In his State of the Union address, the President called on the nation to “make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water.” He called protecting the environment “a cause beyond party and beyond factions.”
The year was 1970 and the President was Richard Nixon. He would go on to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and sign several landmark pieces of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and Endangered Species Act (1973). All passed with large majorities of Republican support. No one considered this odd, because environmental protection was a key conservative cause. William F. Buckley Jr. called it “overdue for government to assert its responsibility in these matters.” Barry Goldwater was a member of the Sierra Club.
Fast forward to 2016. It’s been more than a quarter century since the U.S. federal government passed a major environmental law—the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, a response to acid rain signed by George H.W. Bush. The Republican Party is almost uniformly hostile to environmental regulation, if not the environment itself. Greens, reviled by conservatives, have won a few battles but largely failed at the national policy level. Federal spending on conservation and enforcement has fallen precipitously. Most Americans say they support the environment, but rank it low on their list of priorities. In the 2012 general election presidential debates, the issue of climate change never came up.
“How is it possible that, at the same time when the need for environmental action has never been more compelling, the green agenda has been stalled, with half the country actively hostile and the other half not caring very much?” asks Frederic Rich in Getting to Green. “The answer is clear: politics.”
From the anti-environmentalism of Ronald Reagan, to the deliberate disinformation campaigns of rightwing think tanks underwritten by the fossil-fuel industry, to the obliging ignorance of the Tea Party, the historical affinity of conservatives for conservation has been broken. The hyper-partisanship of the last two decades, Rich writes, has produced “the disastrous transformation of the environment from common cause to divisive wedge.”
Rich, who has worked as a corporate lawyer as well as an environmental advocate, calls this divide the “Great Estrangement.” He deems it an aberration, and argues that there is a way to reclaim bipartisan consensus on protecting the environment. His solution, which he calls Center Green, involves getting both sides to back off of long standing positions.
He faults conservatives for refusing to accept basic science and losing sight of core values having to do with responsibility and restraint. There is, he observes, “nothing remotely conservative about saving a few bucks now by dumping carbon into the atmosphere or garbage into the ocean, and leaving future generations to deal with the consequences.”
Conversely, Rich faults greens for making apocalyptic predictions that lead to paralysis induced by despair, recalling Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 pronouncement: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” He believes environmentalists have also hurt their cause by appearing “hostile to business and economic growth” and “dreaming the impossible dream of the demise of corporate capitalism.” This feeds into a narrative of extremism pushed by corporate polluters and their cronies, so that “the green menace [has] replaced the red menace in the mouths of conservatism’s most extreme ideologues.”
Greens, he advises, should understand that neither conservatives nor capitalism are going away anytime soon. He urges them to embrace the notion, as some have done, that “the market can be part of the solution rather than the heart of the problem.” His central example of success concerns the explosion, in recent decades, of conservation land trusts.
Today, more than 1,700 organizations across the nation are involved in this cause. Organic farmers and cattle ranchers, rednecks, and treehuggers all see merit in preserving land through public and private trusts, often through the use of tax credits. Between 1980 and 2010, Rich says, land groups “permanently protected about fifty million acres of conservation lands, about the same area protected by the entire National Park Service.”
John Scott Watson conveys a similar optimism about how land trusts can be used to enhance the environment, not by fighting the prerogatives of capitalism but by invoking them. His book Prairie Crossing documents a success story in environmental protection—a “conservation community” in northern Illinois, built around a set of ideals that includes making a buck.
“Conservation communities attempt to change the way we build neighborhoods and towns to bring back some measure of ecological balance to the economics of homebuilding,” writes Watson, a lecturer in the political science department of the University of Illinois, Chicago. This approach “saves green open space through the real-estate value of the land itself.”
Prairie Crossing, which opened for occupancy in 1994, is built on 677 acres of land in the small community of Grayslake, about forty miles north of Chicago. More than two-thirds of the property, including a small artificial lake and restored prairie, is protected open space. It has 359 single-family homes and thirty-six condominiums clustered in small groups throughout the development, which includes an organic farm and public charter elementary school that serves the surrounding area.
Watson, who is married to Anne-Marie Cusac, a contributor and former staffer at The Progressive, takes a long and mostly loving look at this development as a potential national model. The for-profit project’s developers, George and Vicky Ranney, set forth a series of principles, from energy conservation to fostering a sense of place. Prairie Crossing’s goal, according to project environmental manager Michael Sands, is “to demonstrate how development can improve the environment.”
That may sound oxymoronic. But, as Watson points out, restoring complex habitats like prairies in a world forever altered by human impacts requires human intervention, through active restoration and controlled burns. That process is aided by having a community of people devoted to a piece of land.
Prairie Crossing is now home to about 130 bird species, more than at a nearby state nature preserve. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (thank you very much, Dick Nixon) has cited the development as a prime example of native landscaping. It’s not been a complete success: The project with its pricey homes has failed to meet its goals for racial diversity, and many residents have declined to take advantage of available mass transit. But Watson’s research shows refreshingly high levels of civic engagement, especially at the local level, among Prairie Crossing’s residents.
Watson quotes a 2012 Pew Research Center report that found, “No issue divides more along partisan lines than the importance of environmental protection.” But this, he notes, is belied by the uniformity of agreement over land trusts, which one biological scientist called “the most successful and exciting force in U.S. land conservation today, and perhaps the most effective component of the whole environmental movement.” Conservation communities are part of this trend.
According to Watson, there are now more than 100 conservation communities throughout the United States, protecting “nearly every type of ecosystem.” Prairie Crossing serves as an especially compelling example of how these can work. As he puts it, “The future of conservation in America is not in the national park but in the suburban backyard.”
But can this bipartisan accord over land trusts serve as a template for other environment issues? Frederic Rich believes it can.
Take climate change, for example. Rich, applying his Center Green approach, has some tough advice for both sides of a debate on which there should not be sides at all.
He thinks conservative leaders must cast off their “irrational denial” of the problem and embrace “solutions and adaptations that reflect conservative values.” And liberals, he says, need to stop refusing to compromise on unachievable goals and embrace whatever approaches make a positive difference, however slight.
Rich is especially critical of the decision by climate change activists to focus resources on a largely symbolic fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, which, he says, will not prevent the transport of tar-sands oil or have a significant impact on overall carbon emissions. Yes, victory was achieved, for now, after a six-year fight, when Obama denied the pipeline’s permit. But meanwhile, “We created a potent issue that energized the anti-green right, caused significant political complications for a friendly President, and, most importantly, distracted the public and committed greens from making real progress on far more pressing environmental issues.”
On the other side are Republicans who chortle with contempt over suggestions that a rapidly warming climate is some sort of a problem. Rich still finds reason to be optimistic, noting that conservatives as well as liberals may agree on making communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change. In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, for instance, “Conservatives who never would have attended a meeting on global warming came to workshops to discuss their town’s response to sea level rise.” Since some negative consequences of climate change are now inevitable, adaptation is necessary. So why not start with that and see if it can lead to other areas of agreement?
Here and elsewhere, Rich argues, “Greens must bring the case home, and feel comfortable—as conservatives always have—invoking without embarrassment love of home, love of place, love of country, inspiring people to protect the things they love.” He doesn’t think it will be possible to win all rightwingers over—just enough to make unified national action on environmental issues possible again.
This is precisely what has made conservation communities work—the notion that people who disagree about other things can find common ground when it comes to nature. There is no suggestion in Watson’s book that the level of ecological concern among Prairie Crossing residents has anything to do with whether they consider themselves conservative or progressive. They care about the environment because they consider it their home.
So should we all.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive.