Dave Roberts, in an interesting post last week, thinks that conservatives are primarily interested in tax cuts, and no regulation, and if the environment can be conserved within those parameters all well and good, whereas conservationists are more concerned with preserving the environment and the mechanism doesn't matter - "In contrast, the movement conservatism Gingrich championed in the '90s has only gotten more and more rigidly ideological. Its primary commitment is to cutting existing taxes and fighting new ones, getting rid of regulations, and privileging favored business interests over the broader public interest (and even the broader economic interest). It will not budge on those commitments. Insofar as protecting ecosystems can be done inside those parameters, I'm sure conservatives are happy to rehabilitate their image on the issue. But it's the commitments, not the environment, that come first. In sum: for greens, protecting ecosystems is the fixed commitment; means come and go. For movement conservatives, cutting taxes is the fixed commitment; if protecting ecosystems clashes with that, so much the worse for ecosystems."
Although Roberts doesn't draw this conclusion, his post could perhaps fit into a suggestion that is often made, that conservatives should be brought into the conservation fold, rather than excluded. The idea being that conservatives would be happy to be involved if only they were treated with respect, and their opinions taken into account. We would then have a big tent environmental movement in which both Left and Right were represented, and this would have more chance of being successful than the usual conflict model.
It's a nice idea, just like the idea of involving evangelicals (Malcolm Friedberg), but it is based on a misconception. Conservatives aren't nice, if slightly kooky, people, who are just waiting to be asked before rolling up their sleeves and getting down to work with the greenies to save the planet. Their world view, unshakable, unchangeable, is the opposite of that of conservationists.
They have, for example, no interest in saving the planet - the concept would be as absurd to them as treating the United Nations seriously. In fact they have no concept of a planet, the only planet, that supports the human race and has been treated so badly that it is about to stop doing so. For a conservative, like George Bush, the world is divided into us and them. Us are people we do business with, make money with, in different places around the world. Them is everyone else, and frankly my dear, who gives a damn about them? And global warming to a conservative, is just the price of doing business, nothing can get in the way of business - if the poles melt, then so be it - must be a chance to make some money out of that too.
Conservatives believe that humans should manage the environment - they have no interest in conserving wilderness, just the reverse, national parks should be opened up to all kinds of commercial activities. Conservation to a conservative means preserving photogenic species of animals in zoos and plants in botanic gardens and city parks, and making money out of such exhibits. To a conservative there is absolutely nothing in the world that is off limits to money-making ventures. They wouldn't hesitate for a moment to have the last Redwood (its value greatly enhanced by rarity) cut down and sold, or to have the last Siberian Tiger shot for its skin.
Conservatives believe in conserving the outcomes of human activities, not the outcome of ecological processes. Typical of this is the confusion over the word "pristine". To a conservative a golf course, or a dairy farm, or beach front housing development can be described as "pristine". The word is just an advertising gimmick that carries the image of fresh and clean and new. But "pristine" doesn't have any resonance in terms of a region being undamaged, unspoilt, by human activities. Or, perhaps to the extent that it is, it represents a blank slate on which human activities should be occurring.
Conservatives also believe in conserving traditional activities and practices, no matter how damaging they are - land clearing for non-viable farms, duck shooting, recreational fishing, cattle in high country, old growth forestry. The relationship of these things to the environment is irrelevant (although conservatives will often make cynical and ridiculous claims about how being dead is actually better for deer and ducks and fish than being alive) it is the fact that humans are doing it that makes it worth conserving.
And finally, for a conservative the idea of preserving some piece of the environment is merely a matter of putting that piece into cold storage until someone is ready to exploit it. No nonsense about saving species for their own sake, or because they make an important contribution to the ecology of a region - the idea of posterity is just a future time when exploitation can commence.
For conservatives, capitalism is a giant funnel into which the animals and plants of the world, and the other inanimate features of the world are poured, processed, and converted into money. The end point of that process is a world free of such encumbrances, such extraneous matter.
I can't remember the movie, but it's the one where someone is escaping on a train, and in order to keep moving they eventually chop up and burn all the carriages on which they were riding, all of the wood fed into the furnace of the engine. That is not simply a metaphor for conservatism and the environment, but an action plan.
So no, we can't, in the environmental movement, join forces with conservatives to save the planet. The planet has to be saved in spite of them.
Like Aneurin Bevan - "No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical and social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party ... So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin." Read the deep burning on The Watermelon Blog.
Follow David Horton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/watermelon_man