George Monbiot recently expressed a carefully calibrated environmental message that allows people on the environmental left to feel self-righteous without making any real sacrifice. In a video that was shared widely, including by celebrities such as James Corden, the British writer argues that the only way to help the environment is to change the “big, structural, political economic stuff.” Monbiot concludes that we need to “go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it.” At the same time, he dismisses “pathetic, micro-consumerist bollocks which just isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
This is absolution for those who want to feel green but can’t be bothered with going to the effort and expense of actually living their own values. Publicly advocating the “do as I say, not as I do” approach reinforces the reality that conservatives tend to live out the environmental ethic that the Left only preaches.
As a conservative who has worked in environmental policy for two decades, I have been frustrated watching as ideological fellow travelers avoid environmental topics, even as they privately express their commitment to environmental stewardship. As the Left becomes more detached from responsible and effective environmental solutions, conservatives should confidently fill the void.
One reason conservatives do not engage is that environmentalism has become synonymous with horrible government policy. Every Earth Day, we are treated to theatrical images of marches featuring unhinged activists demanding action on a range of environmental issues. Clever hashtags are generated. Alarmist slogans are flaunted. Naked people glue themselves to park benches. And all who disagree with the demands for more government power are denigrated as “deniers.”
The other 364 days of the year, however, people on the left do little in their daily lives to justify all that environmental browbeating. A study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Cornell University found that those who are “highly concerned” about climate change are “least likely to report individual-level actions” to reduce their environmental impact. Those who considered themselves “skeptical” of climate change “were most likely to report engaging in individual-level pro-environmental behaviors.” To be sure, not all conservatives are skeptical of climate change, but generally, we aren’t nearly as alarmist about climate change or other environmental issues, even when we recognize the risk.
That gap between the Left’s loud talk and their unwillingness to make personal sacrifices is not an accident. It is now part of their dogma. Individual actions are mere “bollocks,” useless gestures. Only the sacrifices made by others will make a difference.
This dichotomy is evident in my home state of Washington, where politicians pride themselves on showing “leadership” in the effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This year, our legislature enacted a law requiring the state to meet a 100 percent renewable-energy target by 2045. Environmental activists tweeted their support, saying they “demand action now” and worrying about the climate crisis.
Ironically, though, many who demand action do little of it themselves. For only a few dollars a month, anyone who supports renewable energy can already buy renewable-energy credits (RECs), ensuring that there is enough renewable energy on the grid to cover their personal use. I asked one politician pushing for the 100 percent–renewable requirement if she buys RECs to cover her environmental impact. She admitted that she does not and has no plans to do so.
This is consistent with the message of Monbiot and political leaders pushing the Green New Deal. Personal sacrifice is of little consequence, so why even try? Even as they call for an end to air travel, politicians who demand we impose lifestyle change have not curtailed their own carbon-producing travel, despite living in the era of HD video conferencing.
The most effective environmental efforts are often small, personal actions in which people have skin in the game. Farmers find ways to conserve water because waste costs money. Aluminum cans are lighter today because it saves resources and they cost less to ship. Homeowners and businesses conserve energy because they pay the price for every kilowatt-hour. When they don’t save, they change course, unlike politicians who fear public embarrassment and throw good money after bad.
This isn’t just a theory. The amount of energy per unit of GDP in the United States has fallen steadily for several decades. There are no sharp drops. Instead, the improvement is gradual and constant, as individuals and businesses find ways to squeeze a bit more out of their energy use. Politicians can lecture all they want, but these are truly the front lines of environmental stewardship.
As Earth Day 2019 came and went, the pattern of environmentalists demanding action that they themselves won’t take predictably repeated itself.
The pattern of conservatives’ avoiding talk of environmental stewardship even as they live it every day, however, is a pattern we should break. Effective environmental policy doesn’t start with politicians and publicity stunts. Conservatives understand this. We should make it clear that personal environmental stewardship is not only more effective, it is a more moral way to live.