Why do conservatives oppose preserving the environment? Why do they fail to address the pollution of the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink? Why do they oppose regulating the plastic waste that destroys habitats and causes the extinction of species?
If ‘conservative’ means conserving a way of life, then protecting the environment is not only helpful but necessary to conservatism. Instead, the environment has become a partisan issue for the progressive left, while conservatives defend the industrial system which causes pollution, deforestation, and animal extinction.
According to the World Health Organization, 91 percent of the world’s population live in places where air quality exceeds health guidelines. And while East and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are the sources of most pollution, the damage affects everyone. Forty-three percent of Americans live in counties with unhealthy air. Air pollution causes one in every premature 25 deaths — more than combined deaths from transportation accidents, gun shootings, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, and AIDS.
It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency that modern-day Republicans so vehemently oppose. It was Republicans, not Democrats, who introduced the 1970 Clean Air Act. With city air contaminated by pollution, natural areas littered with trash, and urban water supplies contaminated with dangerous chemicals, Nixon made the protection of America’s environment a national priority, not a partisan issue.
The Clean Air Act significantly reduced pollution with emission controls on power plants, factories, motor vehicles, and other sources. Deaths caused by air pollution have decreased by about 30 percent since 1970. But the current Republican administration may reverse that trend. The former head of the EPA, lawyer and lobbyist Scott Pruitt, challenged federal regulations. Meanwhile, Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the faces of environmental protection.
China is among the biggest releasers of plastic waste, but the United States is also a major plastics polluter. Between 2017 and 2019, US plastic exports to China increased by 92 percent. Only a small amount of American plastic ends up being recycled. The recent Chinese ban on imports of American plastics waste has caused some American communities to be overwhelmed with waste and excess plastic. Much of it ends up being burned, or stuffed in domestic landfills, increasing toxicity in suburbs.
The World Economic Forum estimates that, at current rates of waste disposal, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. To avoid this disaster, national governments and local authorities must intervene and require people to recycle waste, use reusable packaging, and improve infrastructure. The solution would also have to involve global agreements, of the kind automatically opposed by many Republicans. Pollution is global, and requires a global effort. Even nationalists should acknowledge that one nation cannot escape another nation’s pollution.
Similarly only government intervention can control excessive industrial production, much of which is in the hands of private companies. But intervention contradicts the free-market fundamentalism of modern Republicans. And as politics becomes more polarized, conservatives oppose progressives for the sake of it. Last year, when California banned plastic straws, conservatives posted videos on social media in which they mocked the law by using plastic straws.
Why is using plastic — a source of toxic chemicals — a conservative cause? And why are such straws necessary in the first place? Consumer plastics are largely a post-war invention. Before the 1970s, for example, water bottles were made of glass, not plastic. If a glass bottle ends up in the ocean, a crab may use it as a place of refuge. If plastic goes into the ocean, it floats, takes years to decompose, and releasing toxic chemicals that kill coral and other maritime species.
On land, the global wildlife population decreased by 60 percent between 1970 and today, largely, the World Wildlife Fund says, due to human activity, including the destruction of natural habitats and overhunting: ‘All over the world, we are cutting down forests, using too much water from rivers, choking our oceans with plastic and pushing many animals to extinction.’ In 2011, Western black rhinos went extinct because of poaching.
Republicans went from being the first legislators ever to create an agency and pass a bill to protect the environment, to being the biggest supporters of unregulated industrial production and hunting. The free-market mindset dominates Republican ideology. As environmental protection means regulation, Republicans oppose it by default — regardless of whether environmental destruction destabilizes their communities, ruins their natural resources, and increases the costs of healthcare.
While Democrats position themselves as the stewards of our resources, Republicans have yet to clarify what is conservative about supporting a system that will ultimately destroy our way of life. Destruction is the antonym of conservation.
Alessandra Bocchi is an Italian journalist covering European and American politics.