Sustainability: Building a Consensus between Liberals & Conservatives

Typically, in America, environmentalism is seen as a “liberal” issue.  Public perception, especially among liberals, is that liberals care about the environment more than conservatives, and that the solution to environmental problems lies in historically liberal approaches to politics and problem-solving.

However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  There are many ways in which conservative ideals and approaches can be used to preserve, protect, and restore the earth’s ecosystems.  The term “Conservative” even has the same root as the word “Conserve”.  Conservatism, at its essence, is an ideology based on resisting change, and, at times, moving back towards an earlier state of things.  Conservatism also emphasizes tradition, family, and community.

In many respects, western civilization, particularly the United States, has become less sustainable in recent years, as our society has changed in ways that has destroyed community, weakened family life, and increased our negative impact on the environment.  I want to start by presenting skeptics with two powerful concrete examples of how conservatism and sustainability can go hand-in-hand.

Traditionalists and the Natural Foods Movement:

Environmentalists, including many self-identified liberals, in working to conserve resources, and to protect and restore the Earth’s ecosystems, are actually embodying the very essence of conservatism.  Many supposedly novel concepts like organic agriculture and local foods simply represent a move back towards the way agriculture was practiced by humans for thousands of years.  Pictured below is the Central Market in Lancaster, PA.  Such markets, integral in supplying people with fresh, local foods, were once common and widespread.  Lancaster’s market is one of the few that has persisted through the years, and it persisted in large part because Lancaster county residents are so strongly resistant to change–while other communities idly allowed their markets to be replaced by modern supermarkets, people in Lancaster kept shopping at this market and worked through organizations like the Friends of Central Market to keep it vibrant.

Ornate Red Brick Tower in a Small City

The Central Market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

If you enter this market, you will find a number of stands run by Amish and Mennonites selling fresh produce, baked goods, and even quilts.  It is no surprise that the Amish, a group which has been among the staunchest resistors of change in many respects, are leaders in the organic agriculture and natural foods movement.  Millers Natural Foods, an Amish-run store in Bird in Hand, PA, was selling a number of natural products years before most people had ever heard of supermarket chains like Whole Foods.  The Amish, living a strongly religious, family-centered, and community-centered lifestyle that is among the most conservative of any in the U.S., are not only leaders in the natural foods movement, but have also staunchly resisted the use of automobiles, one of the largest contributors to resource use, pollution, and community fragmentation in the U.S.  The Amish are a bold example of conservatism strongly allied to sustainability.

Hunting and Conservation:

Another example of conservation coming from a place that liberals often wouldn’t want to admit is conservation of land driven by hunters.  Hunters, who span a broad range of political views, have a tendency to be more strongly represented among conservatives, and yet hunters are one of the major driving forces behind the conservation movement in the U.S., including the National Wildlife Refuge System and many state and local refuges.  The U.S.’s National Wildlife Refuge System, according to their website, currently contains 150 million acres of land, almost twice the 84.6 million acres managed by the National Park Service (Source).

Many more such lands are preserved through state agencies.  Pictured below is Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  This area is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which manages over 1.4 million acres of game land:

Partly frozen lake in winter, with thousands of snow geese and tundra swans

Middle Creek WMA in Lancaster County, PA is one of many nature preserves that have been created in large part due to the conservation efforts of hunters.

Serious hunters develop an intimate understanding of ecological relationships, understanding the importance of large, undisturbed tracts of habitat and sustainable hunting practices, both of which protect game populations.  These large, intact natural areas have immense ecological value, both for creating clean air and water, for protecting biodiversity, and as every hunter and fisher knows, creating sustainable reserves of meat and fish that is healthy, without the negative environmental impacts of factory farming.

Drawbacks to Liberalism’s Approach to Environmentalism:

Not only do conservatives have something major to offer to the environmentalist movement, there are a lot of ways in which liberalism’s historical approaches are limited in their ability to protect the environment.  In the United States, Liberalism has been closely tied to a regulatory and spending-based approach to problem-solving.  This approach involves the creation of laws, usually at the federal level, which are enforced by large, complex bureaucracies, many of which have their counterparts at the state level.  An example would be the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).  The problem with this approach is that it avoids the root of the problem, and it is often costly and complex, increasing the size of government and the need for taxes.

In the U.S., most environmental destruction and degradation happens as a result of economic incentives, which reward people for decisions that destroy  the environment for personal profit.  The regulatory approach, in the eyes of those critical of it, is like sitting next to a pile of gold with a gun and hoping that you keep anyone from taking any of it.  It’s just a matter of time before someone either sneaks up unnoticed and steals some, or comes along with a bigger gun.  (As often happens in the U.S., metaphorically, when big corporations like BP use their massive wealth to influence the political process to convince regulators like the EPA to turn the other way.)  The way out of this mess is to remove the gold–changing the economic incentives, many of which are created, conservatives would point out, by government spending.

Conservatives, especially Libertarian-leaning conservatives that constitute much of the base of the Republican party in the United States, prefer a different approach.  Conservatives generally want small government and more local control.  They also believe in working through creation of simple, natural economic incentives, rather than regulation, whenever possible.  Rather than create new laws and restrictions, enforced by bureaucracies, they would rather start by paring down the bad aspects of government and eliminating expenditures that create the wrong incentives.

