The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions For a Sustainable Future, Benji Backer, Sentinel, 256 pages

Benji Backer shows his cards in his new book, The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions For a Sustainable Future. Yes, this twenty-something leans to starboard; he describes the group he founded, the American Conservation Coalition, as “the largest right-of-center environmental organization in the country.” 

Indeed, Backer deserves credit for reviving “conservation,” the word favored by the greatest environmentalist—oops, make that conservationist—among America’s presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. Backer writes TR was “an avid hunter and fisherman” who “made conserving America’s natural resources a national priority.”

The 26th president waxed lyrical about nature: “There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” Yet TR was no green in the sense that the word is used nowadays: to describe an absolutist, oftentimes elitist, almost always Malthusian, mentality. Mindful that people matter, too, Roosevelt said in the very next breath, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” 

A century later, Backer echoes that realistic proportionality; words such as “tradeoff” and “balance” dot the book. Yet he does bring a specific point of view. As Backer tells us early on, he’s from a burg in the boonies of Wisconsin, and he retains a guiding empathy for those folks and their ways. “Growing up in a small Midwestern city nestled among dairy farms and forests as far as the eye can see, I witnessed rural America hard at work…I assumed that everyone else recognized rural America’s value too.” Then the jolt: “When I moved to Seattle to go to college, I learned how wrong I was.” As he puts it, when he heard his new classmates belittle rustics, “My stomach turned. (To this day, it still does.)”

So it’s easy for him to describe the circumstances that make rural America red America. Describing the facts confronting a farmer: “sweeping top-down regulations to combat carbon emissions”; “your fuel costs double or triple because of a new tax that penalizes users of fossil fuels”; “you’re also paying a higher electricity bill as electricity companies raise rates to cover the installation of thousands of new EV charging stations across your state.” 

Given his woodsy background, Backer is especially scathing on forest management—a classic TR-type issue. Since today’s greens want the forests to be unmanaged, the fires burn worse. California’s wildfires, just in the year 2020, emitted more greenhouse gases than any reductions the state had made in the previous two decades. Writes Backer: “Twenty years of effort completely gone to waste!”

So while Backer is clearly a nature lover, and maybe even a tree-hugger, he keeps a clear head and a keen eye: “We need solutions that work for everyone, not just the folks for whom buying a new EV and adding solar panels to their house is convenient.” Lest anyone fail to catch where he is headed, “Introducing sweeping one-size-fits-all policies that harm local communities and ruin the livelihoods of thousands of rural dwellers is simply anti-democratic and anti-American.” Want more fair and balanced-ness? Okay: “In thinking about how to solve climate change, it’s imperative that we give farmers, oil field workers and coal miners a voice too.” 

So there’s no scourging or hair-shirting or self-loathing in this book. Instead, there’s a lot of problem-solving. Chapter titles such as “Utilizing America’s Competitive Spirit to Build a Cleaner, Brighter Future” and “Innovating Our Way Out of the Energy Crisis,” stamp Backer as one part Thomas Edison, one part George Gilder, and one part Bjørn Lomborg. After all, if new technology can solve the problem, there’s no need to wallow in it or guilt-trip on it—and there’s also no reason not to solve it. In Backer’s telling, there’s a middle ground between Fox News and MSNBC: higher, and more constructive. 

So when the author writes of permitting reform—streamlining environmental impact statements and all that—he’s talking a language that some on the left are talking, too. 

For instance, the New York Times’ Ezra Klein has been writing about “state capacity”—the capacity to do things, to avoid the fate of California’s boondoggled high-speed rail—for years now. And just last year, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, rebuilt a collapsed part of Interstate 95 in a matter of weeks. More of this sort of Can Do, please. Whoever does it should reap the credit. 

So Backer’s Conservative Environmentalist can really be seen as the Practical Environmentalist. Let’s fix the things that need fixing—Backer cites removing lead from gasoline and the atmosphere as a great triumph for public health—while still keeping in mind that some fixes have made things worse. 

For instance, Backer is unsparing on the perverse economics of electric cars, not only in the U.S., but around the world. In Norway, the immediate subsidy for an electric car is more than $25,000, as well as other breaks, such as reduced tolls. And yet, Backer calculates, “In order to cut one ton of CO2 emissions through the subsidization of electric cars, Norway has to sell one hundred barrels of oil, which emit forty tons of CO2.” Perhaps some day, EVs will be green-dream transportation, but as of now, for the vast majority—especially the peeps in Backer’s neck of the woods—they’re still a dream. 

Speaking of fond reveries, Backer punctures the hopes of sun worshipers, at least in the near term: “The US and the rest of the world should not have to depend on subsidized, circumvented imports made by forced labor to build our solar energy future.” Elsewhere, Backer notes that the Chinese communists burn a lot of coal to make those solar panels. 

Yet, as he points out, there’s something akin solar energy right under our feet: The core of the Earth is nearly 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit—about the same temperature as the surface of the Sun. So, he asks, Why aren’t we using more geothermal energy? 

One big challenge—a steady theme in this book—is the deadening hand of government regulation: “It’s impossible for a five-hundred-page federal government bill to handle all of the intricacies of our vastly different communities and their needs.” So why, he wonders, “are we always starting at the top to try to solve climate change when we should be starting at an individual and local level first? Why not tap into the rich resources of the private sector and the entrepreneurial spirit that has characterized America as a world leader of innovation?” Why not indeed, other than the risk of being picketed by Greenpeace? 

Backer does not shrink from the challenge of climate change, which he regards as a serious threat. Nor does he shrink from ideas about accommodating human needs, including the need for good-paying jobs, while seeking a solution. 

He notes that carbon fuels account for 80 percent of the world’s energy supply—and that’s not about to change, at least no time soon. So while he holds out plenty of hope for the “all of the above” of geothermal, nuclear, and solar, he also emphasizes carbon capture. It’s a simple enough point: If there’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere, take it out. 

Backer starts with that lowest-tech (unless you count God’s hand as tech) tool for carbon capture, the tree. “Now that is the most powerful carbon sequestration technology I’ve ever seen!” In fact, most industrial processes involve some sort of carbon conversion. For instance, 65 percent of the world’s textiles come from artificial sources, such as polyester—which is to say, they come from carbon-based feedstocks. 

So we can see right there: A large wardrobe of artificial fabrics is a carbon sink. 

Joking aside, carbon fuels, properly thought through, are fully circular, and even renewable. Dig up carbon, burn it, capture it, use it again. Hardcore greens will never accept this sort of circularity, because it’s against their religion. But that’s okay, everyone else can learn to love having their carbon and capturing it, too. That’s the broad pro-energy, pro-clean coalition normies need. 

Speaking for the normies, Backer writes, “We can move forward only if we put political tribalism aside and rise above the noise of scare tactics and denialism. Only then will our generation of environmentalists be able to stand together.” Turning problems into win-wins isn’t particularly conservative, or particularly liberal. But it is practical. And popular—as in, winning elections popular. 

Originally found on American Conservative. Read More

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