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Conservative sustainability

Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report
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OKLAHOMA CITY – “Conservative” and “sustainability” are not two words one expects to see together, but they are unspoken foundations of conservative values in Oklahoma and the United States of America. We know fiscal responsibility is the idea of spending within one’s capacity to keep a promise of payment. All else held constant, to have enough resources to provide for expenditures means that an entity may continue to exist in perpetuity. Sustainability is the ability to maintain our way of life indefinitely, and the responsibility of stewardship demands sustainability.

There are three reasons why the Republican party is naturally well suited to apply this philosophy towards the safe stewardship of our rich land and accommodate it as a principal priority in Oklahoma:

  1. History harbors an essentially untapped source of pride regarding the stewardship of the land.
  2. The selling point of stewardship is that it is consistent with the philosophy of self reliance, liberty, and personal responsibility.
  3. For the future of the GOP, it is imperative to realize the unifying potential of this message.

The Republican party has a rarely-recalled history of creating and presiding over some of the most notable and significant conservation and anti-pollution acts in U.S. history. Teddy Roosevelt put the “conserve” in Conservative by setting aside 200 million square miles of land for national parks, forests and monuments. [1] Richard Nixon signed the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, amongst a slew of other conservation laws. Ronald Reagan negotiated and signed the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer,[2] and Bush the elder amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 saving billions of dollars and thousands of human lives.[3]

A short time ago, the caretaking of our land, water, and air was not held as an ideological hostage in a zero-sum game of politics; rather, it was the market-oriented influence of Republicans that most economists credited for making environmental policies effective.[4]

As British philosopher Roger Scruton observed, “Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.” [5] Fiscal sustainability and environmental responsibility are conceptual twins.

While it may seem sensible for conservatism and conservation to peacefully coexist, why should people care about conservation if they are unlikely to be the ones who will bear a burden they are uncertain even exists? The reasons are several:

1. The service of stewardship is not abstract. Pollution is real, it costs lives, and is bad for business.[6]

2. If we care about posterity, a world more abundant in wilderness and secure in its resources is as invaluable an inheritance as any material wealth, as it is the ultimate source of all prosperity. Consider bees: Some of our most valuable workers labor for free and make enormous contributions to the flourishment of agriculture. Bees have been recognized by the Oklahoma Managed Pollinator Protection Plan (OKMP3)[7] as instrumental to agriculture, and by the attempt of the Oklahoma Senate to pass SB 1223 to create a pollinator task force.[8] Efforts to protect some of our most valuable unpaid workers—bees—should be encouraged.

3. Stewardship is not only a civic duty, but a personal responsibility as well. Property owners have statutory responsibilities to respect the life and property of their neighbors. The Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee, Director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, argues that in contrast to stewardship, the dangers of the theological argument for dominion (complete control) over the earth is that it “falls into the sin of trying to be a god. [ . . .] It takes no responsibility whatsoever. We are created for a number of purposes, one of them being to take care of the earth and its resources.”

4. Responsibility should resolve the contention that revolves around the place where regulation meets the rights and duties of private property. Ranchers, farmers and business owners are afraid of their rights to property being infringed upon by big government. The fears of overreaching government are fair, but don’t rectify staunching the cause of stewardship, which can be delegated to the market and to the states.

Wendell Berry, a label-defying naturalist said, “The best conserver of land in use will always be the small owner or operator, farmer or forester or both, who lives within a securely placed family and community, who knows how to use the land in the best way, and who can afford to do so.” To properly tend the dominion we’ve been granted, we need not sacrifice our property rights; indeed, if they are strengthened to encompass the full breadth of our responsibility, the regulatory burden may be greatly diminished and the environment we pass on shall thrive the more because of it.

