Conservation and Conservatism

Editor’s Note: This is an old article from the journal Conservation Biology, so some of the content is historically contextual. However, some of the main insights are directly relevant to the Wild Will Coalition‘s attempts to outline the overlap between conservation and philosophical conservatism. Note, though, that where David Orr tries to sketch an overlapping sphere between moderate conservation and conservatism, the Coalition is focused mostly on drawing parallels between traditional conservatism and the real “paleoconservatism” of radical conservation. As such, many of Orr’s suggestions may seem out of place here, a radical conservation journal. This is no matter. We need the moderates too. Reprinted here with permission.

Citation: Orr, David. (Apr. 1995). Conservation and ConservatismConservation Biology 9(2), pp. 242-245.

The newly elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives recently assigned a long reading list to his colleagues. In the same pedagogical spirit and armed with a similar faith in the educability of public officials, I would like to make several modest additions to the Speaker’s list and to his colleagues’ homework. Before doing so, however, I think it necessary to explain why the Speaker and his colleagues, in the full froth of political enthusiasm, should trouble themselves with further scholarly endeavors.

The problem, for which additional reading is admittedly a woefully inadequate response, is simply this: the philosophy of free-market conservatism has swept the political field virtually everywhere, and almost everywhere conservatives have been, in varying degrees, hostile to the cause of conservation. This is a problem of great consequence for the long-term human prospect because of the sheer political power of purportedly conservative governments. Further and better reading is intended to instruct in the hope that enlightenment might show that conservatism and conservation share more than a common linguistic heritage. Consistently applied they are, in fact, natural allies. To make such a case, however, it is necessary, first, to say what conservatism is.

Conservative philosopher, Russell Kirk, proposes six “first principles” of conservatism. Accordingly, true conservatives:

  • believe in a transcendent moral order;
  • prefer social continuity, i.e., the “devil they know to the devil they don’t know”;
  • believe in “the wisdom of our ancestors”;
  • are guided by prudence;
  • “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions”; and
  • believe that “human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults” (Kirk, xv-xvii).

For Kirk (1982) the essence of conservatism is the “love of order.” Eighteenth century British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, the founding father of modern conservatism and as much admired as he is unread, defined the goal of order more specifically as one that harmonized the distant past with the distant future. To this end, Burke, like present-day Congressional Republicans, thought in terms of a contract, but not one about “things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.” Burke’s “societal” contract was not, in other words, about tax breaks, but about a partnership promoting science, art, virtue, and perfection, none of which could be achieved by a single generation without veneration for the past and a healthy regard for those to follow. Burke’s contract, therefore, was between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born…linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world” (Burke 1790/1986: 194-195). The role of government, those “possessing any portion of power,” in Burke’s words, “ought to be strongly and awefully impressed with an idea that they act in trust” (Burke 1790/1986: 190). For Burke liberty in this contractual state was “not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish Liberty. As if every man was the regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will.” Rather, he defined liberty as “social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint” (O’Brien 1992: 390).

As the ecological shadow of the present over future generations has lengthened, the wisdom of Burke’s concern for the welfare of future generations has become more evident. Moreover, if conservatism means anything at all, other than the preservation of the rules by which one class enriches itself at the expense of another, it means the conservation of what Burke called “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate belonging to the people” (Burke 1790/1986: 119). Were Burke alive today there can be no doubt that this inheritance must include not only the laws, traditions, and customs of society, but also the ecological foundations on which law, tradition, custom, and public order inevitably depend. A society that will not conserve its topsoil cannot preserve social order for long. A society that wastes its natural heritage like a spendthrift heir can build only the most fleeting prosperity, leaving all who follow in perpetual misery. And those societies that disrupt the earth’s biogeochemical balances and destroy its biota are the most radical of all. If not restrained, they could force all thereafter to live in ecological ruin and impoverishment that we can scarcely imagine.

