The conservative case for environmentalism

You can’t have trillion dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.
— John Boenher, Speak of the US House of Representatives

When Congress passed the economic stimulus bill in 2009, it transformed the political landscape. The bill was designed to avert a second Great Depression. But it had other effects too, becoming the catalyst for a new political movement: the Tea Party, representing those fed up with what they saw as a reckless government, spending the country into oblivion.

Desperate to contain a movement that would prove as much a threat to his own party as to the other side, soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner tried to harness their fury as his own, with the following words on national TV:

They’re scared to death about the future for their kids and their grandkids… They’re concerned about the amount of spending that’s going on in Washington and the amount of debt that’s being piled up. They know that you can’t have trillion dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

With each new debate over government spending — the debt ceiling drama, the fiscal cliff, the OTHER debt ceiling drama — conservatives have repeated Boehner’s argument.

Although it’s been many years since I labeled myself a conservative, this particular argument still resonates. There’s something morally compelling about it — the idea that we shouldn’t to spend money we don’t have to reap the benefits now and leave our kids and grandkids to pick up the tab. We know it’s wrong. We feel it in our guts.

So why don’t we feel the same way when it comes to the environment?

The question is whether we’re consistent in our application of a “don’t make our kids pick up the tab” ethic. Shouldn’t those who are fond of making this argument when it comes to fiscal policy also be some of the most avid campaigners for the environment? After all, at the end of the day, environmental responsibility is at least partly about leaving the earth in good shape for the generations that come after us.

It seems to me you could take John Boehner’s original quote and swap “trillion dollar deficits” for any number of things…

You can’t have endless consumption for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

You can’t have cheap, polluting energy for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

You can’t have mountains of garbage for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

You can’t keep emitting greenhouse gases for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

The environmental implications of this ethic were driven home for me several years ago during a conversation about nuclear power, an issue that divides even ardent environmentalists. Sure, nuclear energy has the ability to meet the world’s growing electricity demands — without all the nasty CO2 emissions. But the byproduct of nuclear energy, high-level radioactive waste, takes tens or even hundreds of thousands of years to decay.

Every time we turn on a light powered by nuclear energy, we’ve committed not one or two but several hundred generations to looking after the by-product of our momentary consumption. We enjoy all the benefits, while leaving the tab for our children and grandchildren — and great-great-great-great grandchildren — to pick up (or bury under a mountain somewhere).

The generations who look after this waste will enjoy none of the benefits from its production, only the consequences — which include the potential for radioactive material to seep into groundwater, rivers, and soil. Because let’s face it: the energy industry doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to foolproof methods of extracting, transporting, and storing stuff.

Deepwater Horizon.

The Kalamazoo River oil spill.

(Or the other 300 some-odd pipeline leaks in the US since 2000.)


As one last example, take a seemingly simpler problem: plastic bags. These guys take around 500 years to decompose — and that’s assuming adequate exposure to air, something hard to come by in a heavily compacted landfill. We toss almost 500 billion plastic bags into the trash every year — garbage that will linger for generations, all for the sake of a few minutes’ convenience.

We don’t have the moral right to make our consumption someone else’s problem — whether we’re talking about budget deficits or natural resources. If it makes for compelling fiscal policy, then it makes for compelling environmental policy, too.

What kind of world are we going to leave our kids? That’s the question that motivated this one-time conservative to care more about the environment.

Making our trash someone else’s problem

Kurt Willems has an interesting post about the Seattle City Council’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags.

In 2008, Seattle tried to impose a fee on plastic shopping bags, but voters overturned it after a petition drive funded by the plastics industry.

Kurt thinks the ban is a good idea, and I agree. But some of my libertarian friends raise an important point: they say while it’s good for individuals to make eco-friendly choices, governments have no business legislating something just because it happens to be a good idea.

Is this a cop-out? A feeble excuse from those with no real intention of making eco-friendly choices?

Not necessarily. One friend who made this very argument also puts his kids in cloth diapers. He uses reusable garbage bags. (I don’t even do that.) He’s walking the talk, as they say.

I happen to be skeptical of big government, without necessarily being anti-government. (I think government has a legitimate responsibility to regulate, within reason, a wide range of things.)

But I’m equally skeptical of big business, without being anti-business. The market plays a vital role in creating economic opportunity for billions. But what happens when a business becomes larger than some countries? Wal-Mart, for example, would be the world’s 25th largest economy if it were a country. Who holds them accountable? Individual consumers? Not likely.

Back to the point: should governments be deciding whether or not we can use disposable shopping bags? Has the Seattle City Council overstepped its bounds? Should environmental responsibility be a personal choice rather than a mandate?

The “personal choice” argument might work if no one else is affected by your behavior. In other words, if you’re the only one impacted by your decision to use a disposable shopping bag, then fine. You should be able to carry on, free from government interference.

But what if you’re not the only person affected by your behavior? Does government have a responsibility to intervene when your choices negatively impact others?

Consider that it takes around 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose. As I understand it, even biodegradable bags take a long time to break down, because decomposition requires air, and there’s not much of that to be found inside a heavily compacted landfill. (Thanks to Dan Martin for providing sharing this insight.)

Something from which we derive a few minutes’ use will spend centuries in a landfill.

So here’s my question. Do we have the moral right to make our trash someone else’s problem? We derive all the benefit; our children and grandchildren get to deal with our mess.

“It’s just a plastic bag,” someone might say. Except that it’s 500 billion plastic bags every year. One million every minute. And almost 90% of them wind up in landfills, where they will continue to be someone else’s problem, long after we’re gone.

Do we have that right?

Do Christians, for whom the second greatest commandment is “love your neighbor,” have that right?

Might our “neighbors” include those who inherit the earth after us?

And do governments have a moral obligation to protect others from the negative consequences of our bad behavior?

Some politicians in the US follow this line of reasoning when they protest the growing federal debt. They say it’s not right for us to spend money we don’t have and leave the bill for our kids and grandkids.

They have a point. But perhaps the same logic applies to the debate over plastic bags, nuclear energy, and other environmental issues.