The conservative confusion

I am conservative. But I am not a Republican. Why? Because a large faction of today’s GOP is desperately confused about what being conservative really means.

What does being “conservative” mean?

In fact, much of the United States seems confused about what it means to be “conservative.” The confusion is understandable, but the result is a frightening Orwellian conflation and dramatic oversimplification of rhetoric that seriously compromises the integrity of our political system.

Most presume that being conservative means being Republican. Likewise it’s often presumed being an environmentalist means being “liberal” and thus a Democrat. But these presumptions are erroneous and egregious.

Not all conservatives are Republican, and certainly not all Republicans are conservative. The religious fundamentalist, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-women, anti-healthcare agendas of much of today’s radical Republican Party are actually hyper-liberal in some important ways.

On the other hand, the secular, pro-environment, pro-gay, pro-science, pro-women, pro-healthcare platforms of many Democrats are ultimately rather conservative.

Being conservative, in a pure sense, means believing in conservation on two main fronts: 1) the conservation of individual liberties and self-determination and 2) the conservation of natural, human, and financial resources. The former amounts to protecting individual freedoms from government overreach—i.e. small government—while the latter pertains to minimizing the financial, environmental, human health, and international risks we take as a society.

It’s also important to mention that being conservative also means being in favor of free markets in a relative sense—but this idea is ultimately subsumed by the principle of conserving resources. And it’s only in a relative sense because no one takes the idea of an absolutely free market seriously anymore. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Anti-Trust Act, worker’s rights, emergency services like Police and Fire Departments, the Military, and the regulation of the financial industry are staples of our prosperous modern society—and are, in principle, socialist institutions. But no one questions their importance or goodness anymore.

Being in favor of “free markets” really means being in favor of efficiency—which in essence means conserving resources. The laws of supply and demand that govern “the free market” naturally produce efficient outcomes, otherwise known as the equilibrium price at which sellers should sell their goods and buyers should buy them. Prices represent real resources, so buying and selling goods at market equilibrium means conserving resources. Clearly this is conservative—but it’s not necessarily Republican.

The idea that free markets will produce efficient outcomes assumes that prices represent true cost, but we know that in many instances today this isn’t the case. Costs to the nonhuman environment and human psychology are often omitted from pricing schemes, as are costs to future generations and distant populations. True cost is also often obfuscated by government subsidization.

Fossil fuels, for example, would be vastly more expensive if costs to future generations, costs to the nonhuman environment, and costs to distant populations were taken into account when determining price—and government subsidies help keep the wool pulled over our eyes by further reducing the direct costs of fossil fuels for consumers. If the price of fossil fuels represented true cost, renewables would be far more competitive than they are, and in turn we’d be consuming far fewer fossil fuels to sustain our energy-intensive way of life. In other words, we’d be conserving more of our fossil fuel resources and conserving environmental quality. Insofar as Republicans support the continued subsidization of fossil fuels, they are certainly not being conservative about the conservation of resources or the environment. It takes a profound level of cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy to call oneself “conservative” and then simultaneously support federal subsidies for one of the most profitable industries in human history. Democrats who support subsidizing fossil fuels aren’t being conservative either, but Democrats generally don’t campaign on conservative rhetoric.

Hyper-liberal Republicans

Somehow, baffling as it may be, Republicans today have convinced the country that being reckless with the environment, opposing women’s and gay rights for religious reasons, taking enormous financial risks (e.g.—paying for wars with credit, forcing a federal budgetary shutdown, deregulating the financial industry, etc.), cutting funding for scientific research while increasing the government’s regulation of scientists, and precluding the provision of health insurance for a huge segment of the workforce are conservative ideas. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Being “conservative” in its historical and etymological sense is more akin to being precautionary or risk-averse about whatever issue is at hand, e.g. – the limitation of individual freedoms by the government, environmental quality and protection, technoscientific progress, etc., than it is to being Republican. In fact, many of today’s Republicans are actually hyper-liberal when it comes to some important issues.

Environmental conservation is conservative

Environmental conservation is a fundamentally conservative agenda. Being conservative about the environment means conserving natural resources and minimizing the environmental risks we take as a society by taking precautionary measures. Preserving biodiversity and natural land conditions makes ecosystems more resilient to changes in the environment—e.g. climate change—which transitively makes human civilizations that are part of those ecosystems also more resilient. Environmental protection is both conservative and in our best interest insofar as conserving environmental quality is both good for us and good in itself.