Taking Burke’s view that “society is indeed a contract” between the living, the dead, and those to be born as the standard, what can be said about the conservatism of contemporary conservatives? What, for instance, is conservative about conservatives’ support for below-market-cost grazing fees that federal agencies charge ranchers for their use of public lands? Welfare for ranchers run against conservatives’ supposed antipathy for handouts to anyone. But that’s a quibble. The more serious issue concerns the ecological effects of overgrazing which result from underpricing the use of public lands. Throughout much of the American west the damage to the ecology of fragile ecosystems is serious and increasing, with worse yet to come. In a matter of decades these trends will jeopardize a way of life and a ranching economy that can be sustained for future generations only by astute husbandry of soils, wildlife, and biota of arid regions. The ruin now being visited on a large part of public lands for a short-lived gain for a few is a breach of trust with the future. There is nothing whatsoever conservative about a system that helps those who do not need it while failing to sustain the ecological basis for a ranching economy into the distant future.

What is conservative about the ongoing support many conservatives give to the Mining Law of 1872? That piece of archaic legislative banditry permits the destruction and looting of public lands in the service of private greed while requiring little or nothing in return. The results–economic profligacy and ecological ruin–meet no conceivable test of genuinely conservative ideals and philosophy. It is theft on a grand scale, permitted because of the political power of those doing the looting and the cowardice and shortsightedness of those doing the governing.

What is conservative about “getting government off the backs” of citizens while leaving corporations there? Burke, who had a healthy dislike for all abuses of power, would have wanted all tyranny curtailed, including that of corporations. How do price increases, for example, differ from tax increases? How do cancers caused by toxic emissions or deaths resulting from safety defects in automobiles differ from unjust executions? How does the ability of capital to abandon communities for others that it can exploit more thoroughly differ from government mismanagement? To those who suffer the consequences, such differences are largely academic. The point is lost, nonetheless, on most contemporary conservatives who often detect the sins of government in parts per billion while overlooking corporate malfeasance by the ton. Burke, in our time, would not have been so negligent about economic tyranny.

What is conservative about squandering for all time our biological heritage under the guise of protecting property rights? Conservatives have long scorned public efforts, meager as they are, to protect endangered species because, on occasion, doing so may infringe on the ability of property owners to enrich themselves. Any restrictions on private property use, even those that are beneficial to the public and in the interest of posterity, they regard as unlawful “taking” of property. But this view of property rights finds little defense in a careful reading of either John Locke, from whom we’ve derived much of our land-use law and philosophy (Caldwell & Shrader-Frechette 1993), or in the writings of Edmund Burke. For Locke, property rights were valid only as long as they did not infringe on the rights of others to have “enough and as good” (Locke 1690/1963). It is reasonable to believe that this ought to include the rights of future generations to a biota as abundant and as good as that which sustained earlier generations. And for Locke (Locke 1690/1963: 332) “nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy,” a line that has not yet been fully noticed by many conservatives. The point is that John Locke did not regard property rights as absolute even in a world with a total population of less than one billion, and neither should we in a world of 5.7 billion.

What’s conservative about conservatives’ 20 years of opposition to national efforts to promote energy and resource efficiency? Even on narrow economic grounds efficiency has been shown to be economically advantageous. The fact that the United States is far less efficient in its use of energy than Japan and Germany, for instance, places it at a competitive disadvantage estimated to be between 5-8% for comparable goods and services. Economics aside, energy and resource profligacy is the driving force behind climate change and the sharp decline in biological diversity worldwide. Nothing could be more deleterious to the interests of future generations than for this generation to leave behind an unstable climate and the possibility that those changes might be rapid and self-reinforcing. Short of nuclear war no act by the present generation would constitute a greater dereliction of duty or breach of trust with its descendants.

Regardless of whether climatic change occurs as many scientists believe it may, the willingness of many “conservatives” to accept the risk of catastrophic and irreversible global changes that would undermine the well-being of future generations is a profoundly imprudent precedent. We have no right to run such risks when the consequences will fall most heavily on those who can have no part in making the choice.

What is conservative about the extension of market philosophy and narrow economic standards into the realm of public policy? Many conservatives want to make government work just like business works. Government certainly ought to do its work efficiently, often much more efficiently than it now does. That much is common sense, but it is a far cry from believing that public affairs can be conducted as a business or that economic efficiency alone is an adequate substitute for farsighted public policy. Many good things, including compassion, justice, human dignity, environmental quality, the preservation of natural areas and wildlife, art, poetry, beautiful music, good libraries, stable communities, good education, and public spiritedness can never meet a narrow test of profitability, nor should they be required to do so. This, too, is common sense. These things are good in and of themselves and should not be subject to the same standards used for selling beer.

