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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2008
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Sierra Magazine
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Create | the politics of tomorrow
Reckless Conservatism
Risking polar bears for another oil well
By Carl Pope
September/October 2008

Carl PopeNot all conservatives have it in for polar bears. South Carolina state senator John Courson (R), for example, loves to photograph them. "I've been to Churchill, Manitoba," the former campaign director for the late senator Strom Thurmond (R) told me a year ago, "and I've seen global warming happening." Since that visit, Courson has played a major role in getting his state to come to grips with climate change.

You might think that devotees of traditional values would be natural defenders of a traditional climate, but Courson's commonsense, conservative approach is sadly rare. On the contrary, pundits and politicians on the right largely scorned the Bush administration's belated listing of the polar bear in May. The Heritage Foundation suggested that the listing would hurt conservation efforts, reasoning that less oil drilling in the bear's habitat would result in less revenue for Alaska, and thus less funding for its environmental programs. In a policy brief, the American Enterprise Institute weighs Alaska's 3,500 "conveniently charismatic" polar bears against an estimated potential of 7 billion barrels of oil in the Beaufort Sea: "With oil at over $100 a barrel ... these are some very expensive polar bears."

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne isn't exactly a bear lover either; as governor of Idaho, he sued to stop a plan to reintroduce grizzlies ("massive, flesh-eating carnivores") to his state. In this case, he illegally delayed listing the polar bear as a threatened species until after he had leased prime bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea to Big Oil. But that wasn't enough for the anti-bear brigade. George Will devoted an entire Washington Post column to attacking the notion of taking action now to prevent polar bears from becoming extinct in the future. Rush Limbaugh ridiculed photographs of stranded bears: "They're just out there just playing around.... You know, just like your cat goes to its litter box."

There's more here than the usual shilling for the oil industry, and as usual, Will is ready to connect the dots: "What Friedrich Hayek called the 'fatal conceit'--the idea that government can know the future's possibilities and can and should control the future's unfolding--is the left's agenda." Environmentalism, Will explicitly states, "is the old 'red left' revised." Our concern for the future, he proclaims, is bogus--it's simply a ploy to "enlarge the state's supervision of life, narrowing individual choices."

This is the crux. The notion that we should try to anticipate the consequences of our actions, and take responsibility for them on behalf of future generations, is anathema to the right. Will and the rest are enamored of the idea that human life is about taking risks--even with the lives of our children and grandchildren. Right-wing economists routinely insist that we needn't consider harm to future generations from our actions because they will be so rich that we don't owe them anything. (In that, they are little different from one of Teddy Roosevelt's old-guard congressional opponents, who famously stormed, "What has posterity ever done for me?") This same recklessness underpins many of our other current catastrophes, from the Iraq War to the subprime mortgage meltdown.

To see how far conservatism has fallen, compare the screeds of the anti-polar-bear lobby with this quote from the father of conservatism, 18th-century British parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke: "Society is a partnership ... not only between those who are living, but between those who are ... to be born." Or consider Barry Goldwater's hero, historian Russell Kirk, writing on the environmental crisis in the 1960s: "The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining ... is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors." By contrast, you can almost see Will's lip curled in disdain as he closes his column: "Onward, green soldiers, into preventive war on behalf of some bears...."

The "green soldiers" Will scorns are not crypto-Marxists, enviro-authoritarians, or even necessarily Democrats. They are simply real conservatives--and our country could use more of them.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail

Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission.

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