Putting the Conserve Back in Conservative!

By Diana Trimble

EarthLight Magazine #42, Summer 2001

"We remind skeptics that nothing is more conservative than conservation. True conservatives should safeguard the resources on which the health, recreation, and economic prosperity of present and future Americans depend. There is nothing conservative, and certainly nothing wise, in squandering our wildlife, wilderness, wetlands, and other natural treasures."

–Republicans for Environmental Protection

 One of my new fave websites is Oxymora, the largest collection of "contradictory or incongruous phrases" on the Net. [Editor's note:  Alas, as of the summer of 2004 the Oxymora site was no longer with us.  May it return soon.]

Featuring tongue-in-cheek contradictions (airline food), commonplace oddities ("act naturally"), and product names that make you go "huh?" (Spam Lite), the list is long and witty. But while "environmentally responsible oil drilling" is listed, "Republicans for Environmental Protection" (REP) is not. I mention this because when I told people I was writing a piece about an organization of that name, the typical smart-alecky response was "Isn’t that an oxymoron?"

Maybe to some, but not to the members of REP. And not to that beacon of independent media, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, who referred to them as "hard-core environmentalist Republicans" in the article that introduced me to REP.

Convincing my friends that REP’s excellent site was not the latest Internet Hoax was made harder by my own secret doubts that it was for real. But these dispersed as soon as I began corresponding with REP’s eloquent driving force, Martha Marks.

Neither net trickster nor anarchist infiltrator, she is a fifty-something, true-blue, lifelong Republican, born into a conservative Republican family, with a career military-officer dad and a college-educated, stay-at-home mom. She also just so happens to truly, deeply oppose Arctic drilling.

So REP was real! How fascinating and strange! But, wait–why should it be so? Dubya may not cry much over the spotted owl, but does that make it true of all Republicans? We laughed (and cried) when Reagan said of Redwood trees, "if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all" and yet, it sounds a lot like a non-Republican talking about a Republican. Will the phrase "open-minded activists" soon grace Oxymora’s list?

Come on people! Isn’t it true that "we all have creation in common," (as Ph.D.-wielding cosmologist Drew Dellinger chants in one of his brilliant raps)? (See page 18.) Proper care of the natural environment shouldn’t be perceived as an issue that "belongs" to a particular party platform.

From this angle, the creation of a Green Party, shouldn’t be necessary at all, as the one concern that all might be expected to share would seem to be the well-being of our irreplaceable Earth. Yet for too long, and too easily, ecology has been publicly imaged as the domain of lefties, hippies, alarmists, Luddites, and liberal democrats–the "tie-dye set." Inevitably, concern for the environment is thus pitted against prosperity, which is presented as the primary concern of conservatives, capitalists, republicans, and "the rich." This may not matter if one’s persona corresponds with the demographic that supposedly shares one’s views. But when it doesn’t, it can often falsely polarize individuals with common interests.

Everything old is new again...

But to REP, it’s hardly a stretch to fuse environmentalism with republican views, rather, it’s the Bush legion that’s out of step with the core ideology of the party. When I asked Marks about this perceptual disparity, she responded that environmental protection was in fact a core value of the majority of ordinary Republicans, for reasons ranging from spiritual beliefs to patriotism. As she frames it, "European nations have their great cathedrals and castles as the monuments that inspire patriotic feelings. We have our great parks, mountains, rivers, and forests."

So how did the current anti-environmental image of Republicans get started? Marks, and "ideological soul-mate" Jim DiPeso (who have been authoring REP’s opinions for the past five years), gave me this brief run-down, illustrating the power of spin to impact the way an issue is perceived by the public, and consequently, which views are adopted by whom:

From the time of Theodore Roosevelt up until the 1960s, conservationists were made up largely of ‘middle class’ citizens with conventional American values. In those days, conservation

was very much a bipartisan concern. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, liberal Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey joined forces with the conservative Republican Congressman John Saylor to push through the legislation that authorized federal protection of roadless lands as wilderness.

Afterward, the environment became identified with liberal "counterculture" elements in our society. This sociological change may have unnerved many Republican conservationists. I believe that cynical party leaders and hard-core anti-government ideologues exploited this social change to create a wedge that turned the conservative philosophy on its head: incredibly, conservation was no longer perceived as conservative!

The thing to remember, is that people will associate with people with whom they feel comfortable and avoid those with whom they feel uncomfortable. In terms of coalition politics, the important thing is to ‘keep our eyes on the ball’–focus on our common concern and not allow ourselves to be divided about unrelated issues or lifestyle matters.

