The Nation's Pulse

Get Back in the Game

An interview with the head of the conservative pro-environmental group ConservAmerica.

By 7.5.12

Rob Sisson is green and proud of it. As president of ConservAmerica, the conservative organization promoting the stewardship of our natural resources, Sisson is fighting a lonely, acclivous battle. Most conservatives have forsaken environmental issues and left the field entirely to extremists. This is unfortunate, says Sisson, because conservatives are the ones who historically have been the stewards of our natural resources. TAS contributor Christopher Orlet spoke with Sisson via email.

TAS: Besides the obvious etymological similarity, is there a philosophical connection between the Conservative and the Conservationist?

ROB SISSON: Absolutely. The etymological similarity reflects an underlying conceptual linkage, rooted in the traditional conservatism articulated by Edmund Burke. A core element of Burke's thinking was the intergenerational contract -- the obligation of the present generation to preserve its inherited legacy on behalf of unborn generations. While natural resources stewardship was not a pressing matter in Burke's time, when the Industrial Revolution was in its nascent stages, the intergenerational equity principle applies to contemporary issues. The present generation has an obligation to be mindful in its use of natural resources. Wasteful consumption that is heedless of future generations is irresponsible. As Margaret Thatcher said in 1988: "No generation has a free hold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy -- with a full repairing lease."

Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver developed Burke's ideas further during the 20th century. Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, wrote of the inseparability of freedom and responsibility, behind which lies the practical reality that freedom can be enjoyed most fully in an orderly society in which traditions, expectations, cultural norms, and, where necessary, rules look after the common good. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI cautioned: "Rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere license." Weaver, author of Ideas Have Consequences, called for a humble respect for nature, an inscrutable creation with which man does not have the moral authority to tinker without heed for consequences. Weaver wrote: "Nature is not something to be fought, conquered, and changed according to any human whims. To some extent, of course, it has to be used. But what man should seek in regard to nature is not a complete domination but a modus vivendi -- that is, a manner of living together, a coming to terms with something that was here before our time and will be here after it."

That's a lot of philosophy, I know. Ronald Reagan was supremely talented in finding ways to communicate abstract conservative ideals in grounded language that appealed to ordinary Americans. In 1984, he said: "What is a conservative after all, but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live.… And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live -- our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it."

TAS: In your opinion are conservatives unfairly labeled as being anti-environmental? Or do conservatives deserve that label?

ROB SISSON: It's an unfortunate reality that in today's world of superficial media, 24/7 news cycles, and commentary designed to inflame rather than inform, granular reality is distorted into black-and-white caricatures. The Left is guilty of painting legitimate concerns about environmental policy choices as "anti-environmental." The tendency of leftish environmentalists to view federal regulation as a desirable first choice rather than a sometimes necessary last resort, a suspicion of market-based approaches to stewardship, and rhetoric that implies all businesses are careless polluters has helped make the environment a wedge issue. It doesn't help that nearly all well-known environmental organizations are led by Democrats. And loose talk of the environment being part of the "progressive" agenda is guaranteed to alienate conservatives.

At the same time, some on the Right have not helped matters with dogmatic attitudes about the environment, the "thick black lines" of partisan conformity that Jeb Bush has warned conservatives to avoid. Unfortunately, the philosophy espoused by many celebrity talking heads on the right is fundamentally libertarianism. Their audiences, however, have accepted that definition, completely unaware of Traditional Conservatism. When any consideration of environmental stewardship can get one branded a "RINO," or when matters of scientific fact are turned into litmus tests for identity politics, it becomes difficult for conservatives to offer positive ideas for improving environmental stewardship based on conservative principles. Scorned on the Left and denounced on the Right, a conservative who cares deeply about protecting natural resources and cleaning up pollution can feel like a man without a country.

Conservatives should not cede environmental stewardship to the Left. Conservatives should offer better ideas for environmental stewardship. The public would be better served by having more than one set of ideas on the table.

TAS: In what important ways are conservative conservationists and liberal environmentalists different?

ROB SISSON: Liberal environmentalists tend to prefer top-down, centralized regulation for just about everything having to do with environmental stewardship. To borrow a thought expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, liberals behave like Europeans. They turn first to government for solutions to public problems. Conservatives don't do that. We believe free and fair markets will find efficient and effective solutions. We believe, as Abraham Lincoln said, government should only do for people what people cannot do for themselves.

Private stewardship should be encouraged and supported. Land trusts are a good example. Another is private labeling to help consumers make informed choices (e.g. Marine Stewardship Council's seafood labeling program). When government must be involved, the preference should be to leave matters to the least centralized levels of government competent to deal with the question at hand. Yes, there are matters that are properly the subject of federal action -- interstate air and water pollution, and care for our national parks and wildlife refuges being a few examples. What we need is a civil debate about regulatory reform that assigns the federal government responsibility for truly national matters, and ensures that states and localities take the lead for handling regional and local matters.

TAS: Is it possible to be both pro-big business and a conservationist?

ROB SISSON: It's not only possible to be pro-business of any size and a conservationist. It's essential to be pro-business of any size and a conservationist. No conservative should want environmental stewardship to be left entirely up to government. Government can't do it all, nor should it. We can have a strong economy AND a clean environment, but business technological innovation and entrepreneurship will be the key to aligning economic drivers with environmental goals. Many environmental issues are complex technical questions. To borrow a quote from Mark Twain, business can find cost-effective answers to complex technical questions before the bureaucrats can get their boots on. As a self-organizing mechanism for allocating resources, markets multiply human intelligence. What conservatives can do is show citizens how market-based approaches to environmental stewardship will work better for the economy and the environment than top-down, overly centralized, overly prescriptive regulation.

TAS: How can conservatives retake the conservationist mantle from the radical left?

ROB SISSON: Get back into the game! Don't let liberals monopolize the field of environmental stewardship ideas! Rediscover Edmund Burke's and Russell Kirk's ethics of intergenerational equity and the inseparability of freedom and responsibility. Show citizens we care about clean air, clean water, and protecting parks and other open spaces. Develop a set of ideas, based on conservative ethics of limited government, support for markets, and a prudent acceptance of facts and risks. Then take the debate to the liberals and convince the voters.

This will take some courage on behalf of Republican and conservative leaders in Congress. A tiny, but very vocal part of the base will never accept that conservation is conservative. And there are very powerful political donors whose wealth and income are dependent upon the continued ability to download the cost of pollution to the public. By the way, President Reagan called this "the destructive trespass of pollution." Ending this trespass should be a libertarian value as well.

I've told more than one member of Congress that he or she can be this generation's Theodore Roosevelt, remembered and revered a century from now. All it takes is one person.

We all need clean air and clean water, we all cherish the parks and wide-open spaces that forged America's history, defined our culture as a freedom-loving, enterprising people, and inspire with their exceptional beauty. Conservatives can show America how we can be good stewards of our great nation.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.