In his seminal work, “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mill argued that a process of free discussion and inquiry was the only sure way to gain knowledge. These ideas are paralleled in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘marketplace of ideas.’ This commitment to consensus through debate, while deeply ingrained in the political culture of the United States, is nevertheless under threat from the gaping partisan rift in contemporary America. What use is this discussion when it seems that different political sides aren’t even speaking the same language?
An excellent illustration of this phenomenon occurred in early February, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey released a proposal calling for a Green New Deal. The response was all too predictable, with liberal news sources heralding the plan as a panacea for America’s ills and conservative media decrying it as a socialist disaster. Response to the Green New Deal is best understood in a political context where the environment is a partisan issue. Even if, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you think that the proposal is rather farfetched, it is clear that the future of environmental policy in the United States is heading in a progressive direction. Indeed, it is all too easy for liberals to slip into a smug contentment on the right side of history. For the Earth’s sake, they must not.
Saving the environment is not a priority that appeals only to Democrats. A Pew Research Center poll in 2016 found that around 75 percent of Americans think that the country “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” Even with a broad partisan spilt, Republicans still had a majority in favor of the statement. Who are these Republicans and what do they believe? In the early 2000s, Rod Dreher created the term “crunchy conservative” to describe a subset of Republicans who endorsed typically liberal environmental views, who did so for a variety of religious, aesthetic and cultural reasons. A powerful strain of intellectual thought in the conservative movement fears that the uncontrolled economic growth will undermine the stability of traditional values, which include both family and nature. The fictional works of J. R. R. Tolkien provide a vivid example of such traditionalism, if one calls to mind the sharp contrast that Tolkien draws between the contentedly pastoral Shire and Saruman’s rapacious industrialization.
A seemingly more difficult case is that of the free market wing of the Republican Party. Yet here there is a case to be made for environmentalism. In a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Anderson argued for a Green Tea Party that would espouse the principles of free market environmentalism. Anderson pointed to policies such as economical use of extensive federal lands, water markets and fishery shares that would be more environmentally effective and less economically burdensome than current government solutions. This theorizing is not mere wishful thinking. Debbie Dooley, one of 22 founding members of the Tea Party, is a passionate advocate for renewable energy, particularly solar panels. While the Tea Party’s influence on Republicans has waned in recent years, it remains important in its complex relationship with Trump’s populism.
I do not claim that political consensus on environmental policy will be easy to attain. I do hope to show that underlying intellectual sympathies demonstrate a shared valuing of the environment and make a positive outcome possible. The difficult work is to give political groups a common language which they can use to generate a robust and productive policy debate. Whether the goal be environmental justice, Biblical stewardship or liberty, Americans have powerful reasons to act together to save the environment. It can be done.
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