The GOP’s Environmental Challenge

By Brent Fewell

Can one be a social conservative or member of the GOP and be an environmentalist?  Although I’ve long argued what I believe to be the fundamental distinction between being an environmentalist and a conservationist – and perhaps that’s arguing the number of angelic beings dancing on the head of a pin – the obvious answer to the above question is a resounding yes.  To me, it’s a rather silly question, but it’s one with legs.  As with other social and cultural issues, the GOP’s environmental positioning has long been on the losing side of public sentiment, rhetoric and imagery.

During my service in the Bush EPA, I was often amused at the number of times that I had to defend my love of nature and the environment.  Comments like “You’re a Republican?!” . . . or, my favorite, “I thought you liked the environment.”  My usual refrain was something to the effect “why of course I do, why would being a Republican matter.”  For the well-meaning, inquisitive liberal, who seemed truly fascinated by discovering this new species, I’d save the ice-breaker, “Yup, I’m that Republican whose job it is to add the arsenic to your water” – always found that one would lighten things up.  Most of the time, I wasn’t bothered by such comments – you got used to them.

But it was the perspective of the political and academic elites who, you would think should know better, really got under my skin – sorta of like an opportunistic tsetse fly unable to pass up a gracious host.  Case in point.  A few years ago when I served on Alumni Council for Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, I returned to Durham to attend an intimate gathering with Robert Redford, who was being honored with the School’s prestigious LEAF Award.  I didn’t know Redford personally, but boy, he sure thought he knew me.  The honoree spent the better part of the evening Bush Bashing and decrying the environmental evils of the likes of me and the Republican party.  Admittedly it was a bit uncomfortable – the same old tired refrain – but I toiled through it, finding my happy place.  During the evening and seeking shelter (or bunker) from the ridicule, I gravitated toward a table in the back of the room with several faculty and guests, some of whom I did not know.  A dear friend, being polite and thinking she was being helpful, introduced me to her colleagues as a former Dukie and . . . gggrrrr, a former EPA official.  Almost immediately, the derisive slights began in earnest  – “how could anyone who cared about the environment have worked in the Bush Administration.”  I found the interrogation and level of ignorance to be astounding on many levels, not to mention the uncivility of the behavior.  Apparently, the comments were so off-putting, my dear friend, who is liberal and a Democrat, pulled me aside afterwards and profusely apologized for her colleagues’ boorish behavior.  To this day, I’m proud to have served in that Administration, and reflect upon the many positive things that were accomplished and promoted, including the importance of Cooperative Conservation and citizen stewardship.

So how does the Grand ‘Ole Party of Teddy Roosevelt extricate itself from this reputational predicament?  Given a lot of thought to this in recent years.   And been thinking about Rod Dreher’s broader thesis over at The American Conservative in the context of how social conservatives and the GOP survive the moribund cultural and social changes, all of which portend tremendous challenges to SoCons and society at large.  While I defer to Dreher and other SoCons on offering solutions to much more intractable cultural challenges, such as rapidly changing sexual mores, I will continue to focus my table-pounding on how apathy and indifference by the political right is ceding ground and encouraging more overreaching statism and the bureaucratization of environmental sentiment by the left.  This should be a concern of all who care about environmental stewardship, regardless of political affiliation, and it should likewise be a concern of conservatives.

Dreher argues that the only way SoCons can enjoy political success in this new environment is “by rethinking and reframing our views in libertarian concepts, and using libertarian language.”  I think he’s onto something.  And perhaps that’s why many friends with whom I agree and have such great respect on environmental matters are libertarian, such as Lynn Scarlet at Resources for the Future, Jonathan Adler at Case Western Law, or Terry Anderson at PERC.  Dreher and a handful of other prominent SoCons advocate for the redirection of energies into the social sphere, not the political, where things that truly matter are won or lost and where meaningful conservatism can take hold.  Here Dreher says,

Bret Jacobson, the Red Edge entrepreneur, insisted that the solution was ultimately a simple one. “I think the answer for a vibrant Republican Party is to make our North Star empowering every individual in this country to follow their own dream, free of legislative excesses,” he told me. “There are millions of Americans who take seriously their religious culture as well as traditions that have been handed down for centuries. And the party has to empower them to fight those battles in the social sphere, not in the government sphere. That’s harder work than taking control of the country for four years. But it’s the appropriate battle.”

Because the political arena has become so poisoned and utterly impotent to ably act and govern, SoCons and others who care about environmental matters and advancing conservative principles must increasingly look elsewhere and outside the political sphere for environmental solutions.  It’s inevitable.

It’s axiomatic that business must readily adapt to external forces (customer preferences, public demand, regulatory changes, environmental risks, etc.) to survive, and those that don’t are at risk of going the way of the dinosaur.  The same goes for any assemblage of people, whether linked together through geographical, cultural, political, or ideological affinity.  Watching CPAC this month exclude GoProud and Governor Christie, once again I was struck by the abject failure of adaptation and rhetoric that seems to be the new norm leading to the destruction of conservatism in this Country and, more broadly, to the GOP.  My advice to SoCons with a pulpit and microphone – shut up already, stop digging the hole even deeper.  Thankfully, the NRO editors called this move for what it is – bone-headed.

Dreher like other SoCons who are more libertarian in their approach to environmental matters (maybe we should call them SoConLibs), has this to say about the GOP and its need to change its ways on the environment:  (Dreher kindly mentions my lone voice in the wilderness)

I also wish the GOP would wake up and understand that it is seen, quite rightly, as the party of Big Business. This is not entirely fair; the Democrats are in hock to Wall Street too. But the Republicans give people few reasons, either in terms of policy or rhetoric, to think that they’re on the side of the little guy, of Main Street as opposed to the plutocratic class. They should also recognize that for young people, environmental concerns matter a lot. The GOP will never be able to out-green the Democrats, and shouldn’t try. But they have to stop ceding this issue to the Dems. Identify people within GOP ranks, like conservationist Brent Fewell — a former Bush Administration official, scientist, and practicing Christian — and give them a voice within the party — and not just for window-dressing, either.

I agree that the GOP will never out-green the Dems, nor should we try.  But, where greening the GOP will have universal appeal beyond the political sphere is the element of green.  Being responsive to environmental concerns makes good business sense.  For starters, when customers and the public expect and demand it, you damn well better give it to them – sorta goes to that adaptation thing.  And although I’ve ceded the culture war being waged in the national political arena, I’m not yet willing to cede on environmental issues.  With SoConLibs and other GOPers who are willing to come out of the closet and serve as “honest brokers” on environmental matters, such as Roger Scruton and How to Think Seriously About the Planet who continues to challenge indefensible political and cultural orthodoxies, I remain optimistic that the GOP can and will attract the younger generation, like my girls who, although don’t care or think a whole lot about gay-marriage, do care about the health and wellbeing of the critters in our neighborhood stream and humanity’s sustainable future.

As always, I welcome the dissenting and assenting views of others.