What is the heart of conservatism if it does not include leadership in conservation? And why have conservative thinkers needlessly, and against all logic and their own self-interest, surrendered the moral high ground on this issue to the liberals?
Edward O. Wilson
Author of Sociobiology (click here for my review)
Bradley Lecture, American Enterprise Institute, 4/9/2001
As I pointed out in my last column, the Bush Administration has been alienating what ought to be its demographic base - well-off white people - by seeming to side with industrial interests against polar bears, condors, and water drinkers. Granted, much of the brouhaha generated by environmentalists was scientifically overblown. Yet, ultimately, so what? Image, not science, is reality in politics. The GOP's image problem is that it has nothing to offer as positive alternative.
The modern assumption that conservatives should automatically oppose conservation is a fairly recent development. It dates back to the rise of the conservative think tanks in the late Seventies.
Previously, Republican Presidents had played key roles in helping Americans enjoy our majestic landscape. Abraham Lincoln set aside Yosemite as a public trust. Ulysses S. Grant made Yellowstone the first national park. Teddy Roosevelt glamorized conservation. Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate highway system that made it feasible for average families to visit the national parks. Richard Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The new intellectual economy that emerged in the later Seventies - with corporate interests funding conservative think tanks that in turn subsidized the brightest Manhattan and Beltway intellectuals - brought many advantages to the Republican Party. One unfortunate side effect, however, was that it brought to dominance pundits who not only were beholden to industry, but who lacked the average American's love of his nation's beauty.
For example, neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb lived for decades in an apartment overlooking New York's Central Park. Yet, according to Dr. Himmelfarb, never once did they set foot in Frederick Law Olmsted's gorgeous commons.
Further, the GOP turned against conservation because it never developed a strategy for compensating its supporters in the Great Plains and Mountain Time Zone in return for land controls. (I'll suggest one below.)
What the Republicans need is a positive, pro-humanity, pro-family conservationist program to contrast with the Democrats' misanthropic environmentalist program.
Underlying liberal environmentalism is the assumption that the world would be paradise if every single person died tomorrow. Obviously, nobody actually believes that. What environmentalists feel deep down is that the world would be paradise if everybody died … except, of course, for them and their friends. In reality, environmentalism is essentially a form of status competition in which environmentalists demonstrate their moral superiority to the mass of humanity.
Unfortunately, the GOP's current stance of pure negativism tempered by bouts of me-tooism can't effectively attack the status-seeking motivation behind modern environmentalism. No, what the GOP needs is a positive conservation program that combats the social-climbing misanthropy by siding with the only force in modern American politics stronger than the urge to demonstrate one's cultural and spiritual superiority: the urge to help America's children.
My suggestion, for what it's worth, is that a winning political strategy could center on getting our increasingly pallid and pudgy youth away from their video games and out into the great American outdoors.
I'm sure a Dick Morris could come up with better ways to symbolize this new commitment. But here are nine ideas.
1] End the Forest Service's long crusade to slash the number of visitors to America's most spectacular natural setting, Yosemite Valley. Documentaries have shown forest rangers lamenting that all those tawdry tourists were interfering with their personal opportunities to commune with nature in solitude. This is liberal elitism at its most noxious.
Instead, the GOP should offer to increase the camping capacity of Yosemite National Park - by making habitable again the second most beautiful valley in California, Yosemite Valley's once lovely little sister Hetch Hetchy Valley. The city of San Francisco drowned this valley in 1913 by building a dam across its outlet, breaking John Muir's heart.
The idea, floated in 1988 by Reagan Administration Secretary of the Interior Dan Hodel, of pulling down the dam and restoring the valley for camping still makes sense. A study projected that visitors would increase from 40,000 annually to 1,000,000.
Granted, this would force the San Francisco Bay Area to find other sources of drinking water. But the Bush Administration wouldn't exactly be losing a lot of Republican votes in San Francisco anyway. The political calculus is simple: If you force the environmental elitists of San Francisco to pay for their crime against America's landscape, you can give Hetch Hetchy back to the American people as a whole. Is this a losing proposition for Republicans?
2] Instruct the military to turn over 10% of their most beautiful military bases - such as the spectacular California coastal bases Camp Pendleton (17 miles of coastline between Los Angeles and San Diego) and Vandenberg Air Force Base (between Santa Barbara and Hearst Castle) - to organized camping groups, such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
3] Stop violating landowners' property rights by enforcing quite so many anti-development restrictions. Instead, the Federal Government should buy up more outstanding land on the open market.
For example, a war is brewing between the ranchers who own the beautiful coastline west of Santa Barbara and want to sell it for development, and environmentalists, who want to keep them from doing whatever they want with their own property. Forget it. Buy up the land at a fair price and make it a National Seashore. Then put in parking lots and staircases down to the beaches so the public can enjoy them.
4] Change the Forest Service's puritanical prejudice that backpacking is the only truly moral way to get outdoors. Merely 2.4% of the population engage in for at least five days a year. And those enthusiasts are overwhelmingly young white upper middle class males.) In reality, Americans are becoming more like Europeans, who demand a certain degree of comfort. The number of backpackers in the Sierras, for example, is down sharply compared to 25 years ago. Rather than considering this a problem, the Forest Service is congratulating itself on clearing the riff-raff out of the mountains so the chosen few can contemplate nature in seclusion.
