Readings — From the May 2014 issue

Green Old Party

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By Ralph Nader, from Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, published last month by Nation Books.

In the appendix to his 1974 book, Conservatism Revisited, Peter Viereck called the young people marching and acting for environmental protection in the early Seventies “unconsciously conservative” for protesting “against what Melville called ‘the impieties of progress.’ ” In fact, the movement against despoilment of land, air, and water in the United States was started by Theodore Roosevelt and his fellow Republicans, who established the national forests, the great national parks, and other reserves for posterity to enjoy.

Their sense of the necessity — not just the pleasure — of communion between nature and the human spirit was an extension of biblical wisdom and of a nineteenth-century belief in the need to husband resources. Conservative philosophers had long preached a conservation ethic, grounded in the sense of holding a public trust for those who followed them. Though not always explicit, this view animated Roosevelt’s peers, from Gifford Pinchot to John Muir, and maintained an influence on the party right down to the Nixon Administration. Under Nixon, Congress passed the major environmental laws of our generation, bolstered by his signature and by eloquent supporting statements. Besides being deeply impressed (or alarmed) by the massive turnout for Earth Day in 1970, Nixon knew that poll after poll showed Republicans themselves favored saving the natural world from plunder and pollution.

Around this time, Russell Kirk, the grand savant of modern conservatism, wrote that “the issue of environmental quality is one which transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a cause which can attract, and very sincerely, liberals, conservatives, radicals, reactionaries, freaks, and middle-class straights.” More recently, the British political philosopher John Gray has noted, “Far from having a natural home on the Left, concern for the integrity of the common environment, human as well as ecological, is most in harmony with the outlook of traditional conservatism of the British and European varieties.” To which Kirk added, “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.”

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