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Danielle Butcher

Beyond Greta

Young conservatives want to protect the environment too

Today, the term “environmentalism” often conjures up powerful images of youth protesters and progressive politicians. Progressives have staked their claim on the environmental movement, yet, over the last few decades, we have seen little progress. There are many reasons for this, one of the most important being that it is a steadier, more understated approach that will carry the impact we are looking for -- conservatism.

It is a common misconception that an ideology grounded in economic growth, individualism, and limited government cannot properly care for our natural world. And yet, conservatism is also grounded in tradition, love of country, intergenerational loyalty, and personal responsibility. With these values, conservatism is not only up to the task of environmental conservation, but better equipped than progressivism.

Let’s begin with tradition, which extends beyond the confines of religion, family, and ritual, applying also to our natural heritage. A commitment to conserving the wonders of the natural world for posterity provides a roadmap with which to guide environmental decisions. This natural heritage passed down generation after generation is perfectly linked to our identity as a nation, and so love of country, too, compels us to care for and steward that which we call home.

As we face enormous challenges such as climate change and ocean pollution, it is naive to believe this stewardship can be left to the government, which more often than not results in the expansion of the state and little else. This government-led approach has failed our environment time and time again, yet we continue to rely on it, despite two often-overlooked, fundamental flaws.

The first is that while well-intentioned, governments are ill-equipped to handle challenges such as these, as they approach the issue from the top-down. Instead, our approach must be localized and based in the community. It is up to each individual to take responsibility, play their part, and contribute to a society  which chooses to prioritize conservation efforts. While some may argue that this model lends itself to collectivism, the key difference is that the conservative approach begins with the individual and results in a community, while the progressive approach begins and ends with government alone. For lasting results, a culture of sustainability must be nurtured in the community rather than forced by the hand of government.

The second reason for the state’s ineffectiveness is that where conservatism participates in active conservation, progressivism leans on preservation. However, in many cases preservation is not enough. While some environmentalists would prefer we fence off our natural places to protect them, a conservative approach to conservation instead says that we should enjoy and interact with our environment, so long as we leave it as beautiful as we found it. Active conservation understands that we not only need to take care of natural ecosystems, but we ourselves are an integral part of natural ecosystems, and this interaction allows an affinity for our wild places to develop, therefore increasing the incentive to steward resources.

Conservatism is often chastised for being the ideology of elitism, when in fact it is conservatism that recognizes the unique role each individual plays in society. Through this ideology, we can champion solutions that give power back to the people. While bureaucrats spend their time regulating how to care for land, hunters, fishers, and farmers spend their time living on it, working with it, and connecting to it. From the passionate hunter to the dedicated farmer, conservatives all over the United States care deeply about responsibly managing our natural resources and making sure that our natural places stay healthy and beautiful -- their livelihood and quality of life depends on it.

The truth is that conservatives are natural conservationists: through tradition, love of country, individualism, and yes, even markets, we can promote actionable solutions to the environmental challenges we face, and leave our environment in a better state for future generations.

Even values that may at first seem in opposition to environmentalism, such as economic growth, can be used as an asset. It is Sir Roger Scruton who makes the case that “while markets cannot solve all our environmental problems, and are indeed the cause of some of them, the alternatives are almost always worse.” This is not to pretend that markets are the only institution we must utilize, but to acknowledge that they ought to be the first. Scruton’s observation articulates that while there is not a perfect solution or approach, some are certainly better than others. Markets, in contrast to government, are self-correcting, and thus able to more quickly adapt, change course, and meet the challenges of today. They are our best tool for the distribution of resources, development of technology, and creation of incentives necessary for a sustainable future. A market-led approach, when applied correctly, can effectively tackle many of the challenges we face.

Historically speaking, some of the very best conservationist presidents in the United States were also conservatives. From the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by Richard Nixon, to George H.W. Bush, who signed key amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, the American conservative movement has a strong record on the environment. Teddy Roosevelt, the name-sake for the bicameral Roosevelt Conservation Caucus in both the House and Senate, has become an icon across party lines for his work on national parks. This history is too often forgotten when it should instead be embraced as a part of our legacy.

While the figureheads of today’s Republican party may not spend time making the case for environmentalism, rather than lamenting this it is now my generation of conservatives’ duty to stake our flag and demonstrate that conservatism and conservation are intrinsic to one another, ensuring we return to our shared heritage and tradition. Fortunately, we have guidance from intellectual giants of conservatism such as Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Roger Scruton.

The false narrative that conservatives do not care for the environment because they do not favor increased government intervention must end. Environmental success is not an inevitable consequence of larger government and more spending, and the effectiveness of environmental action should not be measured by the costs and investments associated with a policy. The truth is that conservatives are natural conservationists: through tradition, love of country, individualism, and yes, even markets, we can promote actionable solutions to the environmental challenges we face, and leave our environment in a better state for future generations.