Making the Conservative Case for Sustainability

Liberals and conservatives agree on the ends, if not the means.

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In this photo taken Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, a tug boat pushes a barge down the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta near Rio Vista, Calif.Along with providing a source for commercial transportation and pleasure craft, the delta is also the home of variety of fish and wildlife and provides much of the water for central and southern California cities and irrigation water for San Joaquin Valley farmers. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan proposes building a tunnel to transfer water from the Sacramento River near Clarksburg to the Clifton Court Forebay near Tracy.

In Washington D.C. this week, business leaders in the sustainability movement opened up a new dialog with conservatives. Four conservative thinkers from R Street, the Future 500 and the D.C. law firm of K&L Gates spoke with an audience of sustainability advocates at a meeting convened by American Sustainable Business Council. Participants discovered some unexpected and welcome common ground, even as they reaffirmed their differences in a candid and respectful exchange.

One area of agreement was mutual acknowledgement of the problem of "crony capitalism." In crony capitalism, companies – often those that have come to dominate their industries – extract favors from government including subsidies, regulatory leniency and tax breaks. There was agreement that some of the most important industries in the U.S. are rife with crony capitalism and no longer work efficiently or provide robust competition.

The health care industry is a prime example (regardless of what you think of Obamacare.) When a prospective patient has no way to determine the cost of a hospital procedure until after they've been treated, it's not remotely a working market. It's just cronyism: a powerful industry maintaining a broken market structure that serves its own interests at the expense of society. That's not how capitalism is supposed to work.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

While both conservatives and liberals agree that crony capitalism is a serious problem, they don't agree on how to address it. Can cronyism be curbed by government action to promote open markets and vigorous competition? Liberals say yes, but conservatives are skeptical. "Government intervention may sound good, but it can turn out to be just another layer of cronyism on top of all the rest. That wouldn't be an improvement," said a panelist.

Both liberals and conservatives agree on the goal of environmental protection, if not the means. Both groups value beautiful places in nature, though they appreciate them for different reasons: one may hike while the other hunts. Conservatives see the issue as "stewardship" – a term that makes some on the left uncomfortable. Both sides acknowledge the so-called "Tragedy of the Commons" in which a natural resource like a pasture, forestry or fishery is destroyed by being exploited to the point of exhaustion. The large scale clear-cutting of tropical rain forests is a current example.

But people disagree on how best to preserve and protect places of natural value and beauty. Liberals want to protect them by scaling back individual property rights and strengthening the power of government to protect them from over-exploitation. Conservatives believe the best way is to strengthen private property rights. They argue that if each bit of commons were privately owned, then owners would act in their self-interest to protect them. "When was the last time you washed a rental car?" one panelist asked rhetorically, pointing out that we take care of what we own but we don't take care of what we don't own.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Hyper-partisanship gets in the way of adopting sustainable solutions to America's challenges. Both sides lamented the rancor in Congress; it seems nearly everyone wants a more moderate and pragmatic Congress that better reflects the electorate. A conservative panelist surprised and delighted liberals when he criticized the gerrymandering that has polarized the House, and called for independent redistricting commissions and open primaries. (These changes have already been adopted in California and have begun to reduce polarization there.)

Asked for advice on how to build a bridge with conservatives on sustainability issues, conservatives advised sustainability advocates to take it slow, keep expectations modest and start with issues of common concern. "Tempers are pretty hot on the Hill right now," said one, referring to the recent fights over the budget, debt ceiling and Obamacare.

When asked what sustainability challenge was most pressing, three out of the four conservative panelists named water. Liberals may not rank water as number one, but it might be a close second, after climate change. Conservative panelists and the sustainable business leaders left the meeting optimistic about the potential for further engagement. Said Richard Eidlin, ASBC's policy director, "We believe sustainability transcends partisan lines and we've long sought this dialog. Today was an important first step, and we look forward to continuing the conversation."

David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.

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