Sustainability, renewable energy resources, and wilderness conservation are all fundamentally conservative positions in that they conserve natural resources and the state of the natural world. Despite the fact that the EPA and several hallmark environmental statues were passed by Republicans, environmental protection couldn’t be further from most Republican platforms today. The problem is that many of today’s Republicans talk as if being pro-environment is synonymous with being anti-business or anti-economy.

In reality, even command-and-control environmental regulation incentivizes innovation and ultimately conserves the very natural resources upon which business builds itself. Without natural resources, business would have nothing to work from. Moreover, the need today for environmental limitations on corporate freedom (i.e.—environmental rights) is just as obvious as was the need for labor rights during the Gilded Age and early 20th century. Certain human and environmental abuses and exploitations by unregulated industry are simply unacceptable by any modern standard of justice.

Opposing women’s and gay rights is not conservative

Republicans generally oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights for religious reasons. But while these oppositions may be traditional, they certainly aren’t conservative. Setting aside the fact that legislating religious values is illegal and unconstitutional in this country, regulating away people’s freedoms—whether that be the freedom to marry who you love regardless of gender or the freedom to control your own reproduction—is big government by definition.

When it comes to issues as private as what happens in our bedrooms and within our uteri, Republicans today actually advocate flagrant government invasions of personal privacy and freedom—and think they can get away with calling themselves “conservative.” In fact, they’re just the opposite. Whether for religious or secular reasons, the limitation of individual liberty by the government is a liberal agenda.

Religious dogma aside—when it comes to abortion rights, being conservative actually means conserving women’s rights to control their own bodies, putting self-determination over and above the government’s right to dictate women’s lives. Abortion is taking a life (if life doesn’t begin at conception, then when?)—but it should be legal and it should be rare.

Likewise, same-sex marriage is actually both conservative and traditional. It may not be part of the Christian tradition, but Christianity is not the only relevant tradition pertaining to marriage. Legalizing same-sex marriage means conserving and protecting the rights of all citizens to deviate from heteronormative sexuality from big government. Moreover, same-sex marriages represent monogamy—a traditional conservative value. Banning same-sex marriage, on the other hand, as many Republicans have sought and some succeeded, is an obvious big government move.

Health insurance is conservative

While the Affordable Care Act may create a government mandate, its purpose is ultimately a conservative one. Insurance is a fundamentally precautionary endeavor. Insofar as being conservative means being precautionary about risks—human health and economic alike—taking public action to protect the health of our citizens and thus our workforce works on both fronts. At the end of the day, national health insurance means safeguarding both the health of our citizens and the strength of our economy (considering how much labor is lost to otherwise treatable illness).

Moreover, the argument that we “shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s healthcare” doesn’t hold water. By buying into any insurance plan—public or private—we are, by definition, paying the bills of our provider’s other patrons whenever we aren’t using our insurance. What’s more, hospitals are already legally required to treat emergency room patients regardless of their financial status, and when those who can’t pay receive treatment, the costs are distributed to the rest of us. If anything, we’ll conserve both human health and economic resources by making sure that everyone has health insurance. Health insurance is conservative. And let’s not forget that we are all legally obligated to have car insurance and no one thinks that’s a bad thing.

Being anti-science, anti-education is not conservative

Finally—and I talked about this at some length in Congress’ assault on knowledge—if being conservative means reducing financial risks, then it’s also safe to say that being conservative about how we invest our nation’s money should mean making safe investments. In contrast, the anti-science anti-education positions personified by climate science-denying, NSF-defunding zealots like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are polar opposites of safe-investment logic.

Scientific research and public education are among the safest investments society can make. The benefits of an educated workforce are clear. Educated workers are likely to be more efficient, more innovative, more industrious, more entrepreneurial, and more promotable. Likewise, the returns on investment in scientific research are often immeasurable and unforeseeable. Scientific progress is piecemeal, serendipitous, experimental, and unpredictable. While scientific progress can be twisted to serve evil purposes, the positive social gains of scientific R&D are all too obvious. Yet Republicans today seem bent on imposing dramatic cuts to science and education funding, while simultaneously increasing regulatory strictures on scientists and educators; the Inhofe-Smith agenda smacks of big government and flies in the face of safe-investment logic.

Reclaiming conservativism

Many Republicans today are not conservative. In many cases, the Republican Party seems to be a strange blend of hyper-liberal value-driven anti-science religious fundamentalism (“let’s legislate away women’s and gay rights, defund and over-regulate the NSF, and deny the simple physics of climate science!”) and radical xenophobic neoliberal anti-environment social Darwinism (“let’s disenfranchise the poor, minorities, and immigrants—who cares if they get sick?—and do away with as many environmental protections as possible!”). In no way are these conservative positions. And in no way should many of today’s Republicans be allowed to call themselves conservative. If anything, the secular, pro-environment, pro-gay, pro-women, pro-healthcare, pro-science politicians out there should reclaim the word “conservative” for true conservatives and true conservativism. Let’s get it together, humans.

Texas is doing it right

If the modern idea of the Good Life is an energy intensive one, life in Texas is the best. Environmental protection and enforcement can be spotty at the state regulatory level, but there’s no denying that Texas is paradisical for developing energy. Oil and natural gas are obvious heavyweights. Texas is a national leader in wind energy development, and has its fair share of jobs in coal, employing just over 2,200 in 2006. Most exciting of all, Texas is 8th in the country for solar power.

Our relationship with the Sun is a special one. It is also an opportunity. Whether in fossil form, biomass, or direct from the source, the Sun enables but does not dictate the purposes we create that make life worth living. Clearly Texas understands this.

Eventually, solar will overtake fossils fuels as they become more expensive to extract–whether by regulation, scarcity, or inaccessibility–answering not only the energy enthusiast’s call, but also the environmentalist’s. While the precautionary and proactionary principles seem dogmatically opposed at a theoretical level, being proactionary about solar and precautionary about the environment go hand in hand. The same resonates about wind power. But the wind only blows because the sun heats the air.

To the sun god!


Does being anti-fossil fuels mean being anti-modern?

To be adamantly anti-fossil fuels and then go home to happily relax in luxuries enabled by fossil fuels is an exercise of hypocrisy. But it is not hypocritical to be anti-fossil fuels and still be modernistic. Being anti-fossil fuels is not the same as being anti-modern. Exxon Mobil’s CEO thinks precautionary greens may as well curl up in a cave, but I don’t think the Fossil Fuel Resistance’s motivation is anti-modern at all. On the contrary, it’s hyper-modern. Perhaps even unrealistically so. Greens nurture a futuristic techno-utopian vision where society abandons fossil fuels entirely, renewable energy is dirt cheap, super efficient, infallibly reliable, and everybody in the world enjoys an extremely high standard of living while we coexist in perfect harmony with the ecosphere and ride bikes built from recycled bits of Al Gore to our well-paying jobs knitting organic sweaters out of diplomacy and human rights.

That last bit is obviously a joke, but unless you live on a commune far removed from society, you just can’t speak out against modernity and simultaneously live in the modern world without a profound level of cognitive dissonance–and people naturally avoid cognitive dissonance. Which is why the Fossil Fuel Resistance can’t be protesting modernity. They’re protesting the continuation of what they see as an obsolete model of modernity.

In fact, most greens would probably turn it around and argue that fossil fuels are anti-modern because we’ve been burning them for nearly two centuries now, they’ve served their purpose, and its time to progress to renewable alternatives because they’re having unintended yet still unethical ramifications for people and the planet as a whole. I’ll admit, it does come off as unappreciative and hypocritical, perhaps ignorant, to virulently demonize and criticize fossil fuels when they are undeniably the cornerstone of modernity and we all take their pervasive benefits for granted. But the Fossil Fuel Resistance isn’t protesting Keystone, fracking, and mountain top removal coal mining because they want humans to live like the stone ages. They’re being driven to the streets by their optimistic hopes for the future, their eco-egalitarian values, and their beliefs about how human beings should interact with the rest of the natural world.