In light of all this, REP America sees its mission as one of restoring "conservation as a fundamental element of our party’s vision for America. Indeed, we see the cynical leaders and their ideologue allies as false conservatives, people who have distorted our party’s traditions to fulfill their narrow agendas. We are working to help our party regain its conservation voice."

The drowning out of this voice has been most effectively accomplished within the last two decades, during which time, "the anti-environmental element has been louder and more assertive than the pro-conservation Republicans, who were, perhaps, too polite. The 1981 appointment of James Watt as Interior Secretary was the first significant step on the road that led to the anti-environmental radicalism that characterized the 104th Congress, which was elected in 1994."

One highlight of, the organization’s excellent website, is it’s anti-Arctic Drilling page, which presents a tight argument against the dreaded plan, exposing its defects with a crystal clear, concise, and economically-based logic.

According to REP, "diverse communities working together will be more effective than if they work separately. Science brings an empirical foundation that grounds conservation in biological, geological, and physical facts...the science is compelling, and (shows) that it is urgently necessary for our political leaders to adopt policies that will lighten our pressure on nature."

Family Values, God, Country, and the Politics of Being Nice!

REP also believes that asking the question, "what kind of world are we leaving for the children?" can be key in making ecological issues less abstract. Many people "think of nature as something ‘outside’ the everyday human experience–at best, something nice to have around, at worst, something to be moved out of the way."

It is highly important to Marks, DiPeso, and the rest of REP that they are correctly perceived as "true conservatives" but their definition of such might surprise you! In a nutshell: "the present generation has always borne a serious responsibility to be good stewards and leave the world a better place for posterity. That responsibility is especially salient today, as human pressure on nature grows. We are at a critical point in human history. It’s essential to make everyone aware of the crucial issues we face and encourage everyone, especially our leaders, to make responsible choices. We believe that most people want what’s best for their children and will act on that heightened awareness."

It’s well worth mentioning that REP’s "tone", is consistently one of sober, intelligent reason that utterly resists the temptation to accuse or paint the opposing camp as spurious, and never gives way to hysteria or attack. In fact, when I expressed skepticism of the veracity of Bush’s churchgoing image, I got this tactful reply, " for President Bush’s spirituality, no one can truly know what stirs each individual’s soul. We believe he sincerely holds his spiritual beliefs."

REP was equally adept at avoiding assessment of the present administration’s true motives, and finessed it by saying that "we believe that, deep in their hearts, President Bush and Vice President Cheney make their decisions based on what they think is best for our country. Our disagreements with them are based on differing world views." That might seem like laying it on a bit thick, but whether ingenuous or wily, this is the kind of non-inflammatory neutrality that keeps the organization’s cred-meter running high with "regular" republicans and "typical" environmentalists alike.

Although REP is wise to avoid overt religious affiliation, it does have its spiritual voice in Jim DiPeso, a communications consultant, writer, and journalist, (his article "Religion and the Environment" is well worth a visit to REP’s site). DiPeso writes lucidly and knowledgeably about the importance of religious unity on environmental questions. So much for the notion that only new-age, touchy-feely types get mystical about nature. In DiPeso’s own words:

As a personal matter, I take very seriously the stewardship responsibility for creation that God assigned to humanity. There is a Jewish ideal that God ultimately owns all of creation and humanity is a lessor. The form of our lease, known as the "sho’el," requires us to leave the world as valuable at the end of our lease as it was at the beginning. In Job 12: 7-10, we find a poetic statement that is as sweeping as it is eloquent in its reverence for God’s creation and the redemptive power of God’s handiwork: "But ask the animals and they will teach you, or birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the Earth and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this. In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind." This awareness creates the values that inform my work.

REP America is a promising indicator that the issue of environmental conversation can be restored to its original, and natural, bipartisan status, with people from all corners of the political spectrum co-operating to respect and preserve America’s unique wealth of natural treasures.

REP America deserves all of our respect, whichever way we vote, and even if we don’t, for daring to work for the environment from within the party that has become identified, of late, with indifference towards it. Mr. Bush would be wise to listen to what Republicans for the Environment have to say.


Diana Trimble, a member of EarthLight’s editorial committee, is currently finishing her Master's Degree at Naropa Institute’s University of Creation Spirituality and is a writer, researcher, composer, and singer of sacred funk. She enjoys examining the contradictions of life and really, deeply, opposes "low-fat ice-cream" and other Crimes Against Nature. Questions and comments may be sent to:

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