Why environmentalism is conservative

Guest post: If you view safeguarding our environment as a great moral responsibility, perhaps it's your inner conservative talking.

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David Jenkins

President, Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship

Editor’s note: There are a lot of reasons to support the environment. Many are consistent with core conservative values. Unsurprisingly then, one of our important allies on environmental campaigns is Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship. Here’s a piece from the group’s president about the ways in which a truly conservative philosophy is not only consistent with environmental stewardship, but demands it.

A lot of folks, both on the political left and the political right, are under the impression that safeguarding the environment is a liberal thing. And it’s no wonder, the media has a bad habit of referring to any policy that weakens environmental protection as “conservative.”

To be fair, such policies are typically proposed by decision-makers on the political right who claim to be conservative. But there’s a big flaw in such assumptions. Just because a politician claims to be conservative doesn’t make it so. 

In fact, many elected officials on the political right today are not actually conservatives. If they hue to any political ideology,  they are anti-government libertarians who label themselves “conservative,” perhaps to broaden their appeal.

Many of the folks driving today’s political right are more libertarian than conservative. In general, hard right libertarians subscribe to an ideology that elevates personal liberty and material gain above other values. They also see the government, almost exclusively, as an agent of oppression. Not only does this make them more receptive to arguments made by industry lobbyists against environmental regulations, it makes them largely blind to the dangers posed by individual and corporate corruption.

That libertarian ideology actually has a lot in common with the “if it feels good, do it” attitude of the 1960s hippie movement on the left. That movement was similarly anti-government, often railing against it as “The Man.”

By contrast, genuine conservatism recognizes the fallibility of man, the limitations of self-interest, and that freedom and responsibility must go hand in hand.

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An eagle in the mist

Conservative thinkers

The father of modern conservatism was an 18th century British statesman named Edmund Burke. He recognized that a civil society cannot exist unless it provides an adequate check on individual behavior, and therefore viewed the government as essential to maintaining order.

Burke described the role of government like this: “Somewhere there must be control upon will and appetite; the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without.” In other words, the more an individual cannot control his or her selfish or greed-driven behavior, the more the government has to step in.

Other aspects of genuine conservatism include being prudent, resisting hasty or ill-considered change, defending tradition, and leaving a better world for future generations.

It is no accident that conservative and conservation come from the same root word: conserve.

One of our nation’s most influential conservative minds, American political theorist Russell Kirk, once opined “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.”

Kirk did not view libertarians as being the least bit conservative. In fact, he once famously pointed out that “The Devil was the original libertarian.”

Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher

President Ronald Reagan echoed those words at the grand opening of the National Geographic headquarters when he rhetorically asked, “What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live.”

He is talking about environmental stewardship.

In that same speech, referring to America’s natural landscapes—its rivers, mountains, plains, meadows and forests—he said “This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.”

To be fair, President Reagan had a mixed record on the environment, but most folks would be surprised to learn that Reagan signed the first ever climate bill into law, a bill authored by none other than Joe Biden.

Reagan’s climate accomplishments didn’t end there, he also pushed through the Montreal Protocol treaty to address ozone depletion. That treaty, which has been hailed as the most successful environmental treaty in history, not only phased out ozone-depleting chemicals, but has also cut a significant amount of other greenhouse gas emissions.

Another conservative, President Richard Nixon, created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He also signed into law most of our nation’s landmark environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act,  the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act–laws that passed Congress with near unanimous bipartisan support.

One of the earliest politicians sounding the alarm about climate change was conservative British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. In the early 1990s she gave passionate speeches at the United Nations and at World Climate Conference gatherings about the urgent need to address climate change.

At the 1990 World Climate Conference Thatcher said, “We must remember our duty to Nature before it is too late. That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe. It endures as we eat and sleep, work and rest, as we are born and as we pass away…It will weigh on our shoulders for as long as we wish to dwell on a living and thriving planet, and hand it on to our children and theirs.”

Thatcher’s words truly evoke values that are essential to traditional conservatism. Unfortunately, for some conservative pretenders in the far right “MAGAverse,” these genuine conservative values have been discarded on the altar of greed, tribalism and grievance politics.

Just perhaps…

If you consider yourself a diehard progressive or liberal, and you view safeguarding our environment as a great moral responsibility, then perhaps…just perhaps, that is your inner conservative talking.


David Jenkins

President, Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship

David has written and spoken extensively about many of today’s most pressing environmental issues, our nation’s conservation heritage, conservatism and politics. Early in his career, he was on the legislative staff for Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico).

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