Homeland Health

Homeland Health

How Environmentalism Can Regain Lost Ground

One lesson that stands out from the 2004 elections is that the environmentalist stance is due for an overhaul. Few voters treated the environment as a decisive issue. John Kerry and other pro-environment candidates had little or nothing to say about it, presumably for fear that strong comments could cost votes. Fifteen years ago the first President Bush matter-of-factly declared himself an environmentalist. Today, few Republicans and many Democrats would accept the label only with qualifications, if at all.

Substantial credit for this anti-green shift goes to the capable and well-funded environmental opposition, which has been aided by journalists unwilling or unable to navigate polemical minefields. But just as much credit (or blame) belongs to the environmental movement itself, which is fragmented, incoherent, and disinclined or unable to defend itself against opposing claims. People are confused about what the cause seeks to accomplish and about the resulting costs. They worry also about the effects that environmental rules will have on liberty, private property, and the nation’s ability to compete internationally.

Environmentalists can turn things around if they can rethink their priorities and craft more coherent, consistent, morally compelling ways of addressing our environmental plight. The cause needs to stress new themes: the health of the land community as a whole, protecting life and creation, and investing in America’s future in ways that yield big dividends. Most of all, the movement needs to talk consistently and forcefully about good citizenship, future generations, and the morality of living responsibly.

Environmentalism is widely deemed a liberal cause. The label is apt in the sense of affirming a willingness to use government to promote the common good, but not in the classic sense of liberalism as a move to liberate individuals from limitations on the pursuit of self-interest. Environmentalism promotes human health, but has little to do directly with personal autonomy. It is better viewed as a communitarian perspective in that it promotes the healthy, long-term functioning of communities as a whole, nature included. Although environmental leaders may talk about an individual right to a healthy environment, the central strand of environmental thought focuses on nature and how humans ought to live in it. Among communitarian causes, environmentalism stands out because it defines the relevant community to include other life forms, future generations, and even the geophysical Earth itself, linked in webs of interdependence. The cause ought to enlist support from across the political spectrum.

Environmentalism grew out of the land-conservation cause, which was led during the middle decades of the last century chiefly by businesspeople. Typical of them was Republican Horace Albright—zealous advocate for National Parks from 1914 until the early 1960s; sometime head of the National Park Service; pers...