Putting the Conservation Back In Conservative: Part I

by Andrew Grandahl

Very often, we can become jaded by the polarization of our political culture. Red versus blue, Democrat versus Republican - the media plays off of this dichotomy and Americans are pushed even further apart. With all the divisive rhetoric to contend with, it’s understandable that sometimes we feel like we have more in common with a Martian than with our neighbor who voted for the “wrong” candidate. In the era of Trump, where science-denial is the adopted stance of the federal government, it’s absolutely critical we find ways to reach out to our neighbors and discover common ground to create viable solutions to our problems. Sometimes, this will require changing our approach dramatically, voicing different parts of the same problem, and creating solutions that both fiscal conservatives and environmentalist liberals can agree upon. This two-part piece explores these ideas, and challenges the traditional approach of progressive environmental politics in order to foster new alliances and to actualize solutions.

Yosemite National Park is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was one of the first protected parks designated by the United States National Parks Service 1864. 

Yosemite National Park is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was one of the first protected parks designated by the United States National Parks Service 1864. 

Carved most deeply into the facade of iconic Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, is the face of the greatest conservation president in the history of the United States, a Republican by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt espoused a highly pragmatic form of conservation, believing that the natural resources of the country were gifts meant to be used to advance society. Yet he was equally committed to what he referred to as “conservation as a national duty.” TR subscribed to the mindset championed by the first head of the United States Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot: that the nation’s lands should be put to their most industrious use, while simultaneously ensuring they are protected and capable of producing for generations to come.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park in 1906

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park in 1906

These ideas stood in contrast to Sierra Club founder John Muir’s more romanticized view of conservation. Muir believed nature should be protected purely because of the beauty and spiritual inspiration it provides. Pinchot and Muir regularly and publicly quarreled on the approach to natural resource management, to the point where they ended their relationship in 1897. However, Roosevelt and Muir maintained their friendship. The president wrote Muir in March of 1903, requesting a personal tour of Yosemite, stating in the letter “I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” He visited Yosemite shortly after Muir’s response and invitation, and the two camped in the open air of Glacier Point, awakening to fresh snowfall. The experience left an indelible impression on Roosevelt, and his conversations with Muir during the trip convinced him of the need for federal regulation of public lands going forward. Although the two disagreed on much of the reasoning behind protecting our natural resources, Roosevelt still placed 230-million acres of land under public protection during his presidency. He knew that although to many the landscapes and wildlife of the nation seemed vast and unending, without regulating deforestation and hunting, future generations would inherit increasingly diminished fractions of that former glory. With his fellow party members telling him these resources were simply inexhaustible, Roosevelt took a stand and created a legacy that is still enjoyed by millions of Americans and international visitors today.

There is a lesson in this story. Although Muir and Roosevelt’s motivations stemmed from different places, they were able to achieve an outcome that satisfied them both. Roosevelt’s view on conservation was ultimately to serve the economic interest and competitive edge of the United States, but it also fulfilled the purpose of sustaining the lands and their natural resources for the future. Being a conservationist is important for preserving that which we find beautiful and inspirational, but it is also critical in maintaining economic health.

The 20th century brought with it many large shifts in social and political thought. The environmental and social progress of the 60’s and 70’s was countered by the conservatism and free-market economics of the 80’s and 90’s. Republican ideologies became associated primarily with economic growth and social issues, and the environment fell to the wayside. Somewhere along the way, the conservation fell out of conservative, barely a memory of the former Republican identity.

Today, there is evidence that that is changing. Meet Debbie Dooley. Debbie describes herself as “…a staunch, right-wing, radical conservative and I believe - I know this is something many don’t agree with - but I believe conservation is a conservative principle.”

Debbie is inspiring and insightful, charismatic and steadfast. She is a conservative to her core and proud of it, and for her, that conservative identity also encompasses preserving our environment for future generations. It’s a no-nonsense, logical approach to conservation and to our energy markets. Debbie is dead-set on cutting through the misinformation out there pertaining to renewables, and on exposing the true costs of fossil fuels. She’s done an impressive job of getting many of her fellow Republicans on board, but her talking points have nothing to do with emotional pleas to save the rainforests, or alarming statistics on the rate of glacial melting. To quote her from a recent interview with Vox:

My dad is a retired baptist minister. He told me that in order to get people to hear your message, you have to get them in the church. That is a mistake that a lot of environmentalists make when talking to conservatives and Republicans about solar, about clean energy - they lead off with climate change. That is the wrong message. If you deliver the message of energy freedom, energy choice, competition, national security, innovation, all of a sudden you will have a receptive audience and they will listen to you.

Freedom of choice. Free-market competition. Supporting the military. These are not talking points many environmentalists often bring up in when it comes to fighting climate change. But they are ideals that are brought about in many ways by introducing more clean, local energy into our grids, and they are absolute pillars of traditional conservatism.

If an individual has the initial money to invest, they could choose to install a solar array on their own property with battery storage, and greatly if not entirely decrease their dependence on corporate utilities. If the United States sources its energy entirely from domestic renewables, we hugely diminish our need for foreign conflicts over fossil fuels, helping to keep our troops safe. And all of this also involves significant money savings once the initial infrastructure investments are done. Saving money, protecting our troops, and increased independence. The conservative American ideal of rugged individualism has never looked so within reach.

The benefits don’t end there. One of the things Debbie has been focused on that has helped her cause immensely is explaining the reality behind energy subsidies. Conservative media often exaggerates the cost of renewables subsidies, while frequently failing to even mention fossil fuel subsidies at all (which are far, far greater than subsidies for renewables). Debbie has helped spread information about solar subsidies in particular, and about the hidden costs of fossil fuels.

“Solar does have subsidies, but all of the energy forms have been subsidized. Coal received its first subsidy in 1932 and is still receiving massive subsidies. Nuclear is heavily subsidized. There’s oil companies that are actually drilling and doing exploration on land owned by taxpayers and, in many cases, they don’t have to pay any royalties whatsoever or pay a leasing on that…. You don’t hear anybody talking about [fossil fuel] subsidies.”

In 2013 in Georgia, Dooley was instrumental in defeating the Koch brother-backed group Americans for Prosperity, who were distributing false anti-solar propaganda to combat a pro-solar initiative Debbie and others were encouraging the Georgia Public Service Commission to take on. Dooley explained her victory to Planet Experts, “Previous to 2013, conservatives were just hearing ‘we need to go solar because of climate change’ and all that. I presented a different message: A free market choice competition and empowering the consumers.”

Dooley’s efforts paid off, and Georgia, a traditionally red state, is now one of the top states in the U.S. when it comes to creating clean energy jobs. The citizens and politicians of Georgia are feeling the economic benefits of renewables, and environmentalists are seeing the continued phasing-out of fossil fuels in American energy grids. Talk about a win-win. I think John Muir and President Roosevelt would be proud.