Forest, Meet Trees
“Over the past two hundred years, industrial civilization has been relentlessly undermining the Earth's chemistry, water cycles, atmosphere, soils, oceans and thermal balance. Plainly said, we have been shutting down the major life systems of our planet. Compounding the ecological crisis are decaying economies, ethnic and class conflict, and worldwide warfare.”
--Bill Plotkin, The Wild Human,” Shift Magazine, July-August 2008
Navel-gazing over which flavor of Republican is the authentic one, the correct one, or even the one most likely to win elections will not help the Republican cause, much less the nation or the world. I've read through a number of blog posts here and have yet to see one that addresses the actual challenges we face, both as a nation and a species. If Conservatism is to survive as a philosophy, the real question is how to apply basic Conservative principles to the multiple crises facing us, which are, at their root, environmental. Social, economic, and political structures can only exist in environments that support them. Any philosophy that cannot be applied to the business of living becomes a historical artifact.
Let's pick a random example: The approaching collapse of global fisheries. You may remember the collapse of the California salmon fishery a few months back. (Here in the Pacific Northwest, at least, it made headlines.) I mentioned it to a conservative of my acquaintance, and he blamed sea lions. Well, sea lions have been eating salmon for hundreds of thousands of years without destroying them, so let's take a look at the human side of the problem, the part documented by studies of the actual fisheries: ag and industrial runoff, dams, and overfishing. The standard Republican solution? Individual freedom and a free market, with plenty of competition. In other words, more of the same that created this crisis. Personal responsibility apparently applies only to individuals' sex lives, not their economic lives.
What would an principled conservative alternative to government regulation of fisheries, look like? Could it possibly have something to do with the conservative principle of self-restraint? After all, salmon fishermen would seem to have a vested interest in the preservation of salmon. Would a group composed of members of that industry be able to maintain and enforce limits? In such a group, would the interests of small fishermen be represented, or would it, like most industry groups, eventually become dominated by the biggest and best-connected?
This might be a useful topic of debate on this site, and could be applied to the issues of climate change, pollution, energy generation, anything. So far, the Republican response to environmental issues seems to vacillate between, “What problem?” and “It wouldn't be a problem if it was legal. Damn liberals.”
A major reason that the public is turning away from the Republican Party is the perception that Republicans will always vote for short-term profits for corporate stakeholders with the risks outsourced to the general public. Then, for example, when cancer rates rise due to toxic waste from industry, conservatives demonize liberals for wanting to broaden access to health care. The current public perception of Republicans, particularly Bush-style Republicans, is that they will not vote for anything that would genuinely benefit all or most people, but only what benefits themselves and those who fill their campaign coffers. Increasing numbers of people are driven away by this “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to governance, as well they should. Could the concept of personal responsibility be applied to corporations? How would that work without the force of law behind it, particularly when dealing with corporations that are economically larger than small nations?
Or consider this postulate to the Conservative belief in the sanctity of life and the right to private property: Damage to the environment is, at its root, a public health issue, and a theft from individuals in the form of reduced earnings and increased expenses due to ill health and premature death.
Paul Hawkin, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, in their book Natural Capitalism, point out that natural systems (carbon/oxygen cycle, hydrologic cycle, etc.) operate free of charge. Damage to these systems is not factored into the cost of goods, meaning that normal accounting procedures ignore them while we all pay the price in diminished resource base, a degraded environment, and consequent ill health. This book-cooking is the basis of classical economics and makes the Enron scandal look like cheating on a third grade math test.
If Conservatism could remember it has a common root with Conservation, acknowledge that environmental problems do exist, and contribute something to the debate other than foot dragging and obfuscation, it just might survive.