Following the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on human society and the environment, many have lauded what it says about the climate. The Sierra Club pontificated that “Pope Francis’ guidance as a pastor and a teacher shines a light on the moral obligation we all share to address the climate crisis that transcends borders and politics.” The Center for Biological Diversity also praised the Holy Father’s “bold call for climate action” which “highlight[s] our moral duty to protect vulnerable people and our environment from global warming.” These popish stalwarts have been oddly silent about Francis’ condemnation of population control programs dressed up as environmentalism.
It is no surprise that progressive statists love the Bishop of Rome’s challenge to the fossil fuel-driven capitalist economy. But what are conservatives, who are sometimes said to hate environmentalism, to make of the message? The Pope lays down some expectations on this point: Christians who ridicule or ignore environmental concerns are challenged to an ecological conversion. (LS 217) Those bringing irony and disdain for doomsday predictions need not apply. (LS 161)
So, are conservatives done hating environmentalism? It depends, as it always does, on what the terms mean: what is environmentalism, and what is hating? Does one hate environmentalism, or the environment, by refusing to subscribe to the Sierra Club’s prescriptions? Rod Dreher, neologizer of the term “crunchy cons” (environmentalist conservatives) has argued that conservatives hate environmentalism (e.g., they lack interest in global warming) because concern for the environment has not been adequately framed for conservatives.
I have spent decades engaged in framing questions of property and natural resource use for judges, lawyers, legislators, regulators, lobbyists, activists, and voters. Framing is how advocates elicit agreement from those whose consent is needed, but whose priorities lead elsewhere. In general, it is the expedient thing to do when trying to persuade someone who does not share your principles.
Framing turns out to be one of the problems here. Conservatives experience environmentalism primarily as a program to frustrate property rights and economic and social freedom, which activists frame as concern for life (moral equivalence of the natural world with human needs), the poor (environmental justice), economic prosperity (green jobs), and messianic purpose (changing the future variation of the climate, all over the world). Conservatives look behind the stated intentions of passionate reformers to follow the money and the power. And when they examine many environmentalist claims this way, they tend to find an effort to hide the first principles. They see framing instead of truth.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ exclusion of climate moderates from a supposed scientific conference leading up to Laudato Si’s release reinforces this diagnosis. The Academy’s absurd assertion of consensus while excluding dissenting voices may have a homey feel to those who know their way around a faculty lounge, but it tells serious observers that the point is to spread propaganda, not knowledge.
So what do conservatives, especially Christians, find when they think their way around the framing to the principles? They find professional environmentalists to be deeply misanthropic. With reason: the Foundation for Deep Ecology’s Platform blithely states that the “flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population.” The next sentence asserts that such a decrease is required for nonhuman life to flourish. Nor is the Foundation for Deep Ecology an outlier. Robert Zubrin’s recent book, Merchants of Despair, details the broad connections between the population control and international environmental movements.
Crunchy cons will protest that this is not the style of environmentalism being argued for, and that Francis expressly condemns population control and more generally criticizes extreme environmentalism in Laudato Si. That he does. (LS 50, 90-91) And, Francis gives Christians sound reasons for caring about and acting on environmental issues, based on a deep theological reflection on the nature of creation. (LS 64) But that does not make Francis the intellectual leader of environmentalism. Dreher’s crunchy cons do not even remotely share the field with the extremists in this movement. Radicals dominate the legal, policy, funding and cultural aspects of environmentalism. This establishment is constantly framing its radicalism to appeal to those who, on the natural, decline to enlist in the cause of substantially decreasing the human population. This is how many conservatives understand environmentalism: one face of the culture of death, masquerading (or framing itself) as normal and even conservative.
And yet, Francis reasonably distinguishes extreme misanthropic forms of environmentalism. Setting the radicals aside for a moment, does the Pope make a conservative case for environmentalism? Why would conservatives lack interest in that?
To advance the dialogue for which Francis calls, it is necessary to face what environmentalism has wrought for conservatives, and communities with which they identify, especially in the American West. The Progressive settlement of the Western states centered on federally managed natural resource bases (forests, irrigation and power projects, grazing and mining enterprises). Under this paradigm, countless rural communities relied for generations on the productive use of federally managed lands. Environmentalism has done enormous direct harm to the communities, trades, and traditional ways of life that were organized around these federally controlled resources. Environmentalist demands are framed to sound simple and self-evidently proper to conservative urbanites or Easterners (“no more corporate welfare!”), but the truth hidden in the framing is that these are matters of cultural life and death to rural Americans in the West. One thinks that Francis would approve of these communities generally. He speaks eloquently about local communities destroyed by irresponsible foreign investment. But Laudato Si’s repeated encouragement to environmental groups to continue their efforts fails to appreciate that many environmentalists have been actively destroying communities, local resource bases, and traditional ways of life.
