What's Conservative About Conservatism?
Last modified: March 22, 2019

David W. Orr, Oberlin College


The philosophy of conservatism has swept the political field virtually everywhere, and virtually everywhere conservatives have been hostile to the cause of conservation. This is more than an ironic inconsistency. Because of the growing power of conservatives at all levels of government, the wisdom and foresight with which conservatives deal with long-term environmental issues is a matter of great consequence for the American people and for their children.

Do conservatism and conservation share more than a common linguistic heritage? I believe that they do. The present antipathy of conservatives to conservation, then, suggests, at best, confusion about what it means to be conservative relative to soils, biota, wildlife, and natural resources. To make such a case, however, it is necessary, first, to say what authentic conservatism is.

Conservative philosopher, Russell Kirk, proposes six "first principles" of conservatism. Accordingly, true conservatives:
  1. believe in a transcendent moral order;
  2. prefer social continuity, i.e. the "devil they know to the devil they don't know;"
  3. believe in "the wisdom of our ancestors;"
  4. are guided by prudence;
  5. "feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long established social institutions;" and
  6. believe that "human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults."
For Kirk the essence of conservatism is the "love of order." Eighteenth century British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, the founding father of modern conservatism and as much admired as he is unread, defined the goal of order more specifically as one which harmonized the distant past with the distant future. To this end Burke, like present-day Congressional Republicans, thought in terms of a contract, but not one about "things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature."

Burke's "societal" contract was not, in other words, about the distribution of spoils (i.e. tax breaks) but about a partnership promoting science, art, virtue, and perfection, none of which could be achieved by a single generation without veneration for the past and a healthy regard for those to follow. Burke's contract, therefore, was between "those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." And those "possessing any portion of power," in Burke's words, "ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust." For Burke then, freedom in this contractual state is "not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish Liberty. As if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will." It is rather "that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint."

As the ecological shadow of the present over future generations has lengthened, the wisdom of Burke's concern for the welfare of future generations has become more evident. If conservatism means anything at all, other than the preservation of the rules by which one class enriches itself at the expense of another, it means the conservation of what Burke called "an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate belonging to the people." Were Burke alive today there can be no doubt that he would agree that this inheritance must include not only the laws, traditions, and customs of society, but also the ecological foundations on which law, tradition, custom, and public order inevitably depend. A society that will not conserve its topsoil cannot preserve social order for long. A society that squanders its natural heritage like a spendthrift heir can build only the most fleeting prosperity, leaving all who follow in perpetual misery. And those societies that disrupt the earth's biogeochemical balances and destroy its biota are the most radical of all. If not restrained, they could force all thereafter to live in an ecological ruin and impoverishment that we can scarcely imagine.

Taking Burke's view that "society is indeed a contract" between the living, the dead, and those to be born as the standard, what can be said about the conservatism of contemporary conservatives?
  • What, for instance, is conservative about conservatives' support for below market-cost grazing fees that federal agencies charge ranchers for their use of public lands? Welfare for ranchers runs against conservatives' supposed antipathy for handouts to anyone. But that's a quibble. The more serious issue concerns the ecological effects of overgrazing which result from underpricing the use of public lands. Throughout much of the American west the damage to the ecology of fragile ecosystems is serious and increasing, with worse yet to come. In a matter of decades these trends will jeopardize a way of life and a ranching economy that can be sustained for future generations only by astute husbandry of the soils, wildlife, and biota of arid regions. The ruin now being visited on a large part of public lands for a short-lived gain for a few is a breach of trust with the future. There is nothing whatsoever conservative about a system that helps those who do not need it while failing to sustain the ecological basis for a ranching economy into the distant future.
  • What is conservative about the ongoing support many conservatives give to the Mining Law of 1872? That piece of archaic legislative banditry permits the destruction and looting of public lands in the service of private greed while requiring little or nothing in return. The result--economic profligacy and ecological ruin--meets no conceivable test of genuinely conservative ideals and philosophy. It is theft on a grand scale, permitted because of the political power of those doing the looting and the cowardice and shortsightedness of those doing the governing.

  • What is conservative about "getting government off the backs" of citizens while leaving corporations there? Burke, who had a healthy dislike for all abuses of power, would have wanted all tyranny curtailed, including that of corporations. How do price increases, for example, differ from tax increases? How do cancers caused by toxic emissions or deaths resulting from safety defects in automobiles differ from unjust executions? How does the ability of capital to abandon communities for others that it can exploit more thoroughly differ from government mismanagement? To those who suffer the consequences, such differences are largely academic. The point is lost, nonetheless, on most contemporary conservatives who often detect the sins of government in parts-per-billion while overlooking corporate malfeasance by the ton. Burke, in our time, would not have been so negligent about economic tyranny.

  • What is conservative about squandering for all time our biological heritage under the pretext of protecting temporary property rights? Conservatives have long scorned public efforts, meager as they are, to protect endangered species because, on occasion, doing so may infringe on the ability of property owners to enrich themselves. Any restrictions on private property use, even those that are beneficial to the public and in the interest of posterity, they regard as an unlawful "taking" of property. But this view of property rights finds little support in a careful reading of either John Locke, from whom we've derived much of our land-use law and philosophy or in the writings of Edmund Burke. For Locke, property rights were valid only as long as they did not infringe on the rights of others to have "enough and as good." It is reasonable to believe that this ought to include the rights of future generations to a biota as abundant and as good as that which sustained earlier generations. And for Locke, "nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy," a line that has not yet been fully noted by many conservatives. The point is that John Locke did not regard property rights as absolute even in a world with a total population of less than one billion, and neither should we in a world of 5.7 billion.