What is conservative about perpetual economic growth? Economic expansion has become the most radicalizing force for change in the modern world. Given enough time, it will first cheapen and then destroy the legacy we pass on to the future. The ecological results of economic growth at its present scale and velocity are pollution, resource exhaustion, climatic instability, and biotic impoverishment. Uncontrolled economic growth destroys communities, traditions, and cultural diversity, and through the sophisticated cultivation of the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust it destroys the character and virtues of the people whose wants it purports to satisfy.

Conservatives (and liberals) have been unwilling to confront the difference between growth and real prosperity and to tally up the full costs of growth for our descendants. In the words of former Reagan administration Defense Department official, Fred Ikle, “Growth utopianism is a gigantic global Ponzi scheme (leading to) collapse, engulfing everyone in misery” (Ikle 1994: 44). Ikle continues with “The cause of this collapse would not be a shortage of material goods but the destruction of society’s conservative conscience by our Jacobins of growth.”

That conservatives, by and large, have been deeply hostile to evidence of ecological deterioration and to the cause of conservation is, I submit, profoundly unconservative. A genuine and consistent conservatism would aim to conserve the biological and ecological foundations of social order and pass both on as part of “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers and to be transmitted to our posterity.” If words mean anything at all, there can be no other standard for authentic conservatism.

Like that defined in Russell Kirk’s “first principles,” a genuine conservatism is grounded in the belief in a transcendent moral order in which our proper role is that of trustees subject to higher authority. It would honor and respect the need for both social and ecological continuity. It would respect the wisdom of past and also the biological wisdom contained in the past millions of years of evolution. A genuine conservatism would prudently avoid jeopardizing our legacy to future generations for any reason of temporary economic advantage. It would eschew cultural and technological homogeneity and conserve diversity of all kinds. Indeed a genuine conservatism, “chastened” by the recognition of human imperfectability, would not create technological, economic, and social conditions in which imperfect and ignorant humans might create ecological havoc.

An authentic conservatism has much to offer in the cause of conservation. Conservatives are right that markets, under some circumstances, can be more effective tools for conservation than government regulation. Conservatives’ dislike of unwarranted taxation might be the basis on which to shift taxes from things we want, such as income, profit, and labor, to things we do not want, such as pollution and energy and resource inefficiency (von Wiszacker & Jesinghaus 1994). An authentic conservatism would encourage a sense of discipline, frugality, and thrift in the recognition, as Burke put it, that

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains around their own appetites… Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters (Ophulus 1992).

A genuine conservatism would provide the philosophical bases and political arguments for prudence, precaution, and prevention in public policy and law. And a genuine conservatism would recognize that avoidance of some tragedies requires, in Garrett Hardin’s phrase, “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” which, in turn, requires robust democratic institutions.

To the new Speaker’s reading list for members of Congress, then, I would like to suggest the following additions:

I would like to further challenge the conservative leadership of Congress to meet regularly with selected members of the Society for Conservation Biology in an effort to create a better understanding of what it will be necessary to do to pass on an entailed inheritance to our posterity.


Burke, E. 1790/1986. Reflections on the revolution in France. Penguin, New York.

Caldwell, L., and K. Shrader-Frechette. 1993. Policy for Land. Rowmann & Littlefield, Lanham, maryland.

Ikle, F. 1994. Growth without end, amen? National Review March 7.

Kirk, R. 1982. The portable conservative reader. Penguin, New York.

Locke, J. 1690/1963. Two treatises of government. Mentor Books, New Jersey.

O’Brien, C. C. 1992. The great melody. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Ophulus, W. 1992. Ecology and the politics of scarcity revisited. Freeman, New York.

Peterson, M., editor. 1975. The portable Thomas Jefferson. Viking, New York.

von Wiszacker, E., and J. Jesinghaus. 1994. Ecological tax reform. ZED Books, London.

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