Francis also calls for more restrictive environmental laws and more aggressive enforcement. But the arbitrary and punitive enforcement of high-minded environmental laws by the modern administrative state is a deeply anti-conservative reality today. Too many small farmers and landowners on the receiving end of these laws find their property converted into government run preserves, through means that offend the conservative principle of the rule of law. Injury piles on insult as the victims of these impositions learn that the constitutional guarantees of due process and compensation have not caught up with these types of takings. This bureaucratic tyranny is egged on by activists, who tout themselves and the bureaucrat as the sole authorities for how someone else’s property is to be conserved.
Property is another point of departure for conservatives and environmentalism. Francis recites the reasonable relationship which the Church always has between property and the common good, but applying the general principles leads quickly to a lot of details, where many devils lurk. Conservatives certainly believe in and practice what many today trendily call ‘stewardship.’ Conservatives are more than happy to conserve what is theirs. They do not care for those who claim the authority to conserve what is not theirs. Here again, framing environmentalism for a conservative audience founders on a conservative principle: responsibility for and authority over one’s own property, and respect for other people’s property and the reasonable choices they make with it.
On issues of the commons, conversely, conservatives can be thoroughly “environmentalist.” There may be someone who honestly likes smog and self-identifies as conservative, but I doubt it. Conservatives object to dumping toxic waste in rivers, and couches and refrigerators on country roads, on the conservative legal principles of trespass and nuisance, and the protection of the common good. So, why doesn’t principled concern for the common good yield conservative support for the ultimate tragedy of the commons, anthropogenic climate change? Objection to smog, but not to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, suggests that instead of hating environmentalism as such, conservatives are choosier about whether they find environmental claims credible.
Many conservatives remain unpersuaded by the alarming predictions and hypotheses advanced by environmentalists, because they investigate and find them unsupported or rebutted by other arguments. But conservatives are also inherently skeptical of doomsday predictions, and are unlikely to change this perspective merely because Francis explicitly tells them to. The role of greenhouse gas emissions in multi-decadal climate forecasting is the prime example, but there are many others. When every email from the Center for Biological Diversity warns that the end is near, one suspects they are writing from a political or even religious perspective, rather than a scientific one. There’s that framing thing again.
But is there no common ground? Part of the problem is that environmentalism as such consists in one side, and only one side, of every important question having to do with meeting human needs in the natural world. Environmentalism as such opposes houses, freeways, forestry, mining, farming, manufacturing, electric generation, and every other human activity, because these are the opposite of the environment. Not just this one, here today, but all of them, everywhere, always. That is its first principle.
This is not a conservative world view, and it is why framing is part of the problem, not a solution. Conservatives are suspicious of crunchy con arguments in favor of environmental goals precisely because they sound like the radical agenda being misrepresented (or framed) to appeal to conservatives—“you should support greenhouse gas limits because you recognize that God made the world and it is good.” Well, God did make the world, and it is good, and Laudato Si is a beautiful theological and anthropological reflection on these truths with important lessons for human society. But the rest is a non sequitur if the anthropogenic carbon dioxide level is not harming the world (a question well outside Francis’s charter). And if harm is being done, a concrete and authentic love for the environment says nothing about how to prevent or redress it, let alone provide any support for the least-conservative-thing-in-the-history-of-the-world UN Framework Agreement on Climate Change.
A reassessment of the value of non-consumptive goods in the created world has certainly been in order since the industrial revolution, and Francis has solidly advanced the work on this topic that his immediate predecessors began. But with its subordination of human needs to the supposed demands of nature, modern environmentalism cannot credibly convince conservatives that it has accomplished or even contributed much to that reappraisal. Environmentalism as a movement also derives too much from the administrative state and the rejection of property rights and the rule of law for it to appeal to conservatives. When the movement fails to elicit conservative support for its practical goals, the problem is not inadequate framing, or failing to selectively quote Francis effectively. It is the lack of foundational principles that are actually conservative.
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