But we could all do a better job of showing appreciation for the hard work and good intentions of others–greens, fossil fuelers, everyone. Partisanship and adversarial politics have become so ordinary that we forget the lives we’re so privileged to enjoy today are the result of centuries of collaborative innovation and cooperation. Modernity would not be possible without people working together, without amiable and constructive competition, without idea sharing, and without constantly and actively trying to grasp, appreciate, and respect the perspectives of those who think and see the world differently than ourselves.

Fossil fuels probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon–and no amount of protesting will change the basic infrastructure of society instantaneously. But there is a place in this world for radical idealism. And in the face of catastrophic climate change, there is a need for it. Revolutionaries don’t earn that title by pursuing the indisputably realistic, but by challenging the status quo with dreams of what’s to come—of what should come. But no less, we need the realists, the traditionalists, and the pragmatists to remind us of our origins and keep our wheels turning in the here and now.

With a little mutual understanding and effort, there are commonalities to be found even between greens and fossil fuelers. In fact, they may not be so different at some deeper philosophical levels. Both sides believe human beings are bound for greatness, moving purposively through history toward our grand cosmic destiny. Both are interested in alleviating global poverty and human suffering through the perpetuation and dissemination of a modern standard of living, for which all agree energy is vital. Both are confident that advances in science and technology will deliver humanity to these new eras of prosperity. And both believe in the importance of democracy, liberty, fairness, and free expression in the political process. We may see reiterations of the customary story of obdurate politics like the protest on February 17th, but the differences between the poles, fundamentally, are rather superficial.

Being anti-fossil fuels does not mean being anti-modern—it means being anti-fossil fuels. The vast majority of people support modernity as a worthy end, greens and fossil fuelers simply envision different means for accomplishing that end. But there’s often dramatic miscommunication when conveying their respective positions to each other. People get dismissive, conversations breakdown acrimoniously, and the full senses of both perspectives are lost. But if greens can keep a realistic handle on hypocrisy about their own fossil fuel use, and fossil fuelers don’t pretend that coal, oil, and natural gas are just innocent, misunderstood miracle substances, then maybe we can talk constructively. Just maybe we’ll circuitously arrive at mutually agreeable policies to combat climate change, develop renewables, and mitigate the negative externalities of resource extraction without unfairly disadvantaging or appearing unappreciative of the hard work that fossil fuel developers have done for society since the industrial revolution.

Optimistic? Naïve? Sophomoric? Perhaps. But someone needs to think through a middle way.



I think it’s fair to say that the adverse environmental impacts of fossil fuel development, while in some cases are inherent (e.g. – you can’t do mountain top removal coal mining without removing the top of a mountain), ultimately depend on the care exercised by particular operators — and, even more so, the individuals who manage their operations. Though sometimes it’s tempting, we shouldn’t castigate entire industries because of the conduct of a few. Some operators voluntarily dedicate extensive resources to ensure the progressive responsibility of their activities, such as partners in EPA’s Natural Gas STAR program. That being said, some operators are sloppier than others — sloperators.

In the wake of BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico, reminiscent of Prince Edward Sound, some may have found the Obama Administration’s decision to open the Arctic for oil exploration a bit hasty — though the President did promise an “all of the above” energy policy. No less, however, Shell, in an almost immediate blunder, managed to beach a tanker full of diesel on the Alaskan coast, releasing hundreds of gallons of fuel into the sensitive and protected wildlife habitat — a real sloperation. Chevron’s recent attempt at dodging the court-ordered, $19 billion settlement to remediate the Ecuadorian Amazon after spilling billions of gallons of toxic waste between 1964 and 1992 also comes to mind — earning ChevTex a place amongst presently mentioned sloperators. What’s more, just today, two barges full of light crude and a tugboat (owned by Third Coast Towing and Nature’s Way Marine, respectively) crashed into a bridge on the Mississippi River, spilling a yet unknown amount of oil into the waterway. Another sloperation.

One only hopes that, whatever the Obama Administration decides on Keystone XL, TransCanada will operate with the utmost care. Whether the Canadian tar sands end up in American or Chinese refineries, power plants, and fuel tanks, TransCanada must be aware that slop is unacceptable.

