11 Conservation and Conservatism

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The philosophy of free-market conservatism has swept the political

field virtually everywhere, and virtually everywhere conservatives

have been, in varying degrees, hostile to the cause of conservation.

This is a problem of great consequence for the long-term human

prospect because of the sheer political power of conservative governments.

Conservatism and conservation share more than a common

linguistic heritage. Consistently applied they are, in fact, natural allies.

To make such a case, however, it is necessary first to say what conservatism


Conservative philosopher Russell Kirk (1982, xv–xvii) proposes

six “first principles” of conservatism. Accordingly, true conservatives:

• believe in a transcendent moral order

• prefer social continuity (i.e., the “devil they know to the

devil they don’t know”)

• believe in “the wisdom of our ancestors”

• are guided by prudence

• “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established

social institutions”

• believe that “human nature suffers irremediably from certain


For Kirk the essence of conservatism is the “love of order” (1982,

xxxvi). Eighteenth-century British philosopher and statesman Edmund

Burke, the founding father of modern conservatism and as

much admired as he is unread, defined the goal of order more specifically

as one which harmonized the distant past with the distant future.

To this end Burke thought in terms of a contract, but not one

about “things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary

and perishable nature.” Burke’s societal contract was not, in

other words, about tax breaks for those who don’t need them, but

about a partnership promoting science, art, virtue, and perfection,

none of which could be achieved by a single generation without veneration

for the past and a healthy regard for those to follow. Burke’s

contract, therefore,was between “those who are living, those who are

dead, and those who are to be born . . . linking the lower with the

higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world” ([1790]

1986, 194–195). The role of government, those “possessing any portion

of power,” in Burke’s words, “ought to be strongly and awefully

impressed with an idea that they act in trust” (ibid., 190). For Burke,

liberty in this contractual state was “not solitary, unconnected, individual,

selfish Liberty. As if every man was to regulate the whole of his

conduct by his own will.” Rather, he defined liberty as “social freedom.

It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality

of restraint” (quoted in O’Brien 1992, 390).

As the ecological shadow of the present over future generations

has lengthened, the wisdom of Burke’s concern for the welfare of future

generations has become more evident. Moreover, if conservatism

means anything at all other than the preservation of the rules by

which one class enriches itself at the expense of another, it means the

conservation of what Burke called “an entailed inheritance derived to

us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an

estate belonging to the people” (Burke [1790] 1986, 119). Were

Burke alive today, there can be no doubt that he would agree that this

inheritance must include not only the laws, traditions, and customs of

society, but also the ecological foundations on which law, tradition,

custom, and public order inevitably depend. A society that will not

conserve its topsoil cannot preserve social order for long. A society

that wastes its natural heritage like a spendthrift heir can build only

the most fleeting prosperity, leaving all who follow in perpetual misery.

And those societies that disrupt the earth’s biogeochemical balances

and destroy its biota are the most radical of all. If not restrained,

they could force all thereafter to live in an ecological ruin and impoverishment

that we can scarcely imagine.

In light of Burke’s view that society is a contract between the living,

the dead, and those to be born, what can be said about the conservatism

of contemporary conservatives? What, for instance, is conservative

about conservatives’ support for below market-cost grazing

fees that federal agencies charge ranchers for their use of public

lands? Welfare for ranchers runs against conservatives’ supposed antipathy

for handouts to anyone. But that’s a quibble. The more serious

issue concerns the ecological effects of overgrazing which result from

underpricing the use of public lands. Throughout much of the American

West, the damage to the ecology of fragile ecosystems is serious

and increasing, with worse yet to come. In a matter of decades these

trends will jeopardize a way of life and a ranching economy that can

be sustained for future generations only by astute husbandry of soils,

wildlife, and biota of arid regions. The ruin now being visited on a

large part of public lands for a short-lived gain for a few is a breach of

trust with the future. There is nothing whatsoever conservative about

a system that helps those who do not need it while failing to sustain

the ecological basis for a ranching economy into the distant future.

What is conservative about the ongoing support many conservatives

give to the Mining Law of 1872? That piece of archaic legislative

banditry permits the destruction and looting of public lands in the

service of private greed while requiring little or nothing in return. The

result—economic profligacy and ecological ruin—meets no conceivable

test of genuinely conservative ideals and philosophy. It is theft on

a grand scale, permitted because of the political power of those doing

the looting and the cowardice and shortsightedness of those doing the


What is conservative about getting government off the backs of

citizens while leaving corporations there? Burke, who had a healthy

dislike for all abuses of power, would have wanted all tyranny curtailed,

including that of corporations. How do price increases, for

example, differ from tax increases? How do cancers caused by toxic

emissions or deaths resulting from safety defects in automobiles differ

from unjust executions? How does the ability of capital to abandon

one community for another that it can exploit more thoroughly differ

from government mismanagement? To those who suffer the consequences,

such differences are largely academic. The point is lost,

nonetheless, on most contemporary conservatives who often detect

the sins of government in parts-per-billion while overlooking corporate

malfeasance by the ton. Burke, in our time, would not have been

so negligent about economic tyranny.

What is conservative about squandering for all time our biological

heritage under the guise of protecting temporary property rights?

