A reader asked that I explain why I changed from a liberal to a conservative environmentalist. A good explanation is offered in an adaptation of an editorial I wrote that was published by the Writers on the Range syndicate of the High Country News. It, too, was called…


By Dan Dagget

The presidential election is approaching, and as usual the environment is an issue considered to be owned by the liberals, which, in this case, includes even the presumed Republican candidate.

 I would have had no problem with that when I was fighting strip mines in Ohio in 1973 and environmentalism was synonymous with leftist politics. In the early 80s, when a friend told me someone named Dave Foreman was forming an environmental group named Earth First! that would be so far to the left it would push the entire debate in that direction, I was among the first to show up.

 As I have become older and more experienced, however, I’ve come to believe the exclusive connection between the left and the environmental movement is neither good for the environment nor for environmentalism.

 The main reason for this change of mind and heart is I’ve become convinced the private-sector really is more effective than government at producing just about anything, healthy ecosystems included. I came to this conclusion for the usual reasons-the failure of the Soviet Union and other public-sector flops. More important, however, was the fact that, in thirty years of activism, the most impressive environmental successes I have encountered were achieved by private individuals operating according to principles that make up the conservative playbook. In each of those cases individual initiative, personal accountability, the free market, and rewards for results were more effective at saving endangered species, healing damaged ecosystems, even combating global warming than the government alternative-regulation and protection.

 These successes even got me to thinking that the reason environmental problems seem so hard to solve may be because the leftist methods we use to deal with them are so ineffective.

 And isn’t Nature a conservative? After all, she rewards success not compliance.

 Put all of this together, and it adds up to a significant question: Why have environmentalists chose the leftist approach, which is a confirmed loser and unnatural to boot, over an approach based on conservative principles that is proven to be more effective? The answer came when I took those success stories to my environmental peers.

 I knew how most environmentalists feel about everything conservative, so, when I told them that I was coming to believe conservative principles offered a better way to a more effective environmentalism, I wasn’t surprised by their chilly response. What did surprise me was their total lack of interest in how people they normally think of as adversaries had succeeded in dealing with problems that had stymied them for decades. 

 After a few years of this, I was the one who finally got the message. I concluded that many of those who call themselves environmentalists are more interested in imposing leftist prescriptions than in achieving success on the ground. For them, environmental issues are a means to achieve liberal political ends rather than the other way around. In fact, that’s how many environmentalists measure success—in the number of acres brought under government control, in laws passed, in regulations created, and in the election of politicians committed to increasing all of the above. My environmental listeners weren’t interested in the successes I described to them because those successes weren’t achieved by leftist means and didn’t further leftist agendas.

 That realization convinced me of the need for a conservative alternative to liberal environmentalism. Liberals deal with problems by applying policies–a living wage, affirmative action, universal health-care, wilderness designation. Conservatives, on the other hand, work to create a situation in which people can use their creativity and initiative to produce a product for which there is a demand and, therefore, a reward. An environmentalism based on conservative principles would determine success and dispense rewards for achieving results—environmental results, not for applying policies.

 That would change the face of the environmental debate entirely. First, it would give people on the right, many of whom are as concerned about real environmental problems as liberals, an environmental strategy to support that did not require them to sign on to something they oppose—increased regulation and bigger government.

 Second, it would give true environmentalism—an environmentalism directed at achieving results, not applying policies—a frame of reference through which it can make sense to the rest of us. At present that is not the case.

 What I mean by this is: there are plenty of environmental successes out there that have been achieved by conservative means. In fact, there are probably more conservative environmental successes than liberal ones—if you measure success in terms of results achieved rather than policies applied. You probably haven’t heard of those successes, however, but don’t be surprised. In the rare case that conservative environmental successes are reported by the mainstream media they are reported as anomalies, as oddball events, as “man bites dog” rather than as achievements in a larger context.

 When the media reports liberal environmental achievements, such as laws passed, regulations tightened, or land withdrawn from use, they are invariably presented as a step in the right direction, as progress, as part of a continuing story. We are reminded how bad things were yesterday, how progress is being made slowly but surely, with great and heroic effort, so we look forward to tomorrow and the next installment in this unfolding saga.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the conservative media reported the other side of the story, as it has on, say, the Iraq War. However, the conservative media treat conservative environmentalism just as badly if not worse than the liberal media. Since conservative pundits view environmentalism as a purely liberal phenomenon, they refer to environmentalists as “wackos,” work to debunk or diminish environmental issues, and treat conservatives who express concerns about those issues as candidates for “deprogramming.”

 And yet, if conservative environmental successes are going to be reported anywhere, in the conservative media is where it is going to have to be. These successes don’t fit the liberal template, nor do they advance the liberal agenda, so they will never be reported other than peremptorily in the liberal media.

Creating a conservative environmentalism would give the right wing media a context in which to report conservative environmental successes, and thus, the incentive to do so. It would create a story, with conservatives as the heroes and conservative achievements as the victories, that the talk shows could update every day, just as the liberals currently update global warming.

 That would mean that, for the first time,…

  • the fact that conservative approaches regularly outperform liberal approaches in dealing with environmental problems would no longer go unreported.
  • the environmental playing field, both in politics and the media, would no longer be conceded to the Democrats—both sides would have to compete for our support.
  • we would all live in a healthier, cleaner, more abundant environment because more effective means would be used to address environmental problems
  • Even liberal environmentalism would benefit from the creation of a conservative alternative because it would finally be held accountable for achieving concrete results, rather than just enacting policies.

 Last, but not least, all of us would benefit because neither side in this long running dispute would be able easily to cast the other as incorrigible villains—We would have one less reason to hate one another. 

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