Connecting Conservatism and Liberalism Through the Environment

My recent trawls around the internet have brought up some interesting finds that seem to cross ideological lines. A week ago David Brooks fired off a column linking the recent recession to a decline in America’s financial values. Brooks decries the growth of debt and consumption as a falling away from our previous virtues of hard work and thrift. I put on my very skeptical hat whenever I hear someone talking about decline from a previous golden age, but I think that Brooks may have something.

Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.

It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.

A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.

At the same time I’ve been following some of the depressing links David Pollard has been posting on environmental decline. Pollard and the people he links to approach the problem from a liberal perspective that is different from Brooks. Sharon Astyck starts off with a piece calling for us to dream up a new life for the future.

And other analyses are equally problematic.  It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that radical lifestyle changes are coming, whether we like them or not - whether they come from adapting to a deeply damaged climate or from addressing the crisis, whether they come from adapting to depletion or from enduring it, our lifestyle will not be the same for very long.   And the danger of telling people that they can have all the things they want - a future for their children and an affluent present now - is that when they realize (and they are realizing right now) that this is not true, that there’s not enough money, or time or alternative energy to provide it, people will be very, very angry indeed.  It is not pleasant to tell people hard truths.  It is less pleasant to deal with people facing hard truths who believe they have been lied to.  I believe we are seeing the early stages of the political unrest that will accompany this sense of being lied to, of having lost more than is being accounted for on both the left or the right, and I also believe quite strongly that unless a true and comprehensible story is offered, false ones will be taken up, and used as bludgeons….

It is a counter-intuitive, and thus difficult thought,  that after a certain critical mass of affluence, better comes from less, not more.  A better future for our children comes not from greater affluence, but less, and the preservation of resources for the future.  A better life for us in the present involves fewer hours of work, and thus, more freedom - and fewer possessions and less affluence.

Astyck and Brooks are saying the same thing: we need to curb our baser impulses and live a thriftier life. One of them sees the problem as impending environmental doom the other as an economic and moral dissolution. Both of them reach the same conclusion that we need to rein in the profligate way of life we’ve become accustomed to during the past 40 years, especially in America. If there is any common ground between conservatives and liberals I think it will be built on this ground.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.