These Aren’t Your Grandpa’s Environmentalists

Eric Bott

Director of Environmental & Energy Policy
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce



In 1909, the man who coined the term “Conservation Ethic,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot, engaged in a very public row with then U.S. Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger.

Pinchot was concerned that Ballinger might be engaging in what we would today call crony capitalism through the preferential sale of the nation’s mineral, timber and hydrological resources to well-connected elites.

Pinchot did not seek to leave these resources untouched but quite the contrary; he wished to see them developed in a responsible manner to the benefit of his fellow Americans. Indeed, Pinchot would go on to define forestry as “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man.”

By January 1910, the dispute between Pinchot and Ballinger had grown so heated that President William Howard Taft was forced to dismiss Pinchot, causing a split in the Republican Party and igniting a rift between Taft and Pinchot’s close ally Theodore Roosevelt. Two years later Roosevelt would mount a third party challenge to Taft, resulting in the election of America’s first progressive Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson.

Pinchot’s philosophy, that we can simultaneously preserve our environment and utilize its resources toward the economic benefit of the nation, was once so powerfully held by conservationists that it contributed to the end of five decades of near total Republican dominance in presidential elections (Grover Cleveland excepted).

Today that philosophy is largely absent in mainstream environmentalism. Little concern is paid to the costs of policy on working families and almost none for businesses. These days, environmentalists almost seem to have adopted the attitude that if it’s good for humans, it must be bad for the environment.

One of the latest green fads is to argue for a halt to economic growth. Let me state that again. A growing number of environmentalists are calling for an end to economic growth. Drive around Madison and you’ll see bumper stickers reading, “Growing the economy is shrinking the ecosystem.” These are not your grandfather’s environmentalists.

So what is the philosophy of modern greens? At times it can be hard to tell. Today’s environmentalists claim to support replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas and nuclear. Yet they oppose hydraulic fracturing to obtain the needed gas, building pipeline infrastructure to move it, or constructing any new nuclear facilities.

Other times their agenda seems contradictory. They oppose importing petroleum from Canadian oil sands even when the practical alternative is importing equally heavy crude from Venezuela with an even greater carbon footprint. They oppose proper forest management practices because ‘nature should be left untouched’ even when such policies contribute to larger and more destructive forest fires.

This growing inflexibility should concern business. As these ideas radicalize, their influence is growing. A common debate in political circles is whether or not the green movement has supplanted labor as the chief source of influence in the Democratic Party. Looking at Keystone XL and the War on Coal at the federal level or iron and sand mining in Wisconsin, the greens are batting a thousand whenever they play against labor. Wealthy donors such as fossil fuel investor-turned-environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has pledged $100 million to elect likeminded Democrats to the U.S. Senate this fall, are furthering the rise in influence of hardline greens.

Practically speaking, this means the partisan divide will continue to grow and our federal regulators at the EPA and other agencies will be more apt to push ever bolder and costly regulatory schemes. That’s bad news not just because it creates a drag on our economy but because when environmental policy becomes a political weapon, everybody – including the environment – loses.



This article is available in the July edition of WMC’s Wisconsin Business Voice magazine.
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