Conservatives, Young People, and the Environment in 2014

mount-rushmore-23161191 (2)Since the 2008 election cycle, conservatives have lamented the loss of constituencies key to cobbling together a winning vote: women, minorities, and young people. When it comes to environmental issues, conservatives have really lost their credibility. Apart from attacking environmental regulations as “job-killers,” the party of Theodore Roosevelt for the most part has failed to carve out a message of respect and concern for the planet.

That’s a shame, for many of the current trends in environmental protection are evolving in a way that provides opportunity for conservative principles to shine. These trends also promise to entice young people to embrace the notion that free markets and the spirit of American innovation can drive a better quality of life and health.

The first trend is the availability of increased energy supplies, both natural gas and oil, from horizontal fracturing of shale. Current estimate of US reserves of gas and oil potentially available using horizontal drilling techniques are creating a marketplace of dramatic abundance for decades going forward. Cheap, reliable stores of energy are luring global manufacturers back to U.S. soil.

While politically controversial in some areas, the “business” of ensuring that hydraulic fracturing is done safely and protectively, without harming human life or the environment, will create jobs for those skilled in natural resources, engineering, and science. The drilling itself requires skilled technicians and geologists. In addition, natural gas has a much lower greenhouse gas emissions profile than fuels such as coal, so a widespread substitution could benefit from a climate change perspective.

The resurgence of manufacturing is also brightening the commercial real estate market. Affordable, well-located properties are often lightly-contaminated from some previous owner, such as former gas stations or steel mills. Cleanup and redevelopment of these “brownfields” properties will improve the environment and create jobs. In addition, dredging of the major US ports in order to prepare for deeper-draft ships once the Panama Canal is deepened will require movement of many tons of sediment, often contaminated from years of industrial runoff. Creative recycling and reuse of these dredged spoils, where recycled into asphalt or used to create engineered shorelines that expand the waterfront, will enhance waterfront property values and landscapes.

Lastly, American innovation is increasingly being harvested to create the sustainable products and materials of the future. Lighter, safer vehicles; electronics that can perform increasingly complex tasks with fewer energy requirements; and products that are safer to use in commerce require advanced research, testing, and development cycles. America’s colleges and universities are straining to graduate sufficient scientists, engineers, and technology experts to meet the demand of top innovation entrepreneurs. That development bodes well for young people seeking interesting, meaningful employment in the US economy.

These improvements are all driven by the forces of the free market, abetted by US innovation and industry. Certainly the environmental progress we see today is built upon a solid foundation of laws and regulations, and conservatives are right to question the value of future regulation in terms of diminishing returns. However, criticism of new rules should not obscure the great success we are enjoying today as a result of markets driving environmental progress – reduced climate impacts; improved quality of life; cleaner lands and waterways; and safer products in commerce. The promise that this trend offers young people is full participation in a great democracy where their economic success and ability to improve their environment is unlimited. The idea that young people can use market forces to shape a greener planet – both in terms of careers and life- should appeal across the ideological spectrum.

1 Comment
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    James Strock 10 years ago

    Terrific post, Marianne.

    A few additional thoughts for your consideration:

    –much of the ongoing progress is arising from momentous changes in public attitudes toward environmental protection in the past generation. Now many companies have an ever-increasing complement of new recruits who are committed to good environmental stewardship inside and outside their companies. In fact, environmental stewardship may be a reason they chose one opportunity over another.

    –so, too, public and stakeholder expectations reflect cultural change. Internet Age transparency is powerful.

    –the cultural changes are in no small part the result of the enforcement of environmental statutes and regulations and public disclosure requirements over the course of several decades. This was intended by those who labored in those vineyards in the earlier years.

    –the past two decades have seen a rising interest group domination of American national politics. Innovation in environmental statutes and regulation has been a conspicuous casualty. As a result, the regulatory process is troubled.

    –the interest group alliances within the Democratic and Republican parties are ossified, long out-of-date. Obvious areas where common ground can be found and new ground staked out lay unexplored. One is the failure to link evangelical thinkers and voters into environmental debate and reform. Another is the failure to link the needs of disadvantaged communities effectively into transparent public discussions of regulatory resource allocation.

    –For the time being, consistent with the decentralizing tenor of the time, states and localities are filling the national leadership void. So, too, companies are filling in. Nonetheless, there remains a series of national environmental and energy challenges that need to be addressed. These are foundational. Many familiar understandings are overdue for reconsideration and reform. If one doubts that, just ask: would you draft the laws as they are, starting from scratch, today? Would you organize the agencies as they are now, if you were starting from scratch, today? To pose such questions is to answer them.

    These challenges present an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats, if only because their parties are the organizational vessels for the federal government. What will spark them into action? Theodore Roosevelt prompted the first wave of 20th century environmental action without a popular mandate–he created something of one, in the absence of a crisis, from the bully pulpit.

    In the 21st century, we likely have to spark leadership from the outside-in, from the bottom-up.

    One major area of immediate opportunity for either of the legacy parties is to reach out to Independents. As an Independent myself, I can report that many of us are not best understood as “moderates” in the traditional partisan reckoning. Rather, we decline to accept the political framework as it’s currently defined and delimited by special interests, working within the two parties.

    With so many Americans in this growing camp–most especially so many young voters under 30–the Independent ranks hold potential for creative disruption and innovation that both of the legacy parties should be seeking ways to work with.

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