While the continued human reliance on fossil fuels is regrettable, it is also somewhat inevitable, at least for the time being, if we intend to quickly raise billions out of poverty while sustaining our own standard of living. The least we can do is proceed with accountability. In the meantime, small scale sustainable development projects will burn the candle at the other end, promising modern alternatives to utility-scale, fossil fuel driven electrical grids. Let’s get it together, humans.


Solar panels for all, precautionary or proactionary?

I think Crane and Kennedy have a point here – relying on solar energy, specifically putting solar paneling on residential roofs, are a good way to reduce the risk of relying on an antiquated electrical grid system that’s highly vulnerable to storms and natural disasters (like Sandy). The traditional grid, knitted together by a bucolic web of wooden poles and copper wires, leaves society exposed should part of its fragile infrastructure fail.

So, switching to residential, distributive solar can be seen a precautionary move — it’s too risky to keep depending on a grid that falls apart if power lines go down with a tree limb. Independent, “off-grid” home power systems would strengthen each link of the social chain mail so that when nature throws us a curve ball we aren’t left in the dark for days or weeks on end. For the risk-averse, these are worthy concerns. Not to mention that solar energy doesn’t carry the bouquet of environmental and human health risks that accompany the extreme ways that we extract fossil fuels these days (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, deep water drilling for oil, and mountaintop removal mining for coal).

Often we’ll hear opponents of renewables frame alternative energy as being too risky. The wind and sun are intermitted, the technology is inefficient, and the costs are uncompetitive — or so they say. But with better battery technology, dramatic improvements in solar cell efficiency, and expectations of lower home installation costs these arguments against renewables won’t hold water in public for much longer. Soon, in fact, this framing will probably reverse itself and renewables will be understood as safe, sensible, and reliable, while fossil fuels will be seen as dangerous, costly, and anachronistic.

But should we understand support for solar energy as precautionary or proactionary?

On one hand,  using residential and distributive solar power is a precautionary move away from the risks of depending on fossil fuels and the outmoded electrical grid. In this sense, the switch to solar is less about the goodness of solar energy in particular, but rather about the consequence of mitigating the risks of fossil fuel use. To put it another way, to precautionary supporters of solar, it’s likely that any alternative energy source would be satisfactory since the shift is more about getting away from the risks of fossil fuels than it is about shifting to a particular kind of renewable energy.

On the other hand, proactionary supporters of solar might emphasize the goodness of solar energy itself over and above its consequence of replacing fossil fuels alone. Solar energy is good not simply because we need to mitigate the risks of fossil fuel use, but because solar energy represents progress. Fossil fuels remind us of primitive industrialism, while solar power speaks to our progressive refinement toward symbiosis with each other and the environment. Indeed, for proactionaries to put such immense trust in new solar technology despite its relative nascence is somewhat risky, but switching to solar is a matter of moral obligation; it is our duty to ourselves, to future generations, and to the non-human to make the change.

So, should we be proactionary or precautionary about solar power? I’m not convinced we have to choose — I support solar technology for precautionary and proactionary purposes. I am deeply concerned with mitigating the risks of our continued reliance on fossil fuels because they are inherently finite, unsustainable, environmentally damaging to extract, and pose threats to human health during development and when burned. Simultaneously, I believe that our relationship with the Sun is a special one and that it makes sense on ethical, axiological, and existential levels that the source of life should also be the source of high quality living.

Today, our visions of the Good Life are intimately intertwined with energy. High quality living means energy intensive living (with the exception of a few rogue primitivists out there). So the progressive challenge is making such a lifestyle sustainable. Progress, in this sense, is sustainability. But solar energy is not all about progress in the long-term. It’s also about human and environmental safety in the short-term.

Usually we find ourselves in a conundrum when it comes to the precautionary v. proactionary distinction: either we accept some risk as the price of progress, or we sacrifice some progress in order to mitigate risk. The difficulty arises when people make divergent value judgments about the proper balance of risk and progress — and also when we assume that the two routes are mutually exclusive.

Solar energy technology, however, defeats the idea that we can only reduce risk at the cost of progress. Making the gradual switch to solar constitutes progress toward sustainability and reduces the risks of using fossil fuels. We can be proactionary and precautionary at the same timeNow that’s progress.