One may enjoy the right to property so far that it does not unaccountably damage that of another. Ownership of private property is a right that confers a duty of responsibility for the consequences of our actions. State Representative Jason Murphy (R) came to a similar conclusion when linking the recent increase in earthquakes to wastewater injection in Logan County, saying “It didn't take long for me to realize that the injection well issue was a case of one property owner putting the lives and property of others at risk.” [9] Rep. Murphy found himself alone in the public role of speaking up for those affected by the recent earthquakes, “because many of the other legislators had a conflict of interests (campaign contributions from the energy sector—and lots of them).”  Listed by the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club as an “Earthquake Champion,” Murphy and those who are like-minded assert that a justification for the stewardship of creation goes no further than to clean up your own mess.[10]

5. Stewardship is about self-reliance. Oklahoma plays a proud part in reducing our dependence on foreign energy as one of the top five oil- and gas-producing states, as well as being ranked the third highest state in terms of wind energy generation in 2015. [11] However, the spirit of self-reliance also suggests favoring renewable energy, as it weans us off our dependence on a finite resource, with the added benefit of providing equal—if not improved—access to pure air and clean water to future generations. The Republican party in Oklahoma is not without its voices of stewardship. When asked about her views on the environment, incoming Representative Carol Bush (R) said, “Our carbon footprint on this earth is a problem and I know that. I do like the idea of renewable energies and finding other non-threatening ways to power our lives. Our dependency on oil and gas is ridiculous; We need to look for alternatives and not tear up our land.” Stewards of Oklahoma should recognize that Representative Bush is not a legislator on the fringes, but a forerunner of strong Republican stewardship.   

6. The final reason why Republicans should heed the call of stewardship is because it has the power to heal at least some of our divides and secure the future. The best time to save for the future is when it is not necessary, therefore the GOP should consider expanding its natural coalition while it remains the eminent political force. An example to follow would be that of the conservative party of the United Kingdom, the Tories, to whom many attribute that country’s acceptance of market environmentalism as essential in undergirding their current electoral dominance. We should address this impact in the thoughtful, market-oriented, and innovative manner of which this state has shown itself capable in the past—and which seems possible in the future.

The best preparation for a changing and uncertain future is to embrace a more consistent kind of conservatism. State Question 777, introduced as the “Right to Farm” amendment, failed with 39 percent for and 59 percent against.[12] The successful opposition framed the amendment in large part as an environmental issue, which lends impetus to this message: A sustainable conservatism requires that conservatives sell stewardship.


[1] Meine, C. (2001). “Roosevelt, Conservation, and the Revival of Democracy.” Conservation Biology, 15(4), 829-831.

[2] Reagan, R. (1988). “Statement on Signing the Montreal Protocol on Ozone-Depleting Substances.” Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. ? pid=35639

[3] United States Environmental Protection Agency (N.D.). “Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act.” Online at

[4] It’s important if not crucial to note that no policy is costless. Thousands of hardworking people lost their jobs, and the energy industry lost billions in output because of the clean air act. The key here is that even with the most conservative estimates the policies reduced potential medical costs by three times more than the cost of lost output.

[5] Adler, J. H. (2012). Conservative Principles for Environmental Reform. Duke Envtl. L. & Pol'y F., 23, 253.


[7] Oklahoma Department of Agrigulture, Food and Forestry (2016). Oklahoma Managed Pollinator Protection Plan. Online at

[8] Oklahoma State Legislature (2016). “Bill Information for SB 1223.” Online at BillInfo.aspx?Bill=sb1223&Session=1600

[9] United States Geological Survey (N.D.). “Induced Earthquakes: Myths and Misconceptions.” Online at

[10] Sierra Club Oklahoma Chapter (2016). “Oklahoma.” 2016 Legislative Scorecard. Online at chapter/2015LEGISLATIVESCORECARD.FINAL_.July29.pdf

[11] American Wind Energy Association (2016). Oklahoma Wind Energy. Online at

[12] Oklahoma State Election Board (2017). Unofficial Results. “Special Legislative Races, Special Election March 7, 2017.” Online at


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About the Author

Joel McGuire

Joel is a climber, gardener, and Economics graduate student at OU.

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