  • What's conservative about conservatives' persistent opposition to national efforts to promote energy efficiency? Even on narrow economic grounds, energy efficiency has been shown to be advantageous. The fact that the United States is half as efficient in its use of energy as Japan and Germany, for instance, places it at a competitive disadvantage estimated to be between 5-8% for comparable goods and services.

  • o What's conservative about conservatives denial of the mounting scientific evidence of impending climatic change? Nothing could be more deleterious to the interests of future generations than for this generation to leave behind an unstable climate and the possibility that those changes might be rapid and self-reinforcing. Short of nuclear war no act by the present generation would constitute a greater dereliction of duty or breech of trust with its descendants. Regardless of whether climatic change occurs as many scientists believe it may, the willingness of many "conservatives" to run the risk of irreversible global changes that would undermine the well-being of future generations is a profoundly imprudent precedent. We have no right to run such risks especially when the consequences will fall most heavily on those who can have no part in making the choice.

  • What is conservative about the extension of market philosophy and narrow economic standards into all realms of public policy? Many conservatives want to make government work just like business works. Government certainly ought to do its work efficiently, often much more efficiently than it now does. That much is common sense, but it is a far cry from believing that public affairs can be conducted as a business or that economic efficiency alone is an adequate substitute for farsighted public policy. Many things necessary for a decent society such as compassion, justice, human dignity, environmental quality, the preservation of natural areas and wildlife, art, poetry, beautiful music, good libraries, stable communities, good education, and public spiritedness can never meet a narrow test of profitability, nor should they be required to do so. This, too, is common sense. These things are good in and of themselves and should not be subject to the same standards used for selling beer and deodorants.

  • What is conservative about perpetual economic growth? Economic expansion has become the most radicalizing force for change in the modern world. Given enough time, it will first cheapen and then destroy the legacy we pass on to the future. The ecological results of economic growth at its present scale and velocity are pollution, resource exhaustion, climatic instability, and biotic impoverishment. Economic growth destroys communities, traditions, and cultural diversity. And through the sophisticated cultivation of the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust it destroys the character and virtues of the people whose wants it supposedly satisfies.
Conservatives (and liberals) have been unwilling to confront the difference between growth and real prosperity and to tally up the full costs of growth for our descendants. In the words of former Reagan administration Defense Department official, Fred Ikle, "Growth utopianism is a gigantic global Ponzi scheme (leading to) collapse, engulfing everyone one in misery." Ikle continues to say:

The cause of this collapse would not be a shortage of material goods but the destruction of society's conservative conscience by our Jacobins of growth. That conservatives, by and large, have been deeply hostile to evidence of ecological deterioration and to the cause of conservation is, I submit, profoundly un-conservative. A genuine and consistent conservatism would aim to conserve the biological and ecological foundations of social order and pass both on as part of "an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers and to be transmitted to our posterity." If words mean anything at all, there can be no other standard for an authentic conservatism.

Like that defined in Russell Kirk's "first principles" a genuine conservatism, is grounded in the belief in a transcendent moral order in which our proper role is that of trustees subject to higher authority. It would honor and respect the need for both social and ecological continuity. It would respect the wisdom of past and also the biological wisdom accumulated over millions of years of evolution. A genuine conservatism would prudently avoid jeopardizing our legacy to future generations for any reason of temporary economic advantage. It would conserve diversity of all kinds. And a genuine conservatism, "chastened" by the recognition of human imperfectability, would not create technological, economic, and social conditions in which imperfect and ignorant humans might create ecological havoc.

An authentic conservatism has much to offer in the cause of conservation. Conservatives are right that markets, under some circumstances, can be more effective tools for conservation than government regulation. Conservatives dislike of taxation might be the basis on which to shift taxes from things we want such as income and employment to things we do not want such as pollution and inefficiency. An authentic conservatism would encourage a sense of discipline, frugality, and thrift in the recognition as Burke put it that:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

A genuine conservatism would provide the philosophical bases and political arguments for prudence, precaution, and prevention in public policy and law. And a conservatism worthy of Edmund Burke would recognize the value of robust democratic institutions and vital civic traditions.

Further Reading
Burke, E., 1790/1986. Reflections on the Revolution in France. New York: Penguin.
Caldwell, L., Shrader-Frechette, K., 1993. Policy for Land. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Ikle, F., 1994. "Growth Without End, Amen?" National Review. (March 7).
Kirk, R., 1982. The Portable Conservative Reader. New York: Penguin.
Locke, J., 1690/1963. Two Treatises of Government. New York: Mentor Books.
O'Brien, C. C., 1992. The Great Melody. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ophuls, W., 1992. Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited. New York: Freeman.
Peterson, M. ed., 1975. The Portable Thomas Jefferson. New York: Viking.
von Weiszacker, E., Jesinghaus, J., 1994. Ecological Tax Reform. London: ZED Books.

David W. Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies, Oberlin College, Oberlin OH, 44074

  Contact Us © Zero Waste USA ©
Archive maintained by Laughter On Water