What Conservatism Taught Us About Conservation

11/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Environmentalists often wonder, with some justification, why they have so little political clout and so much difficulty making headway. In polls, Americans overwhelmingly evince concern for the environment, while a majority of us also favor stricter gun-control legislation. Why, then, do most politicians essentially ignore environmentalists while genuflecting to the National Rifle Association, which aggressively promotes a much less popular cause?

Like any complex question, this one has a complex answer. But one component of that answer may be that the "environmental movement" has many foci and speaks with many voices -- voices that do not always agree. Ask two randomly selected environmentalists which is more important, industrial pollution or deforestation, and you'll likely to get two different answers. Take aside two environmentalists who agree that deforestation is the most critical problem and ask them the best way to fix it, and you'll get two different answers again. The more nuanced or discordant a message, the easier it is for policymakers to cite "conflicting viewpoints" and brush it aside.

This phenomenon is even more pronounced among conservation-oriented academics. Many scholars build their careers around a certain set of ideas about how best to conserve nature; those ideas are often countered, the counters rebutted, the rebuttals rejoindered, and the rejoinders refuted in what can become epic (and occasionally tedious) exchanges in the literature. Of course, disagreement is part and parcel of science. But conservation, while ideally science-based, is not exactly science -- it is a social, economic, and political agenda, and science is just one tool in its shed. Perhaps for this reason, we have heard more than one colleague imply that dissent among conservation biologists and ecological economists should be muted. As one friend once put it to us, "We don't want to give ammunition to the other side."

Well. We have to admit that in our more cynical moments, we have been tempted by this view. Might presenting a unified front really a prerequisite for getting what you want in the political sphere? Might the ends, in vital issues like these, justify the means?

At the end of the day, we think not. Recent political events are instructive. We were tickled to read, in Saturday's New York Times, a piece entitled "Unease In The Conservative Commentariat," which contained the following passage:

"The strength of the [conservative] movement, as it gained power, rested on discipline. Conservative writers and thinkers might disagree, but usually within limits -- and they were careful to emphasize their points of agreement and also to modulate their differences. Hashing them out in public would only weaken the movement and give ammunition to the other side."

Four years ago, on the eve of George Bush's second inauguration, this ostensible conservative strength seemed a formidable strength indeed. Neoconservatives, fiscal conservatives, and social conservatives had again banded together to install an under-qualified überconservative in the nation's highest office. John Kerry had been Swift Boated, and narrow Rovian politics ruled the day.

But over the past four years, the fundamental failures of the past 40 years of American conservatism have become painfully apparent: its excessive faith in military might and its deregulatory pandering to big business have landed our great nation in one hell of a mess. So, suppressing dissent within a social-political movement does not look like the enlightened path to achieving actual goals in the long term.

Neither, it would appear, is it even a viable path to long-term political influence. Democrats are certain to retain control of the House and Senate this year, and, thanks in part to John McCain's blunder-full campaign, they seem poised to retake the White House, too. This is hardly the death of the conservative movement, but it is clear that the Republican Party is going to have to spend at least the next two years cleaning its filthy attic--if not rebuilding its entire rickety house.

Why? It might have something to do with the effort to present a unified front to the world. We believe that squelching ideological disagreements is ultimately a formula for ideological weakness. Competition in the marketplace of ideas strengthens the good ideas and winnows out the dumb ones (and how ironic that conservatism is currently foundering upon its own failure to grasp this fundamental free-market principle). So while "discipline" and cohesion of message may help advance an agenda in the short term, it corrodes a movement over the long term.

In this case, what holds for the conservative movement holds also for the conservation movement. We should not be seduced by strategies that yield short-term gains but invite long-term losses. We should celebrate the diversity of our ideas, debate them, scrutinize them, and hold them accountable. And we should never let our attachment to our own particular ideas and notions (which we naturally cherish) distract us from the ultimate goal of bequeathing a green, blue, and biodiverse world to our kids.