Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Doing Justice to Environmental Complexity

William Harper


August 23, 2004

On Earth Day in the Florida Everglades this past April, President Bush wielded heavy-duty pruning shears against an invasive species in front of the cameras. The pictures of the president cutting out the Purple Loosestrife represent the lowly status the environment enjoys in the president's campaign and the simplistic treatment it receives as public policy.

Throughout his first term, President Bush advocated market-based solutions to environmental problems and pursued a path of deregulation, most recently seeking to revoke the Clinton administration's Roadless Area Protection provisions for national forests.

Once Franklin Roosevelt's model of governance lost its grip on public opinion under the weight of the Great Society's failures and the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, America's political culture shifted to accept a conservative interpretation of political reality. One of the most important differences between the parties in 2004 is that the Republicans, not the Democrats, control the interpretation of the American tradition. The Democrats have not yet rebuilt a public philosophy to replace the state-centered liberalism that carried them to victories in the mid-twentieth century. The positions they take tend to be responses to conservatism's current hold on the public's imagination.

Republicans hold a four-dimensional view of government. 1) In economic issues small government and market-based strategies are preferred. 2) When national security is at stake, government intervenes energetically, with force if necessary, and does not hesitate to subordinate civil liberties to public safety. 3) When the issue is abortion or gay marriage, government defers to traditional moral values and intervenes in their defense. 4) Facing social breakdown, government promotes individual accountability and mediating institutions; it will not intervene directly but will help the helpers, a role reflected in the faith-based initiative.

Conservatism has come a long way. It can distinguish among the roles and norms of economy, national security, core moral issues, and social institutions, and it has begun to fashion appropriate governmental responses to each.

But on the environment, the Republican leadership has regressed towards a shallow libertarian treatment by designating the environment a free-market, small-government issue. Its policy proposals are a mix of market-based solutions, eased regulations, and deference to energy needs. And the Iraq crisis has further encouraged deregulation of oil exploration in the cause, if not the realistic hope, of energy independence.

The irony is that conservatism is now equipped to do better than this. Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP America) is taking a more sophisticated approach, such as offering a ten-point recommendation for addressing global climate change by means of increased federal spending on basic research, revised tax incentives for alternative fuels, tax credits for energy efficiency, and an international carbon emissions trading system. The group recognizes that a range of governmental responses is appropriate for an issue with multiple dimensions.

Like REP America, Senator John Kerry and the Democrats appreciate that the plight and future of the environment lies with personal choices, technological developments, government funding for basic research, international cooperation, and government prodding of corporations and private citizens towards more responsible behavior. But Democrats do not control the ideological climate and their proposals are vulnerable to attack as representing "state-centered liberalism."

In the meantime, Republican leadership ignores the best that its own ranks have to offer and thus fails to do justice to the environment's complexity. This may be effective election politics, but it represents poor stewardship and not even good conservatism.

—Timothy Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”