I write this from the banks of the Red Deer river in Alberta’s famous Badlands. I bought property here because I get here what I can’t really get in any city, the opportunity to be surrounded by nature: the haunted landscape, the changing weather, the trees, plants and animals, and the ever changing river that still flows strong millennia after the glaciers retreated, 70 million years after dinosaurs walked here on what was then, the Bear Paw Sea.
For the most part conservatives don’t have to be argued into becoming conservationists. Conservation comes to us, forgive me, naturally. It is in our make -up. The founder (or at least the co-founder) of modern conservatism was Russel Kirk. In 1953 Kirk chronicled conservative thought in “The Conservative Mind-Burke to Elliott. Along with William F. Buckley, Kirk launched the modern conservative era by articulating the conservative cast of mind. While the Cold War, communism, the economy, labour strife and Vietnam dominated the political discussion Kirk reminded us in 1970 in the Baltimore Sun that “nothing is more conservative than conservation.”
Today’s conservatives still believe this. In his book, How to Think Seriously about the Planet-The Case for Environmental Conservatism, Roger Scruton put it this way, “Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.” He goes on to say “The goal is to pass on to future generations, and meanwhile to maintain and enhance, the order of which we are temporary trustees.”
Because humankind has been careless with the environment in the past we sometimes think conservation is a modern concept, but it’s not. Conservation has been both advocated and practiced, though inconsistently, for millennia, at least in part because we had an obligation to future generations. From the biblical admonition that we are to be “stewards of the earth” to ancient and medieval forestry and game reserves, to national park systems created by the Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald in Canada, and the Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, in the US to the popularization of the principles of conservation by the hunter, writer, conservationist Aldo Leopold. Whatever he was politically, he was no reactionary. Then there is the religious and cultural conservatism of the iconic Wendell Berry. Let’s just say that conservatives have always laid claim to conservation.
In The Conservative Mind Kirk wrote 53 years ago, “The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining, national debts recklessly increased until they are repudiated, and continual revision of positive law, is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors.” An age without “veneration?”
Note here that Kirk is not inveighing against mining, forestry or oil and gas development. He is arguing that anyone who properly venerates the gift of nature will take care in the development of our resources.
But that is all philosophical, what about today? Who has the moral high ground in really caring about the environment? Not the radicals. Millions of conservatives were green long before Greenpeace was even conceived. There is a lot of green in the camouflage we wear to go duck hunting. There’s a lot of green in those hats that say, “John Deere.”
But the idea that conservatives actually conserve things, including the waters, land, air and habitat, is like one of those family secrets that nobody talks about. Sort of like the eccentric uncle we keep in the attic. But the truth is the biggest conservation groups in the country are made up of conservatives: Ducks Unlimited, Fish and Game Clubs, the Nature Conservancy and Delta Waterfowl are just a few examples. The biggest part of Canada’s conservation movement are those people who hunt and fish, farm, trap and log. They have cottages at the lake. The camp and hike. They feed the birds in the backyard. They have always valued and admired nature for her beauty; increasingly, they see that nature provides the ecological goods and services that make human existence possible. They number in the millions and overwhelmingly they are conservatives. They do not chain themselves to smoke stacks or block bulldozers, but they do pull up invasive weeds in the local park, clean up trash along lakeshores, or sell raffle tickets at the local Ducks Unlimited dinner. Often they work in companies that, directly or indirectly, profit from resource extraction, forestry and agriculture. They see people as part of the environment, not as something that should remain separate and apart from it.
So then, why do conservatives keep this relationship with nature a secret? Partly it’s because we don’t want to be lumped in with the radical environmentalists. Given how they sometimes conduct themselves, that’s understandable. Perhaps, conservatives naively believed that their contributions would be duly acknowledged with the passing of time. Well, that time has passed. Their story needs to be told. Let me start on it.
In 2007 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government allocated $225 million dollars for conservation, most of which was to be delivered through the Nature Conservancy, the single largest contribution ever toward land conservation in Canada. Some 4000 square kilometers of land have been preserved as a result. Under Stephen Harper Canada’s National Parks system increased in size by 50%, a fact you aren’t likely to hear from Greenpeace or David Suzuki.
Meanwhile, those duck hunters at Ducks Unlimited have helped preserve or restore over 6 million acres of wetlands, almost always working with farmers and ranchers.
Once again, Russel Kirk “The prudent stewardship of the Earth is essentially a conservative concern, not the domain of the statist progressive or the seething radical, who is more often a despiser of mankind than a lover of nature”.
It’s time conservatives came out from the shadows of the conservation movement. We have a history to be proud of and an important story to tell.
The Honourable Monte Solberg is a Principal at New West Public Affairs, and held several Ministerial portfolios in Stephen Harper’s government.