Why Conservatives Should and do Care About the Environment

By Brent Fewell

What can be more conservative than the impulse to protect and conserve earth’s natural resources, air, water, and land, which give and sustain life.  Just as political conservatism is deeply rooted in the philosophy of providing stability and continuity in our political and social institutions, environmental conservatism is rooted in the notion of promoting and conserving those earthly tendrils that sustain life on earth.  History, science and religion have taught that the mind, body, and soul are integrally connected.  When one suffers, the others suffer.  When elements arise that contribute to an imbalance of this tripartite human condition, our experience has taught us that the individual and society also suffer an imbalance.  And when imbalance becomes too great neither the individual nor society may reach its full potential.  Whether caused by environmental, physical or moral decay of the traditional building blocks of society, imbalance invariably creates uncertainty and trajectory of instability in society’s collective and immemorial wisdoms, family units, individual liberties and freedoms, and veneration to traditions that conservatives oft cherish.

Conservationism in essence is conservatism at its core.  Respect for the past and responsibility to future generations imposes on society an obligation to conserve natural resources and protect the environment.  Failure to do so would invariably result in conditions unsuitable for sustained human existence.  Edmund Burke, the great political philosopher of the 18th Century, talked at great lengths about the corrupting forces of human nature and man’s appetites, voracious and sanguinary, that must be restrained through reverence of tradition and customary morality.  Burke referred to humankind as mere “temporary possessors and life-renters” with a moral obligation to govern itself for this and all successive generations.  Opining on Burke’s position, Russell Kirk, the great American political thinker and proponent of traditional conservatism, argued even more forcefully that unrestrained men “would treat the world as if it were their private property . . . to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations.”  Prior to the modern environmental movement, Kirk observed the impact of unrestrained behavior

The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining, national debts recklessly increased until they are repudiated, and continued revision of positive law, is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors.

Modern day environmental laws and regulations have no doubt helped to conserve and protect our natural resources for future generations.  The origin of these societal actions are rooted in political conservatism.  During the late 1800s, millions of pelicans, snowy egrets, flamingos and other exotic coastal birds were being hunted annually for their beautiful feathers to adorn ladies’ hats.  By the turn of the century, millions upon millions of birds were being harvested annually for the plume trade.  In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt, and an avid outdoorsman and hunter, signed into law an executive order that set aside Pelican Island, Florida, home to thousands of nesting shore birds.  Roosevelt’s action in this case was not motivated by any animus toward hunting or hunters nor a desire to preserve birds or bird habitat for the sake of mere preservation.  His decision was grounded in a clear understanding that without swift and decisive government action, many of these magnificent birds were faced with extinction.  Roosevelt’s actions were no doubt rooted in self actuation – an understanding that without the continuing viability of these bird populations – hunting too would become extinct.   Roosevelt’s action marked the awakening of a new era in America, the modern conservation movement.

Gifford Pinchot, an American forester and the 28th Governor of Pennsylvania, and Roosevelt were contemporaries.  In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Pinchot to serve as the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, where he served until 1910.  Regarded today as the pioneer of modern forestry, Pinchot promoted policies and practices that sought to optimize forest production for commercial purposes.   Pinchot’s ethos is reflected in the iconic quote, “the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time.” Similar to Roosevelt, Pinchot’s grand vision for a new form of management was firmly rooted in an anthropocentric perspective, a desire to better the condition of the human race.  Pinchot’s core beliefs were didactically opposed to those of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, who strongly opposed Pinchot and believed that forests should be preserved due to their intrinsic and pristine environmental values, not for their cash worth.   It was a clash of values – wise use versus no use or limited use – that gave rise to the conflict of these two titans.  And a conflict that today continues to divide people along political affiliation and personal predilection.

Whether one considers himself an “environmentalist,” “conservationist” or “anti-environmentalist,” or something entirely different, depends largely upon ones upbringing and perspective on God, the human existence, and our proper place within the natural environment.  For me, I was raised in an Evangelical Christian home.  I grew up under the biblical directive to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”  The human experiment involved not only the right, but the obligation to subdue and have dominion over nature.  That perspective for me has not changed, nor has my understanding of the Christian responsibilities that accompany those rights and obligations.

Humans have the power and capacity to destroy life on earth, whether through the use of weapons of mass destruction, careless or indifferent use of harmful chemicals, or persistent and unabated abuse of the land.  A belief otherwise is folly and dangerous.  Christians, but in particular conservative Christians, must come to understand that divine Providence does not just dispossess us of the right to plunder and destroy the environment, rather it imposes upon us a moral and religious obligation to care for the earth and manage its resources wisely.

There can be no denying that one who suffers from debilitating asthma from air pollution or one whose life is cut short from cancer caused by industrial chemicals in their water is unable to reach his or her full potential in spirit, mind or body. The human suffering that can flow from environmental degradation should itself alone be sufficient for conservatives or conservative Christians to care and act.  Impacts upon the non-human such as the threat of extinction, with its direct and indirect implications for the human race, are equally availing of conservative and Christian response.

My views on these matters developed at an early age after much spiritual struggle and introspection.  As a youngster, I found great joy and awe in experiencing the mysteries of nature, whether it was exploring a hidden beaver pond tucked deep into the woods of the Catskill Mountains, scaling Druid Peak in Yellowstone, or creek-walking the streams of the North Carolina mountains in such of a hellbender salamander.  These experiences were marked with a renewed sense of who God is, God the Creator, not just God the spiritual Savior.  I experienced God’s power and love during those quiet times in nature in ways that I had not experienced before.

Yet I was struck by the seeming indifference and outright hostility to environmental matters by many within the faith community in which I was raised.  As I struggled to reconcile these seeming contradictions, at one point I corresponded with a Church leader seeking answers and was told that “Christians were called to save souls, not the planet.”   For me that answer was entirely unsatisfying and wholly un-Christian.

Those views within the Chrisitan Church have slowly changed in recent years for the better as a greater knowledge and understanding of the consequential effects of human existence on the environment unfold.  And they will continue to change as the younger generation, including my girls, develops an appreciation for the connection between the physical, the spiritual, and the emotional.  That misguided Christian ethic of my youth is no longer an obstacle to conservationism.  Professor John Bergstrom from University of Georgia has written a thoughtful critique entitled Principles of a Christian Environmental Ethic on the evolving Christian perspective.  Christians are not only called to be good stewards of the soul, but good stewards of God’s majestic creation and natural order.

I have long considered myself a conservationist after the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot with a hint of Aldo Leopold’s pragmaticim and Muir’s romanticism.  And while many today refer to themselves as environmentalists, I have long resisted that label, despite the fact that many of the goals and aspirations of “environmentalism,” such as recycling, reducing toxic chemicals, protecting species from extinction, protecting our streams and oceans, and collectively, reducing human’s long term impact on the environment, are things which are noble, entirely good and largely conservative impulses.

The reaction by conservatives and Christians like me against the modern environmental movement is largely a product of existential perspective and disagreement over the means by which society is to achieve conservation ends.  In some respects, modern-day environmentalism has become the new religion, often linked with extremist views at odds with traditional conservative and Christian values.  And on one hand the aspirations of environmentalism may share commonalities with conservativism, the movement has radicalized to a degree that which is conservative, using government and positive law as instruments of economic and political leveling, leaning towards eco-socialism.

While conservatives may share common objectives with liberals in the pursuit of conservation, it is the means by which we pursue such objectives that will continue to set us apart.  While society may correctly decide to use government as one tool to achieve conservation where necessary, we must be ever mindful of risks posed to conservatism and conservationism from environmental accretion; as Burke noted the purpose of “the state is to govern those that are not fit to govern themselves.” Hereto, when and where society is unable to govern and preserve itself, the state serves an important role.  However, as John Randolph argued, when a people begin to think that they can improve society infinitely by incessant alteration of law, nothing remains settled: every right, every bit of property, every one of those dear attachments to the permanence of family, home, and countryside is endangered. (Russell Kirk’s, A Conservative Mind)

Thus, the response of the political right has been to reject everything for which environmentalism stands.  This is unfortunate, but is understandable given the deep seeded historical mistrust of the potential excesses and abuses of an over-reaching, all powerful federal government.

While political conservatives and liberals will never agree on many things, one thing they can agree upon is the need to protect and conserve the environment, which is in the interest of both the human and non-human.  Our most vexing environmental issues are extremely complicated.  To solve these problems, we need a new generation of voices that can courageously and credibly discuss science, can thoughtfully explain the limits of our understanding, can put into perspective the risks of action or inaction, can balance the various wants and needs of society, can properly separate science from policy, and, when necessary, can persuade the public conscience into beneficial action.  When conservatives and those espousing a Christian ethic come to understand that environmental stewardship is truly conservative and truly good, there is an opportunity to make meaningful progress on environmental challenges facing our society and the world at large.