An Example of a Conservative Approach of Promoting Sustainability by Reducing Expenditures: Targeting Agricultural Subsidies:

A good place to start working towards sustainability from a conservative / small government perspective would be elimination or intelligent reduction of agricultural subsidies in the U.S.  Agricultural subsidies in the U.S. currently create incentives for large-scale commercial farms (factory farms) whose farming practices are damaging to the environment and which produce food that is less healthy than fresh food grown by small, local farms.  The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank that liberals would be quick to brand as anti-environmentalism, advocates for a complete removal of such subsidies in their 2007 article Plowing Farm Subsidies Under.  I did some of my own research and also found compelling reasons to support such a change.  The following chart shows how heavily U.S. Agricultural payments are skewed towards supporting factory farms:

Pie Chart of Government Payments to Farms: 62% commercial, 19% residence farms, 19% intermediateThis chart is from the ERS/USDA Website’s page on Farms Receiving Government Payments, which has more detailed information for those curious.  Of the around $10.3 billion in 2008 payments (an amount roughly equal to the EPA’s annual budget), 62% of the payments went to commercial farms, with only 19% reaching rural residence farms (and this figure does not take into account abuses such as large corporations setting up sham corporations as subsidiaries, with a resident owner, to qualify as residence farms).  In addition, only 30% of all rural residence farms received payments, whereas 70% of commercial farms did.  These payments clearly support commercial agriculture more than small farmers.

Our price fixing of various commodities also has devastating human rights and environmental consequences in the third world.  An article originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Why U.S. Farm Subsidies are Bad for the World, argued that U.S. agricultural subsidies create poverty in developing countries.

We Could Find More Examples:

This issue is just one example: there are many types of government expenditures at the federal, state and even local levels which create bad incentives and have negative impacts on sustainability.  Conservatives have an excellent point that it would be prudent, especially when our government is already running a large deficit, to first eliminate expenditures that are having negative environmental impacts, before creating new ones in an attempt to solve environmental problems.

Another example is careless use of highway funding in ways that harm sustainability: Federal highway funding totalled over $40 billion in 2008, and the way these funds are used is closely tied to car and truck use, a major factor in sustainability.  Another expenditure which conservatives have often been resistant to touch, but which is a huge portion of federal spending and can have negative impacts on sustainability, is military spending.  Even though conservatives are generally supporters of a strong military, liberals might find them more cooperative about working towards intelligent paring down of military spending with an eye toward sustainability, if it were presented as an alternative to achieving sustainability through increased regulation and size of government.

Let’s Establish a Consensus between Liberals and Conservatives: We All Care About Sustainability:

The constant fighting between liberals and conservatives in America on environmental issues wastes a lot of energy.  There is a degree to which liberals’ unfair characterization of conservatives as anti-environment has created a form of self-fulfilling prophecy: rather than fight back, conservatives have let liberals own environmentalism, something that in reality should be embraced by all of us.

The bottom line is that each and every American, and indeed, each and every human being in this world, wants clean air and water, and wants a healthy, thriving natural environment that can support us in future generations.  We all want safe, affordable food, free of toxins, and produced in a way that is not damaging to the environment or to current or future generations in any way.  We all care about sustainability. Let us all agree on this.

Clear lake and sky with green trees on the side

Parvin State Park, New Jersey, June 2009

There are legitimate disagreements between the ideology of liberals and conservatives, and these differences run deep and cannot be glossed over.  But let us keep at the forefront of our mind that we are disagreeing on details…we agree on where we want to get.  We just are having a healthy debate about the best way to get there.  Ultimately, the best laws and government are created when we engage in debate and synthesize opposing views to take the best from each side.  With this in mind, we can reach better environmental solutions and attain sustainability more quickly and more easily than if either party were able to implement their views unopposed.

What can you do?

  • Regardless of what your political views are, make a commitment to work towards sustainability in all aspects of your life.
  • If you identify as liberal, talk to your conservative acquaintances and ask them about their ideas for solutions to environmental problems.  Listen, do not argue; you might learn something.  Respect differences in viewpoints and ideology, and emphasize to yourself and to others that it is possible for conservatives to disagree with liberal ideology but still be strongly environmentalist.
  • If you identify as conservative, call liberals out when they tell you that you do not care about the environment, just because you do not agree with the particular approach or plan that they suggest.  Emphasize that you both agree with a common goals and vision of a clean environment, but have very different ideas about how to best realize that vision.  When presented with something you disagree with, think about alternative plans and ideas that you can present that fit with your conservative ideology but work towards achieving these goals, so that you have a positive, constructive suggestion to counter each point you disagree with.
  • If you are a moderate, independent, or someone who falls outside the normal bounds of the liberal – conservative spectrum, help liberals and conservatives to reach a consensus on caring about sustainability, contribute your own novel ideas to the debate, and help us all hash out the details of how to get where we all want to be.
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4 Responses to Sustainability: Building a Consensus between Liberals & Conservatives

  1. watershedmg says:

    Another great post. I always found the semantic contrast between conservation being a “liberal” issue to be odd. There are political divides, and then there are also economic, social, race, and gender divides. I have found that most of the people interested in Watershed Management Group’s work seem to be very similar.

  2. Pingback: Why GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is a Poor Measure of Wealth and Prosperity | Alex Zorach's Blog

  3. Pingback: Announcing the Newark, Delaware Sustainability Initiative | Alex Zorach's Blog

  4. fashainable says:

    We all care about sustainability. Let us all agree on this. *agreed*

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