Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Conservationist Divorce: Conservatives and Environmentalists

Being Green is difficult. These days, the average American is assailed on all sides by his government, his neighbors, his children’s school, his workplace, the media, and the United Federation of Planets to eat green, think green, sleep green, drive green, shop green, breathe green, love green, fund green, LIVE GREEN!  Especially these last several years, there has been significant and hyperbolic discussion of being green or, to draw it out a bit, being environmentally friendly. The big talk was Global Warming, and while the intensity of that debate has diminished as Americans look to more immediate concerns, the overall questions regarding environmental stewardship remain.

All in all, I think most Americans like the idea of some small environmental protection, as long as they don’t have to go too far out of their way to do it. People don’t mind buying those mercurial light bulbs, because they also save money. Recycling is another easy one. It keeps things clean and orderly, and is no great personal cost to us. When the question comes up of drilling for oil in Alaska though, or drilling for oil offshore, or installing carbon emission taxes, things get much more difficult. There is a more powerful Green that dominates the American psyche right now, and for many people the first and foremost concern with environmental regulation and preservation is how hard it will hit the average American in his pocketbook. As with many social and governmental programs, there are local efforts and there are national efforts. A lot of the time, Americans don’t mind if their city council establishes rigorous recycling laws or limits on trash pick-up, because the fruits of these programs are much more visible, are closer to home, and lend to the sense of community. Impositions at a larger, federal level often feel impersonal and inefficient. People have to deal with the inconvenience, but seldom see or feel the rewards. To use the Alaskan example, most Americans don’t see or appreciate the pristine Alaskan tundra, nor do they find caribou migration to be especially compelling. As such, that is a much harder sell than fishing limits on the local lake or diverting the new highway around the park instead of through it.

The average birder though, is not the average American. Birders have a bit of a different disposition. In the birding community, one is wont to find all manner of eccentric, enjoyable, enthusiastic, and/or polemical people. There is often a strong undercurrent of preservationist/conservationist philosophies with many birders, as with birding organizations such as the Audubon Society. If you visit the Maricopa Audubon website, the largest link on the home page is to see “Graphic Impact of Cattle Grazing on Riparian Ecosystems.”

However, in my experiences many birders also lean towards the Republican/conservative parties. Even though their hobby is largely dependent on the preservation of bird habitats, many birders are not overly concerned with conservation. They are often suspicious of the suggestion. The economic costs and other political philosophies and agendas that are often lumped in with environmentalism, or rather the environmentalist political parties, can be off-putting. I’ve noticed this is often the case with retirees who had already formed their political allegiances before they picked up birding. There are also many birders who prefer to avoid political conflict; indeed they find part of the birding attraction to be its removal from politics. Keeping in mind the American preference for self-reliance and minimum interference, I imagine the often overt and heated rhetoric of extreme environmentalists is alienating for these birders, who prefer to see the birds and check their lists without having to be reminded that their lack of support has doomed the lesser prairie chicken population. In the birding community, as in America, there are the liberals and the conservatives, and the external pressure of environmental protection often weighs on the relationships between liberal and conservative birders, as it does on the relationship between birders and their birds.

With the intense political rhetoric and upheaval of today, the bridge between liberals and conservatives seems especially impossible to cross. Debates over the national deficit, economic stimulus health care, and foreign policy have left few non-partisans, and the lines between Republicans and Democrats are pretty firmly drawn. Despite the vast and seemingly irreconcilable differences in the political sphere, I believe that it is actually in nature, at least as it pertains to birding, that liberals and conservatives can find their common ground. It was during a recent discussion (found towards the bottom of the comments, here) with the ABA’s conservationist firebrand Ted Eubanks that it occurred to me: conservatives and conservationists have a lot in common.

Although it is the political liberal who is typically associated with the wacko environmentalist, and the conservative who is viewed as the deer-hating tree gobbler, the conservationist philosophy is at play with both ideologies. Conservatives want to preserve their culture and heritage. Even at the risk of stubbornness and intransigence, they will chain themselves to the tree that is historic America and withstand the bulldozers of modernity and globalization. The environmentalists are also conservatives. They do not focus on social conservatism, but are instead preoccupied with conserving what they see as America’s greatest heritage, its for spacious skies, its purple mountains, its fruited plains, etc. Political conservatives prioritize differently, but the motivation is pretty similar. Both groups see something(s) great and essential being potentially lost in America, and that has come to dominate their political action.As something of a conservative myself, it seems to me that the social/political conservatives have more to worry about. When I was younger and more intemperate, I was content to let environmental conservation take a back seat to more pressing social issues. While those issues may still be more pressing, I’ve reconciled my conservatism with a conservation of the environment, both as a home to my beloved birds, and as an essential part of my beloved America. This doesn’t mean I think Cap and Trade was a good idea, or that I am against drilling in Alaska, but I don’t find the overt environmentalist racket so unbearable anymore, because there is a common value to be shared there. I wish the Audubon Society would spend more time actually developing birding program and less time lobbying to set aside yet more swampland, but I’m glad that, on different levels, the conservative mentality is alive in America. 


  1. As a birder, I am an enivornmentalist, though with a lower case "e" perhaps. I am also a political conservative and a conservation-minded Scout. I used to be a home builder and land developer and did my darnedest within my circle of influence to create wildlife friendly communities. My problem with much of the green movement is that it is mostly "green-washing". Many so-called "green" products are not as green as what we have traditionally used when you take a look at where that product came from all the way back to the material sources. The big difference between my environmentalism and others is that I still believe that most humans actually care about nature and its beauty and want to conserve it. We don't need the force of law (the point of gun) to tell us to conserve while at the same time robbing us of our natural rights and freedom. Rather than increase the tax burden on the citizenry, I'd like to see more private groups find ways to fund the preservation of or to restore the pristine wilderness. Too many people these days feel like everything is impossible unless the government doesn't because of the natural tendency toward "greed". The tells me that they have given up on the good in humanity. I choose to live with optimism that many people want to do and be good. Perhaps our motivation toward excellence should not be for money and power, but more spiritual. Even people that don't have religious beliefs can have a spiritual life focused on nature. The development of the human mind and talents and the sharing of those talents with the rest of the world can be spiritual too. Our species is certainly greater than what we have become.

  2. That's well said Robert, thanks for weighing in. I agree that most any conservationist effort, like conservatism, is best served at the local and individual levels.

  3. Excellent argument. As a naturalist, birder, and former educator, I am personally amazed at just how many people 'don't have a clue', and in that class, I include many politicians. I prefer to think they are clueless as opposed to just not caring enough.