Something odd is happening with environmentalism. It is being opposed vehemently by American Conservatives. What is strange about this is that usually the drive to preserve nature comes from conservatives. It is not a coincidence that the words `conservative’ and `conservation’ have the same root. In most societies conservatives are the power elite, who don’t want to change things because they already have it good. The same conservatives also tend to own nice patches of land. They do not need to log it or develop it to make more money. Preserving nature intact and passing on its bounty to the next generation of landed aristocracy sounds a propos to them.
The Industrial Revolution devastated the environment before making Britain rich and powerful. The Monghol tribes which took over most of Asia in the middle ages seemed to care very little about preserving the Earth; they were not rooted to the land. Rich countries of yore, like India, dominated by traditional society, thought of preserving nature and maintaining the social order both as dharma. You let one go, the other would inevitably fall apart. There is no more conservative text than the Law of Manu, the first man of Hindu mythology. Manu is very clear about this connection between preserving natural and social orders.
You have to be willing to do what is necessary to develop the economy, in order to become a rich nation. An elite class will then develop that is powerful enough to set its ethos . They will evolve a conservatism which wants to preserve nature. It is a just world to them, and one worth preserving. Lifespans increase. Birthrates go down, as children are no longer needed for their labor. Leisure activities allow people opportunity to enjoy nature. The average age of the population goes up. The old and the rich tend to be the preservationists. Only the rich can afford it anyways. Some competing economy, where people are more willing to live with smoke and dust in return for greater productivity will seize the opportunity. This leads to the decay of the conservative society and its domination by the more rapidly growing power. Then the new guys develop their own elite and the whole cycle repeats itself.
What we are seeing in the US is a transition from a young, aggressive, unscrupulous nation to a rich, thoughtful, mature one. The anomaly of conservatives opposing environmentalists is a transient phenomenon. In another few years, the Yalees at the National Review will be staunch environmentalists. The formerly old societies like India and China will be- already are- the new youth, being lectured by the wise old men of America on the need to grow cautiously.
For people struggling to get by, a change in climate is not the end of the world. If some concrete needs to be poured to build a dam, they are looking at it as a means of employment. May be they are thinking short term, but who are we to say that they are wrong? The electricity generated at the dam will benefit those further up the social ladder. The laborer at the dam will struggle to send his children to school and some day they will also have a lifestyle that benefits from it. This is happening in China now and happened in the US in the 1930’s. The Hoover dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Work Projects Administration, were all solid liberal programs. I know an Italian immigrant to the US who dug tunnels for the Merrit Parkway (as part of WPA) in Connecticut and remained very proud of his handiwork fifty years later. His children went to college and his grandchildren are now enjoying a good life. Some of his great-grand children could very well grow up to be environmentalists.
People protesting the three gorges dam in China and the Narmada project in India mean well. Some of them are great writers and philosophers. But there is wisdom also in the common man who wants to make a living from the project and even in the greedy developers who hope make more than a buck out of it. No one has a monopoly on Truth.
We have forgotten the grand American projects of the Roosevelt era because we don’t need those gritty jobs anymore. It is the newly wealthy liberals of America who oppose nuclear reactors and insist on carbon neutrality for the third world. Where is the energy supposed to come from? They are not liberals, but conservatives who have not yet realized it. And the conservatives who oppose this sort of elitism are mostly representing the working class that needs economic development and is worried about competition from more youthful nations. They have not yet realized that they are the new progressives.