The most pressing non-environmental, environmental issue

Campaign finance regulation (re Citizen’s United v. FEC) is arguably the most pressing non-environmental, environmental issue facing the United States today. Obviously, there is room for debate on this point – Ronald Coase makes the case that it is the lack of clearly distinguished property rights (for goods of the commons such as the atmosphere) that’s most pressing, while James Boyce argues, on another hand, that income inequality is the ultimate source of environmental injustice. In many ways, both are compelling and correct. I, however, opt to focus on the ills of our current campaign finance situation over the aforementioned two issues because, on one hand, I question the wisdom of assigning human ownership to something as vast and interconnecting as the atmosphere, and on the other, I am confident that income inequality can only be fruitfully resolved after we amend our campaign finance problems, for the policies needed to redress the injustice of inequity will likely not find their origins in a corrupt Congress.

The unabated flow of corporate money into American politics undermines the health of our democracy as well as the health of the ecosphere. Contemporary special interest groups exercise power of Gilded Age proportions, while Citizen’s United and the resulting super-PAC phenomenon have successfully institutionalized an unprecedented entrenchment of environmentally negligent industries in our political system. And this is absolutely not a partisan critique. Republican and democrats alike, by necessity of the new Congressional fundraising status quo, have become engrossed with raising money, large amounts of which come from sources like Chevron Corp., Merck and Co., the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Action Network.

With that said, please allow a quick digression (or clarification). This is in no way an attempt to demonize the fossil fuels industry. While the various oil, gas, and coal companies are frequently delinquent in relation to environmental protection, they are ultimately the elements of the world economy that enable the incredibly high standard of living that many of us enjoy, myself included. And we must remember that it is not the intention of corporations to damage the environment. It’s just not their intent to protect it, either, especially given the current regulatory structure. Like good offspring of neoclassical economic thinking, the corporate interest is to maximize benefit for stakeholders. But even Adam Smith was wary of corporate power and what its absolutely free exercise could mean for the human quality of life. So it is, in my humble opinion, the responsibility of policymakers to create policies that ensure the internalization of externalities, such as Pigouvian taxes, or aim to reduce externalities altogether via market-based credit trading programs, and it is the responsibility of businesses to abide by those policies (as is our social contract). While I would obviously prefer that the business community undergo a rapid paradigm shift toward ecological consciousness, I am also one for being realistic.

More to the point: the current state of campaign finance verges on a dangerous autocatalytic cycle. Wealthy special interest groups provide campaign funding to ensure the election of sympathetic and indebted politicians, who then create policies that reinforce the wealth of those interest groups, who then, again, will invest in the campaigns of politicians who, again, will create policy to bolster the status quo, ad infinitum (or so I am concerned). Often, such special interest groups represent extractive or otherwise environmentally damaging industries. National campaign finance reform would be a good step toward breaking this cycle and restoring any real sense of regulatory hope for the ecosphere.

But what hope is there that an already corrupted Congress will reform campaign finance laws? It would seem, at least outwardly, that we need uncorrupted legislators to create the reforms for fair campaigns and elections, but we need fair campaigns and elections in order to have uncorrupted legislators. So how do we resolve this chicken-or-the-egg conundrum?

I asked this very question of New York State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill on May 11, 2012, when he so graciously visited my environmental policy class at Bard CEP to talk with my colleagues and I about NYS energy policy. His response was heartening. Apparently, national legislators are also human beings. For legislators, the tangible effects of the Citizen’s United decision manifest as having to spend as much as six hours per day fundraising, just to remain electorally competitive. For a politician whose primary interest is in re-election, perhaps this is permissible. But as people, such a lifestyle is undesirable. And so, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill assured me that he’s beginning to see bipartisan support emerge for campaign finance reform because legislators are simply fed up with the absurd fundraising demands.

Now, I would prefer for Congress to be motivated to act on campaign finance because of the legislators’ pride in the quality of our nation’s democratic representation, rather than how much time they’re having to spend “dialing for dollars.” But in this case, I suppose the end justifies the means.

While I doubt that corporate personhood will be overturned, maybe Congress will decide that people can only contribute such-and-such amount of money to a given campaign. But then again, because money is “speech,” and knowing our attachment to the First Amendment, I’m sure that any attempt to regulate “speech” will be met with virulent public outcry, despite the obvious impairments to our freedom perpetrated by the current campaign finance system.

JM Kincaid