I like to think this blog manages to explore "the intersection of history and the environment from a (fairly) non-partisan perspective" as Tigerhawk kindly describes Walking the Berkshires. I hope it manages to be engaging as well, and if "occasionally nettlesome" that this is not merely an irritant but considered and thought-provoking. That doesn't mean I am apolitical, however, or indifferent to the role that politics play in the issues confronting the environment and our collective memory of the past. If I valued my marriage less highly, I might seriously have contemplated a dark horse run for the US Senate one of these days (having first done my adversaries a favor by compiling my dirty laundry in one neat package in this corner of the blogosphere). That, or perhaps become a trial attorney - not that there's anything wrong with that. Luckily, it does all come down to values, and there is little danger of either eventuality coming to pass. Joe Lieberman can rest easier at night knowing I won't be coming after him in 2012...
I mention all this because I've been giving a good deal of thought to the politicization of conservation issues and the wedge that partisanship drives between those who share more environmental values than they might suspect, or are encouraged to believe. I've been working out a thesis of sorts in the rough and tumble cock pit of the right-of- center blogosphere, where Al Gore has been taking lumps as a "Chicken Green" for preaching conservation values while living excessively and unsustainably, and it boils down to this:
Interests trump positions if the dealer doesn't cheat. If he does, though, all bets are off.
It is no accident that Gore comes under fire after the self-congratulatory gushing of the "Greenest" academy awards and the two Oscars won by his documentary on global warming "An Inconvenient Truth". He probably deserves it. As a rule, practice what you preach is a requirement if you want to convince others to follow your example, and Gore is unfortunately vulnerable here, which is a pity because then the messenger becomes more important than the message.
Certainly, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are part of the job for leaders working to set the national agenda or change our collective behavior. Those assaults brought on themselves, however, with the inevitable feet of clay, become a lightning rod for movement detractors. Lord knows there are plenty of stones lying about and in the absence of anyone blameless, one can easily find others quite willing to cast them. Something in the American psyche seems to love the group activity of setting up pins just to knock them down.
We also detest hypocrisy, although will make allowances for our tarnished idols when their transgressions are outweighed by the benefits of their efforts (or by their conversion, if claiming to be born again: today's equivalent of medieval indulgences or perhaps Monopoly's "Get out of jail free" card).
This is indeed all about values, and whether they will be used to unite or divide us. It is also about class resentment of the moralizing of cultural elites, and the disenfranchisement of those who live on the land and are most deeply effected by natural resource management decisions made outside their communities and reinforced by more numerous suburban and urban voters. It is about private property and shared resources that everyone uses but nobody owns. It is about the proper role of government, of private enterprise, and most of all about whose behavior should change, and how, and why.
These are huge factors and make for a very tense and politicized conflict. There is another way to approach it, however, and its strength is that it is both "values based" and inclusive. It starts by recognizing that conservation is mainstream and justifiably a conservative as well as liberal value. I wrote the following yesterday in the comments at Tigerhawk to elaborate:
...I refuse to accept that conservatives don't care about conservation. After all, the root word is the same ,and not by accident. Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection - yes there is such an entity and they are far from RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] - makes the comparison crystal clear:
"The truth is that conservation IS conservative, rooted in traditional conservative values. Such as:
Freedom and responsibility
And prudence -- the cardinal conservative virtue.
These values are our values. These words are our words. We must not allow them to be stolen from us, twisted into weapons, and brandished in our faces."
It was not just the grand old men of the Grand Old Party who once made conservation a signature part of the Republican agenda: TR, Baxter and the rest. Hoover Institution Fellow Terry Anderson notes;
"This Republican action marked the beginning of the political conservation movement that ultimately grew into today’s environmental leviathan. In fact, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act all have deep Republican roots."
Furthermore, there are many self-identified conservationists who understand the value and importance of market forces and private initiative for sustaining the lands and waters we and other species need to survive. But don't take my word for it. Steve Sailor of vdare.com makes the point exceedingly well:
"(M)any environmentalists understand market economics much better today than in the past. (For example, Wilson's new book The Future of Life is reasonably hardheaded about need to enlist the mighty engine of capitalism in the preservation of biodiversity.) In fact, the greens sometimes grasp economics better than the libertarians, who often fail to comprehend the crucial role of government in establishing and maintaining property rights. For instance, the oceans are being badly overfished today precisely because nobody owns a fish until they've caught it. That's why professional fishermen support stringent government controls on their right to make a living, including even the recent two year shut down of the entire New England deep sea fishing industry. Left to the free market, the fishermen know they'd put themselves permanently out of business."
There is no reason that I can see, aside from the politics of division and short-sighted self interest, for those on either side of the aisle to denigrate or devalue our shared interest in clean air, clean water, nice places to live and work and recreate, and the values - individual as well as collective - that we place on special places. We may differ on the best means for achieving these goals, but for the vast majority of us conservation matters and has to be part of any policy making calculus. It is, after all, a great act of patriotism to conserve the homeland for the benefit of future generations...
I'll close for now where I left things at Tigerhawk with two questions:
1) What do you cherish about the place where you make your home and
2) What has changed in the time you have lived there?
The answer to the first question will highlight what we value about home and community and place and the answer to the second will underscore that changes are at work, larger than ourselves or our individual communities, that impact these values.
This, I believe, is where conservation questions should start. When I ask these questions in Northwest Connecticut - where every town jealously guards its right to home rule and its unique identity - people overwhelmingly talk about the rural character of our communities and the environmental qualities of this landscape. They all say they value clean water, farms and farmland, the look and feel of our small towns, the importance of community and the natural beauty of our surroundings. They all express concern about the rapid growth of development, the loss of affordable housing, the collapse of our farm-based economy, the loss of open space, and changes in the demographics of our communities.
These are shared interests. Understanding the root causes of these changes is the hard part and we come at it from very different perspectives and with different expectations about what can and should be done. But they are shared interests and have everything to do with the role that conservation can play in safeguarding what we value and sustaining what is special about our environment, our landscape and our communities through the changes that come.
Like the Frog says...