Conservative environmentalism: Who's greening whom?


July 16, 1995|By Philip Shabecoff | Philip Shabecoff,Special to The Sun

My dictionary (Webster's Third) is obviously way out of date. It defines a conservative as "one who adheres to traditional time-tested, long-standing, methods, procedures or views: a moderate, cautious or discreet person."

When the Republicans took power in Congress last year, most of them called themselves conservatives. But their behavior since then has been quite the opposite of moderate, cautious or discreet.

Using their relatively small majority in both houses, they have mounted a rapid and ferocious assault against time-tested, long-standing federal methods and procedures for curbing abuses of economic power, buffering the impact of poverty, providing equal justice for all citizens in the courts, shielding consumers from fraud and abuse and, above all, protecting public health, safety and the environment.

Now along comes Gordon K. Durnil, former state chairman of the Republican Party in Indiana - the heartland of Dan Quayle conservatism - to tell us that a conservative environmentalist is not an oxymoron. Conservative and conservation, he reminds us, have the same root and there should be no conflict between them.

The most salient message of Durnil's "The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 200 pages. $19.95), therefore, is that old political labels are becoming increasingly meaningless. If Durnil is a conservative then the Republicans in Congress who call themselves conservatives most certainly are not. They are libertarian anarchists who are seeking to remove governmental restraint to Darwinian competition, or corporate socialists who are using the federal machinery to transfer wealth and power to business and industry. Paradoxically, but frequently, they are both.

What they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, are environmentalists.

Durnil's own green epiphany took place rather late in his life, after President Bush appointed him chairman of the International Joint Commission. The commission was created by the United States and Canadian governments to address problems along the long border between the two countries. In recent years, it has paid a great deal of attention to environmental problems, particularly to the pollution of the Great Lakes by toxic substances.

Despite his ingrained conservatism, Durnil kept an open mind as he listened to testimony before the commission from scientists and environmentalists. The evidence they presented showed that the air and water quality of the Great Lakes region, and the health of people who lived in the region, were being put at risk by a wide range of industrial toxics, including lead, mercury, DDT, PCBs and other chlorine-based chemicals.

He was appalled by data that suggested toxic chemicals might be causing increases in breast cancer among women, reducing male fertility, affecting children's behavior and intelligence and, possibly, contributing to abnormalities in social behavior and sexual preferences. He was particularly disturbed by compelling evidence presented by Dr. Theo Colburn that people's endocrine systems are being disrupted by chemicals in the environment.

Chagrin and horror

As a result of what he heard, Durnil became convinced that "there is a need to ensure immediate action to stem and eventually reduce to zero the human-caused flow of persistent toxic substances into the air, water, and ground." To the chagrin and horror of the chemical industry, the commission did, during his tenure, call for "sunsetting" products based on chlorine, a basic foodstock chemical of modern industrial society.

And how is the goal of zero discharges of harmful pollutants to be reached? Simple, says Durnil. Conservative industrialists will see that it is in their best interest over the long run to refrain from polluting in order to avoid regulation and the need for constant re-tooling. "JUST DON'T DO IT in the first place," is his prescription. "Think about morality and the Golden Rule," he advises the leaders of corporations with revenues of billions of dollars annually from the production and sale of the dangerous substances.

Despite his faith in conservative virtue and his dislike of government limitations on the rights of individuals, Durnil does confess to being upset about the fact that the governments of the U.S. and Canada are continuing to let industry put toxic chemicals into the environment. Enforcement should not be bought off by corporate lobbyists.

At times he even sounds like - dare it be said? - a progressive environmentalist. He calls for an ecosystem approach to protecting the environment and he is convinced that there need be no conflict between economic protection and economic growth and prosperity for the nation.

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