In contrast, in the Alps you can wander for a week through the high country carrying just your clothes in your backpack. You make reservations to sleep each night at permanent "high camps," sleeping on cots in cabins or waterproof tents permanently pitched on wooden platforms, eating meals cooked by the staff. The Swiss Alps are full of hotels, pensions, youth hostels, mountain huts, cog railroads, and aerial tramways. For most people over the age of 22, this beats humping 60-pound packs and sleeping on the ground.
In the backcountry of Yosemite National Park, there is a similar network of five such camps. They are so popular that a lottery for precious reservations is held every fall. My aunt and uncle tried for many years to win the lottery, but eventually gave up. Despite this evidence that the public wants these modest but not Spartan accommodations, the federal government has refused to allow the system to expand to the rest of the Sierras. Apparently it considers the idea too decadently European.
5] Make getting to the wild places a lot quicker. Last summer it took me two and a half days to drive my sons from Chicago to Denver, the gateway to the Rockies.
6] Revitalize small town life so that people can continue to live closer to nature than in sprawling megalopolises.
Both problems 5] and 6] have the same solution. The interstate highway system needs to be upgraded to German autobahn standards so that within a couple of decades Americans in the vast "red zone" on that famous 2000 electoral map can drive at German-style speeds across our land. I ought to be able to drive my grandchildren across that vast, flat expanse between Chicago and Denver in under ten hours.
Likewise, as numerous country songs have pointed out, a small town is a much more tolerable place to live if every now and then you can watch it disappearing in your rear view mirror, preferably at speeds upward of 100 miles per hour. Life in South Dakota would be far more enjoyable if you were only a five-hour drive from both Chicago and the Grand Tetons.
Today's cars are getting close to being able to do that. My 200 horsepower sedan, which cost barely over $20,000, can certainly cruise at 100 mph. But the safety features aren't designed for that velocity. I'd need better tires, more airbags, a somewhat wider track and so forth to make German-style speeds reasonable for a cautious family man like myself. Perhaps electronic auto-piloting will be able to play a role. For the right to drive over 100 mph, I'd be willing to pay more for safety features and put up with a special high-speed drivers' training course and annual safety inspections. While the death rate in Germany in 1970 was substantially higher per mile driven than in the U.S., the Germans have managed to close 97% of the gap, even as their speeds have increased.
Today's American roads are in shameful shape. I recall driving 95 mph in a rattletrap Fiat on a Brussels freeway, a feat made possible only by Belgium's wonderfully smooth roads. American roads fall apart quickly because American politicians like handing out more road rebuilding contracts to their close personal friends, those generous folks in the road-building industry.
Interstate highways would have to be redesigned, with three lanes to accommodate cars going 70, 90, and 110+. They'd also need more sweeping curves and broader shoulders. Obviously, American autobahns are more practical in eastern Wyoming than in Vermont, much less in downtown LA. Politically, that ought to be fine with the GOP. One of the purposes of the project would be to prevent the depopulation of the Republican Great Plains and Midwest.
7] Stomp on Lyme Disease. The medical establishment is slowly starting to realize that this is a much more widespread and serious problem than they had thought. The symptoms extend far beyond joint pains to fatigue and even cognitive problems. In the Northeast, fear of deer ticks is - not at all unreasonably - causing parents to keep their kids indoors. A friend of mine spent a fortune buying two acres in a suburb of New York City so his kids could play in the woods. His son immediately came down with Lyme disease. My oldest boy somehow got it too, while we were living in Chicago, where it is supposedly nonexistent. We need a better vaccine and better antibiotics.
8] Stop robotically condemning homeowners for what is disparagingly called "Not In My Back Yard" responses to proposed developments. The GOP shouldn't view as pests homeowners who have invested a lot of money in backyards for their kids. Instead, it should view them as a constituency to be coddled.
The problem with the NIMBY impulse isn't that homeowners want to protect their investments in backyards. That's only natural. What isn't natural is how many millions more backyards there are each decade. During the Nineties, the U.S. grew by a record setting 32.7 million people. Today's growth is almost wholly a function of the 1965 Immigration Act.
Conservatives lament how hard it has become to build power plants in the deserts and canyonlands of California due to urban sprawl. What they forget is that those NIMBY protestors are generally white Republicans who have been driven into California's scorched interior by the immigrant tidal wave into the mellow coastal regions.
9] Fight urban sprawl. But don't do it the anti-freedom Goreite way. Liberals want to force you to raise your kids in apartments. But the way to cut down on sprawl and NIMBY protests is by going to the root of the problem and cutting down the number of immigrants. (See my "Green Gag" for an account of how leftist environmentalists have hamstrung themselves on doing anything effective about population growth because of their terror of offending the immigration lobby.)
Okay, that's enough ideas from me. You can probably invent better ones yourself. The point is, though, that conservatives need to think hard about inventing a patriotic, pro-family conservation program. Otherwise, the Republicans are going to continue to lose their crucial white voters.
April 24, 2001