The midterm elections are approaching fast, and as usual the environment is considered a Democratic issue.
I had no problem with that when I was fighting strip mines in Ohio in 1973; environmentalism was synonymous with leftist politics. In the early '80s, when a friend told me someone named Dave Foreman was forming an environmental group named EarthFirst, I was among the first to become involved.
Now that I'm older, I've come to believe that an automatic identification between the left and the environmental movement is neither good for the environment nor for environmentalism. The main reason for this change of mind and heart is that I've become convinced that the private sector is more effective than government at producing just about anything, healthy ecosystems included.
In 30 years of activism, the most impressive environmental successes I've encountered were achieved by individuals operating according to principles that make up the conservative playbook. In each case, individual initiative, personal accountability, the free market and rewards for results were more effective at saving endangered species, healing damaged ecosystems in the West, and even combating global warming than the government alternative of regulation.
Take just one example: In Arizona, in 1946, the Forest Service created the Drake Exclosure to protect a tract of damaged rangeland from grazing and human use under the assumption that this would restore it to ecological health. Sixty years later, 90 percent of the plant species within the exclosure have disappeared, and the distance between plants can be measured in yards. But outside the exclosure, on land that has continued to be grazed under the management of a responsible rancher, the distance between plants can be measured in inches. Leftist environmentalists have lobbied to expand the preserve to include the rest of the ranch. Conservative environmentalists have commended the rancher for his success and proposed to leave the preserve so the rest of us can learn what it teaches. Examples like this got me to thinking that the reason environmental problems seem so hard to solve may be because the knee-jerk methods we use to deal with them are so ineffective.
This leads to a significant question: Why have environmentalists chosen the leftist approach of command and control, which is a confirmed loser and unnatural to boot, over an approach based on conservative principles? The answer came when I took success stories in the West to my environmental peers. I knew how most environmentalists feel about everything voluntary and not legally buttoned down, so, when I told them what I had discovered, I wasn't surprised that that they were defensive. What did surprise me was their total lack of interest in how people they normally think of as adversaries had succeeded in dealing with problems such as over-grazing that had stymied them for decades.
After a few years of this, I was the one who finally got the message. I concluded that many people who call themselves environmentalists are more interested in installing prescriptions than in achieving success on the ground. For them, environmental issues are a means to achieve liberal political ends rather than the other way around. In fact, that's how many environmentalists measure success — in the number of acres brought under government control, in laws passed, in regulations created, and in the election of politicians committed to increasing all of the above. That's why my environmental listeners weren't interested in the successes I described to them.
Liberals deal with problems by applying policies such as a living wage, affirmative action, universal health-care. Conservatives are more apt to work to create a situation in which people can use their creativity and initiative to produce a product for which there is a demand and, therefore, a reward.
An environmentalism based on conservative principles would determine success and dispense rewards for achieving results. This would change the face of the environmental debate entirely. Among other things, it would expand the number of people involved in environmental issues. It would do so by giving people on the right, many of whom are as concerned about environmental problems as liberals, an environmental strategy to support that did not require them to sign on to something they oppose, which can be summed up as increased regulation and bigger government. It would also offer an alternative to what currently passes for a conservative environmentalism — discounting the seriousness of environmental problems so it can be claimed that tighter regulation is unnecessary.
Creating an environmentalism that is truly conservative would give all of us a means to set goals in terms of environmental criteria, such as healthier habitat, more functional watersheds and a rebound for native or endangered species, and it would reward those who were able to achieve those goals. What we're doing now produces more regulations than results.
Dan Dagget is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Santa Barbara, California, and is the author of The Gardeners of Eden: Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature.
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