
  • Humility should be the rule when it comes to models and forecasting of environmental trends, health damage, economic impacts, or job impacts. Everyone throws models out there as if they have some kind of decent predictive value, when in fact, they generally don’t.
  • You’re never going to convince conservatives that you are moral beings worth working with if you’re surfing on a massive wave of anti-humanism that you don’t self-police (James Hansen, anyone?). As Robert Zubrin points out in his new book “Merchants of Despair,” there is a broad river of anti-humanism that runs through the environmental movement, and that anti-humanism (along with a bunch of zealotry) is what drives conservatives to disbelieve everything environmentalists have to say.
  • Markets are better than mandates. There is still a vast swath of environmental issues where environmentalists simply refuse the idea of using market mechanisms to solve problems in ways that give people more power rather than less: traffic congestion and associated air pollution is one example. Pay-as-you-throw trash fees rather than mandatory recycling programs. Deregulated (hence competitive) electricity markets is still another.

What conservatives can learn from environmentalists

  • There are real environmental problems that warrant action, especially in the developing world. But even in the developed world, there are air quality hot-spots that should be addressed, there are water pollution issues, over-fishing problems, invasive species issues, and other problems worthy of some public attention, and yes, probably some regulatory action. It’s not all bogus, and it’s not all junk science whatever.
  • There really is such a thing as ecosystem services that are often either unpriced or improperly priced, and we are probably wasting a lot of such services because they are unpriced. The tragedy of the commons still remains.
  • There really is a greenhouse effect, wherein greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. It’s perfectly legitimate to discuss things like climate sensitivity; and of course it’s always reasonable to discuss whether or not one thinks a given action will do more good than harm. But it doesn’t help to label climate change a giant hoax and refuse to discuss it. And, billboards featuring Ted Kaczynski seem like a particularly bad way to promote a conversation.
  • A large swath of the public does get psychic benefits from knowing that ecosystems are being cared for, and species are being protected. While there are many, many good reasons for disturbing ecosystems, it’s only going to alienate such people to refer to places like the arctic as “desolate wilderness.” One person’s desolate wilderness is another person’s tranquil vista.
  • And, alas, by their behavior environmentalists can teach conservatives to be wary of compromise: the history of environmental policy has been that environmentalists have rarely ever accepted a compromise on good faith. At the most, they will view a 50% compromise toward their goal as only a “first-down.”
  • In conclusion, while I’d love to think that conservatives and environmentalists can find common ground, and mutual recognition of shared values, I don’t see it happening any time soon.

American Enterprise Institute, 5 June 2012