Conservative environmentalism: Who's greening whom?


My dictionary (Webster's Third) is obviously way out of date. It defines a conservative as "one who adheres to traditional time-tested, long-standing, methods, procedures or views: a moderate, cautious or discreet person."

When the Republicans took power in Congress last year, most of them called themselves conservatives. But their behavior since then has been quite the opposite of moderate, cautious or discreet.

Using their relatively small majority in both houses, they have mounted a rapid and ferocious assault against time-tested, long-standing federal methods and procedures for curbing abuses of economic power, buffering the impact of poverty, providing equal justice for all citizens in the courts, shielding consumers from fraud and abuse and, above all, protecting public health, safety and the environment.

Now along comes Gordon K. Durnil, former state chairman of the Republican Party in Indiana - the heartland of Dan Quayle conservatism - to tell us that a conservative environmentalist is not an oxymoron. Conservative and conservation, he reminds us, have the same root and there should be no conflict between them.

The most salient message of Durnil's "The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 200 pages. $19.95), therefore, is that old political labels are becoming increasingly meaningless. If Durnil is a conservative then the Republicans in Congress who call themselves conservatives most certainly are not. They are libertarian anarchists who are seeking to remove governmental restraint to Darwinian competition, or corporate socialists who are using the federal machinery to transfer wealth and power to business and industry. Paradoxically, but frequently, they are both.

What they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, are environmentalists.

Durnil's own green epiphany took place rather late in his life, after President Bush appointed him chairman of the International Joint Commission. The commission was created by the United States and Canadian governments to address problems along the long border between the two countries. In recent years, it has paid a great deal of attention to environmental problems, particularly to the pollution of the Great Lakes by toxic substances.

Despite his ingrained conservatism, Durnil kept an open mind as he listened to testimony before the commission from scientists and environmentalists. The evidence they presented showed that the air and water quality of the Great Lakes region, and the health of people who lived in the region, were being put at risk by a wide range of industrial toxics, including lead, mercury, DDT, PCBs and other chlorine-based chemicals.

He was appalled by data that suggested toxic chemicals might be causing increases in breast cancer among women, reducing male fertility, affecting children's behavior and intelligence and, possibly, contributing to abnormalities in social behavior and sexual preferences. He was particularly disturbed by compelling evidence presented by Dr. Theo Colburn that people's endocrine systems are being disrupted by chemicals in the environment.

Chagrin and horror

As a result of what he heard, Durnil became convinced that "there is a need to ensure immediate action to stem and eventually reduce to zero the human-caused flow of persistent toxic substances into the air, water, and ground." To the chagrin and horror of the chemical industry, the commission did, during his tenure, call for "sunsetting" products based on chlorine, a basic foodstock chemical of modern industrial society.

And how is the goal of zero discharges of harmful pollutants to be reached? Simple, says Durnil. Conservative industrialists will see that it is in their best interest over the long run to refrain from polluting in order to avoid regulation and the need for constant re-tooling. "JUST DON'T DO IT in the first place," is his prescription. "Think about morality and the Golden Rule," he advises the leaders of corporations with revenues of billions of dollars annually from the production and sale of the dangerous substances.

Despite his faith in conservative virtue and his dislike of government limitations on the rights of individuals, Durnil does confess to being upset about the fact that the governments of the U.S. and Canada are continuing to let industry put toxic chemicals into the environment. Enforcement should not be bought off by corporate lobbyists.

At times he even sounds like - dare it be said? - a progressive environmentalist. He calls for an ecosystem approach to protecting the environment and he is convinced that there need be no conflict between economic protection and economic growth and prosperity for the nation.

The opening in Durnil's mind about toxic substances is not wide enough to accommodate a broad environmental agenda. He worries that too much money is spent on "tree hugging" and he remains unconvinced about "such esoteric theories as global warming." He finds many environmentalists are "socialists," a prevailing article of belief among the political right in the U.S. but something I have not discovered in my nearly 20 years covering the environmental beat.

Toward the end of his book, Durnil puts his partisan blinders back on. Without a word about how the current Republican majority in Congress is rampaging with fire and sword through the nation's environmental laws and regulations, he asserts that the best opportunity for combining economic growth and environmental protection would come with the Republican Party in control of the White House as well as Capitol Hill.

He is quite sincere and earnest in his belief, however, that taking care of the environment should be a central concern of conservative Republicans. And until fairly recently it was.

The modern environmental era began during the administration of Republican Theodore Roosevelt. Before the Reagan presidency, environmental protection enjoyed reasonably bipartisan support and even during that era some of the legislators most committed to a healthly environment were Republicans. One of the most active and effective periods for the Senate Environment Committee was when it was led in the early 1980s by Sen. Robert Stafford of Vermont, and its chief subcommittee headed by Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, both Republicans.

The Republicans now in power, however, have mounted a savage attack on environmental law. As Brownen Maddox recently noted in the Financial Times, hardly an organ of liberalism, these are seeking to "erase the U.S. environmental rulebook." Their disingenuously labeled "regulatory reform" bills would drastically curtail the federal government's ability to enforce the landmark laws enacted since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Just to make sure, they are trying to dilute the laws themselves, starting with the Clean Water Act and with stated intentions of moving against the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, toxic waste legislation and more. With their efforts to remove obstacles to exploitation of public lands and resources for the benefit or agribusiness, timber, cattle, mining and energy interests, they seem to be trying to take the country back a hundred years to the robber baron assault on federal domain.

Tort reform

And, not content with weakening the Federal government's ability to defend public health and the environment, they are attempting, through so-called tort reform, to make it more difficult for citizens to mount legal defenses against abuses by business and industry.

This reality seems has not shaken Durnil's ideological rectitude. His definition of a conservative seems to be someone who is intelligent, virtuous, self-reliant and Christian. (Am I a conservative? Three out of four isn't bad!)

He also believes government should stay out of people's and business' lives. But this bedrock principle of conservatism was modified a bit by his conversion to environmentalism.

* Philip Shabecoff is founding publisher of Greenwire, a daily environmental news service. He was a reporter for the New York Times for 32 years, the last 14 as its environmental correspondent in Washington. "A Fierce Green Fire," his book about the U.S. environmental movement, was published in 1993. His next book, "A New Name for Peace: Environment, Development and Democracy," will be published by the University Press of New England early next year.

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