The conservative case for environmentalism

You can’t have trillion dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.
— John Boenher, Speak of the US House of Representatives

When Congress passed the economic stimulus bill in 2009, it transformed the political landscape. The bill was designed to avert a second Great Depression. But it had other effects too, becoming the catalyst for a new political movement: the Tea Party, representing those fed up with what they saw as a reckless government, spending the country into oblivion.

Desperate to contain a movement that would prove as much a threat to his own party as to the other side, soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner tried to harness their fury as his own, with the following words on national TV:

They’re scared to death about the future for their kids and their grandkids… They’re concerned about the amount of spending that’s going on in Washington and the amount of debt that’s being piled up. They know that you can’t have trillion dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

With each new debate over government spending — the debt ceiling drama, the fiscal cliff, the OTHER debt ceiling drama — conservatives have repeated Boehner’s argument.

Although it’s been many years since I labeled myself a conservative, this particular argument still resonates. There’s something morally compelling about it — the idea that we shouldn’t to spend money we don’t have to reap the benefits now and leave our kids and grandkids to pick up the tab. We know it’s wrong. We feel it in our guts.

So why don’t we feel the same way when it comes to the environment?

The question is whether we’re consistent in our application of a “don’t make our kids pick up the tab” ethic. Shouldn’t those who are fond of making this argument when it comes to fiscal policy also be some of the most avid campaigners for the environment? After all, at the end of the day, environmental responsibility is at least partly about leaving the earth in good shape for the generations that come after us.

It seems to me you could take John Boehner’s original quote and swap “trillion dollar deficits” for any number of things…

You can’t have endless consumption for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

You can’t have cheap, polluting energy for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

You can’t have mountains of garbage for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

You can’t keep emitting greenhouse gases for as far as the eye can see without imprisoning the future for our kids and theirs.

The environmental implications of this ethic were driven home for me several years ago during a conversation about nuclear power, an issue that divides even ardent environmentalists. Sure, nuclear energy has the ability to meet the world’s growing electricity demands — without all the nasty CO2 emissions. But the byproduct of nuclear energy, high-level radioactive waste, takes tens or even hundreds of thousands of years to decay.

Every time we turn on a light powered by nuclear energy, we’ve committed not one or two but several hundred generations to looking after the by-product of our momentary consumption. We enjoy all the benefits, while leaving the tab for our children and grandchildren — and great-great-great-great grandchildren — to pick up (or bury under a mountain somewhere).

The generations who look after this waste will enjoy none of the benefits from its production, only the consequences — which include the potential for radioactive material to seep into groundwater, rivers, and soil. Because let’s face it: the energy industry doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to foolproof methods of extracting, transporting, and storing stuff.

Deepwater Horizon.

The Kalamazoo River oil spill.

(Or the other 300 some-odd pipeline leaks in the US since 2000.)

Hanford.

As one last example, take a seemingly simpler problem: plastic bags. These guys take around 500 years to decompose — and that’s assuming adequate exposure to air, something hard to come by in a heavily compacted landfill. We toss almost 500 billion plastic bags into the trash every year — garbage that will linger for generations, all for the sake of a few minutes’ convenience.

We don’t have the moral right to make our consumption someone else’s problem — whether we’re talking about budget deficits or natural resources. If it makes for compelling fiscal policy, then it makes for compelling environmental policy, too.

What kind of world are we going to leave our kids? That’s the question that motivated this one-time conservative to care more about the environment.

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