The Face of Conservative Environmentalism

April 21, 2009

Inevitably, environmental policy succeeds when it has a public face, and fails when it doesn’t. One can go down the list of successful initiatives and see a singular example for it: sick kids at Love Canal, declining Bald Eagle populations for the Endangered Species Act, Al Gore and starving polar bears for global warming, etc.   One of the major problems for environmentalists of the past 50 years has been that their symbols are counterbalanced by equal stark images of human need; starving children in need of industrialized agriculture and functional economies, lumber-industry workers stymied (or killed) by tree-spiking, farmers unable to protect their crops… The list goes on.

One of the few (very few) advantages of environmental decline becoming a fact of life is that this division between ecological issues and their symbols and the economic consequences will increasingly be implausible. As ecosystem instability begins to have real economic consequences, environmentalism will become human in ways it has never really been before.  Characters like Don Pierce, a fisherman in Chesapeake bay whose livelihood is being destroyed by agricultural run-off and the failure of environmentalists to actually deal with the problem, will become more and more common.


Pierce has been working these waters since he was a teenager. Forty-eight years now — already eight years’ experience under his belt when the world marked the first Earth Day in April 1970.

This year is the 40th anniversary, and Pierce is downbeat when assessing the health of the environmental treasure he loves — and on which he depends for his livelihood.

“Too much phosphorous, too much fertilizer, too much untreated waste,” Pierce says.

Where does it come from?

“We the people that live in the Chesapeake watershed mainly. We the people,” he says.

“Save the Bay” has been the region’s environmental cause for decades now. Pierce is both a believer and a skeptic.

“Where is that money going? I mean, you know there is lots of money being donated to help her, but she’s still going downhill. You know, if we were to get a catastrophic storm like a Katrina, she might never recover. You know, that’s how bad she is.”

Of course, people like Pierce have always existed, but its arguable that their increasing prevalence will ultimately force conservatives to begin addressing environmental concerns with more than rote dismissal and misleadingly titled efforts at deregulation. Conservatism from Reagan onwards has prided itself on being on the side of ordinary consumers, whose awareness of environmental issues is often quite limited but whose pocketbooks weigh rather heavily on their consciousness.  Should ecological decline progresses though, these people will be confronted with rising prices for food, energy and other natural resources and declines in the productivity of ecosystem-dependent jobs like farming, fishing, and lumber. The likelihood that voters will accept McCain-style tax tweaking as a solution for what are ultimately questions of market fundamentals will be quite low, but this still leaves the question of how to sell those policies wide open.

That’s why people like Pierce make the ideal face for an economically oriented, human-centered environmentalism that stands a chance with conservative voters.  His situation is powerful, not because of the pity it may evoke, or the concern for the ecosystem his livelihood depends on, but because ordinary Americans will be able to see themselves in his situation, and can see the connection that exists between his economic losses, their shrinking paychecks,  and the rising costs of, well, everything.

Of course, all of this may still be a ways off, but as last summer’s food price spike should demonstrate to everyone, ecological and economic crises can assert themselves quite dramatically in a very short amount of time, and policy elites who are able to adapt stand to gain a great deal.  (Or to lose it to rivals who are more effective in harnessing symbols to their cause.)


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