I’ve been having a lot of personal and online conversations about environmentalism with self-described conservatives lately, and noticed an interesting trend. All agree in theory with the root concept of environmentalism. They all agree that we need to be good stewards of the land, air, and water upon which we rely. But they still bristle about environmentalism, because they see it as “restrictive.” The agenda of the movement has been referred to by such terms as “draconian,” “coercive,” “autocratic,” and “repressive.” According to their philosophy, environmental protection and stewardship should be advanced through non-coercive and non-punitive means.
It’s a wonderful idea. Sadly, it doesn’t work in the real world. Exhibit A: Utah. Our conservative legislature has persistently maintained an attitude ideologically opposed to regulation, insisting that individual agency is the best method of environmental stewardship. This year, the only bills related to pollution or the environment making headway through the Utah legislature are a message bill discouraging federal legislation based on the “global climate conspiracy” (despite opposition from BYU and U of U scientists, who are apparently part of the nefarious global climate cabal) and bills whose purpose is to enable increased extraction of fossil fuels in Utah—fuels the consumption of which contribute to air pollution. And the fruits of this attitude and agenda? Utah can lay claim to the worst air quality in the nation.
Many people of all stripes are sincerely concerned about the environment, and make laudable efforts to minimize their environmental impact on a voluntary basis. Despite the fearmongering of the Right, no one supports a green police a la the absurd and insulting Audi Superbowl commercial. But without any sort of restrictions— “coercive” though some might consider it—there is too much incentive for society collectively to pollute the public commons upon which we all rely for life. There must be rules based on an understanding of the the limitations of the ecosystem which prevent us—”draconian” though that may seem to some—collectively from damaging the environment (and ultimately each other). Unrestrained consumption/pollution and the sort of sprawling exurban communities which maximize automotive use, and which conservatives seem to favor, are simply unsustainable in our geographic circumstances. Some combination of pollution tax, restriction on polluting activities, and reorganization of our communities is imperative if we want to avoid the increasing harm to human health associated with air pollution. Given that government is the only entity which has the authority to do these things, the Reagan mantra is wrong: government is in part the solution. The idea that government has no role in using its power to prevent people from harming others by their consumption decisions? That’s the problem.