Conservatives have long scorned public efforts, meager as they are, to

protect endangered species because, on occasion, doing so may infringe

on the ability of property owners to enrich themselves. Any restrictions

on private property use, even those which are beneficial to

the public and in the interest of posterity, they regard as an unlawful

taking of property. But this view of property rights finds little defense

in a careful reading of either John Locke, from whom we’ve derived

much of our land-use law and philosophy (Caldwell and Shrader-

Frechette 1993), or in the writings of Burke. For Locke, property rights

were valid only as long as they did not infringe on the rights of others

to have “enough and as good” ([1690] 1963, 329). It is reasonable to

believe that this ought to include the rights of future generations to a

biota as abundant and as good as that which sustained earlier generations.

And for Locke, “nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or

destroy” (ibid., 332), a concept that has not yet been fully noted by

many conservatives. The point is that Locke did not regard property

rights as absolute even in a world with a total population of less than 1

billion, and neither should we in a world of 6.3 billion and rising.

What’s conservative about a quarter century of opposition to national

efforts to promote energy and resource efficiency? Even on narrow

economic grounds, efficiency has been shown to be economically

advantageous. The fact that the United States is far less efficient in its

use of energy than Japan and Germany, for instance, places it at a

competitive disadvantage estimated to be between 5 and 8 percent

for comparable goods and services. Economics aside, energy and

resource profligacy is the driving force behind climatic change and

the sharp decline in biological diversity worldwide. Nothing could be

more deleterious to the interests of future generations than for this

generation to leave behind an unstable climate and the possibility

that those changes might be rapid and self-reinforcing. And short of

nuclear war, no act by the present generation would constitute a

greater dereliction of duty or breech of trust with its descendants.

The willingness of many conservatives to accept the risk of catastrophic

and irreversible global changes that would undermine the

well-being of future generations is a profoundly imprudent precedent.

We have no right to run such risks when the consequences will

fall most heavily on those who can have no part in making the choice.

What is conservative about the extension of market philosophy

and narrow economic standards into the realm of public policy?

Many conservatives want to make government work just like business

works. Government certainly ought to do its work efficiently, often

much more efficiently than it now does. That much is common sense,

but it is a far cry from believing that public affairs can be conducted

as a business or that economic efficiency alone is an adequate substitute

for farsighted public policy. Many good things, including compassion,

justice, human dignity, environmental quality, the preservation

of natural areas and wildlife, art, poetry, music, libraries, stable

communities, education, and public spiritedness can never meet a

narrow test of profitability, nor should they be required to do so. This,

too, is common sense. These things are good in and of themselves and

should not be subject to the same standards used for selling beer and


What is conservative about perpetual economic growth? Economic

expansion has become the most radicalizing force for change

in the modern world. Given enough time, it will first cheapen and

then destroy the legacy we pass on to the future. The ecological

results of economic growth at its present scale and velocity are pollution,

resource exhaustion, climatic instability, and biotic impoverishment.

Uncontrolled economic growth destroys communities, traditions,

and cultural diversity. And through the sophisticated

cultivation of the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice,

gluttony, and lust, economic growth destroys the character and

virtues of the people whose wants it purports to satisfy.

Conservatives (and liberals) have been unwilling to confront the

difference between growth and real prosperity and to tally up the full

costs of growth for our descendants. In the words of former Reagan

administration Defense Department official Fred Ikle, “Growth

utopianism is a gigantic global Ponzi scheme [leading to] collapse, engulfing

everyone one in misery” (1994, 44). Ikle continues to say that

the cause of this collapse would not be a shortage of material goods

but the destruction of society’s conservative conscience by our Jacobins

of growth.

That conservatives, by and large, have been deeply hostile to evidence

of ecological deterioration and to the cause of conservation is profoundly

unconservative. A genuine and consistent conservatism

would aim to conserve the biological and ecological foundations of

social order and pass both on as part of “an entailed inheritance derived

to us from our forefathers and to be transmitted to our posterity”

(Burke [1790] 1986, 119). If words mean anything, there can be

no other standard for an authentic conservatism.

Like that defined in Kirk’s first principles, a genuine conservatism

is grounded in the belief in a transcendent moral order in which our

proper role is that of trustees subject to higher authority. It would

honor and respect the need for both social and ecological continuity.

It would respect the wisdom of past and also the biological wisdom

contained in the past millions of years of evolution. A genuine conservatism

would prudently avoid jeopardizing our legacy to future

generations for any reason of temporary economic advantage. It

would eschew cultural and technological homogeneity and conserve

diversity of all kinds. And a genuine conservatism, chastened by the

recognition of human imperfection, would not create technological,

economic, and social conditions in which imperfect and ignorant humans

might wreak ecological havoc.

An authentic conservatism has much to offer in the cause of conservation.

Conservatives are right that markets, under some circumstances,

can be more effective tools for conservation than government

regulation. The conservative dislike of unwarranted taxation might be

the basis on which to shift taxes from things we want, such as income,

profit, and labor, to things we do not want, such as pollution and

energy and resource inefficiency (von Weiszacker and Jesinghaus,

1994). An authentic conservatism would encourage a sense of discipline,

frugality, and thrift in the recognition that “men are qualified

for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral

chains upon their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a con-

trolling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the

less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained

in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate

minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters” (Burke,

quoted in epigraph to Ophuls 1992). A genuine conservatism would

provide the philosophical bases and political arguments for prudence,

precaution, and prevention in public policy and law. And a genuine

conservatism would recognize that avoidance of some tragedies requires

“mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” (Hardin 1968, 12),

which, in turn, requires robust democratic institutions.