What Fossil Fuel Consumption Teaches Us About Conservatives vs. Conservationists

We notice the similarity between the terms conservative and conservationist (now called environmentalist.) We notice that those labeled as conservatives and those labeled as conservationists tend to be at odds with each other. But surprisingly, as the root word implies, the two views are actually derived from the same underlying awareness. The conservative thought focuses on the dimensional of money. The conservationist though applies the same line of reasoning to natural dimensions within the environment. Below, we will look at how the underlying mathematical thinking is actually the same.

Draft: November 2012



  1. Huge deficits
  2. Socialism
  3. Misspent inheritance

Part 1: Huge Deficits
Conservatives talk a lot about their fear of the deficit. They are outraged by the belief that special benefits given to specific groups may be the primary cause of the deficit. They believe that people should pay their own bills and not pass the costs of their choices on to others.
These are the same primary concerns expressed by conservationists. Conservationists have correctly noted that environmental consequences carry very real long-term costs. One generation profits while the next generation pays the costs. It's much more difficult to estimate the costs of environmental impacts on the next generation, but those costs are still very real and very large. Best estimates show that the environmental deficits we leave to the next generation will prove to be far more costly than the federal deficit that we leave to the next generation.
Let's look at real costs (deficits) left to future generations by the fossil fuel industry. Many of these impacts will be costly to future generations for hundreds of years.

  • Greenhouse gases lead to climate change, altered plant growth, increased droughts and floods, and water acidification;
  • water acidification leads to leaching mercury and heavy metals into the fresh water supply and interferes with the growth and reproduction of various marine species
  • Oil leads to spills in the oceans, lakes, and sensitive ecosystems
  • Drilling oil wells extracts salt from the ground which reduces soil quality reduces farm yields
  • Coal emits mercury, radioactives, and heavy metals into the atmosphere and water supply
  • Coal mines leach toxins into water supplies. All ready some regions are so severely contaminated that locals have to import drinking water - the water cannot even be safely used to grow food
  • Coal mines subsidence destroys surface real estate
  • Fracking contaminates ground water and can lead to subsidence

All these consequences have real costs to future generations - impacting land, food production, and health. Thus they constitute real deficits left by this generation to future generations.

Part 2: Privatized Profit from Socialized Costs
Conservatives express great concern over socialism. They identify a few problems that make socialism troublesome. Socialism allows one group of people to gain at the expense of others. Subsidies reward unproductive behaviors - failure. When people become entitled to gain at the expense of others they learn to fail instead of more productive means personal gain. They pass the costs of their choices on to others. As a result optimal solutions are prevented.
Each of these concerns is identical to the concerns expressed by conservationists. Let us consider a few major examples of socialist subsidies received by the fossil fuel industries.

  • Low cost access to federal land
  • Arbitrarily assigned mineral rights - they may extract from under others peoples land
  • Externalities - pollution effecting other's land, air quality, water quality, and health
  • Special tax breaks - including loopholes exempting them from the cost of their damages
  • Military protection of imports (think of the military costs of securing Iraqi oil wells)

In each of these examples, fossil fuel companies are rewarded for failing to improve their methods and reduce their impact on others. Their failure is protected and even rewarded. They get to pass the costs of their actions to others.

Part 3: Miss-spent Inheritance
A final concern of conservatism is the careless actions of irresponsible youth. A young person receiving a large inheritance might waste all the money left to him by his parents or grandparents, and be no wiser, skilled, nor more productive for his reckless choices. For a short time he lives 'high on the hog' only to have no productive skills to support himself or contribute to his community. He never earned his own keep and never learns to be productive.
Again, this applies quite well to the fossil fuel industry. The fuel companies, like the heir, do not produce the fuel, the merely extract it. Fossil fuels are finite. What we extract and burn today will not be available to use tomorrow. Once we've spent the fuel its gone and there is no going back. In fact, we've already consumed all the "low hanging fruit" and with each passing year the fuel that is left is costlier and more dangerous to extract. As with the environmental deficit in part one, one generation gains, and the next generation is left without to fend for themselves. The choices are selfish and short-sighted.

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Conservationism (environmentalism) is the conservative position applied to the natural limits on which our economy is founded. What does this mean in practical terms? If you care about the federal deficit, then you should be just as concerned about environmental deficits. If socialism and rewarding failure bother you, then you should pay attention to hidden subsidies that promote environmentally unwise choices. You should recognize that a generation that is dependent on burning fossil fuels is no wiser than a youth partying away his inheritance. Money is just a transactional symbol. A healthy sustainable environment is the real wealth that money is intended to buy. Our real wealth is in our environment and our community.

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