The Sustainability Movement: Crossing the Liberal/Conservative Divide

Despite efforts by Republicans and the Tea Party to paint the sustainability movement as a “liberal” conspiracy, terms like “liberal” and “conservative” are meaningless when it comes to the core business of sustainability: getting families, businesses and government to explore less energy- intensive business models and lifestyles. It makes sense that Republican and Tea Party leaders, both closely linked to the fossil fuel industry, would want to tar sustainability with a label – “liberal” – that has extremely negative connotations for the majority of Americans. The oil, gas and coal lobbies all have a vested interest in discouraging people from reducing their energy use.

In my experience the basic principles of sustainability have broad appeal across the political spectrum. People get it. Nearly everyone I come in contact with is affected by the skyrocketing cost of fossil fuels – mainly because high energy and transportation costs make everything more expensive. Nearly all of them accept that business as usual must change. This makes most of them open, to varying degrees, to trying new, less energy intensive ways of doing things.

How Terms like “Conservative” and “Liberal” Lost Their Meaning

Labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” have become totally meaningless in contemporary society. This relates in part to the bastardization of the word “conservative” by neoliberal adherents of the so-called Reagan revolution. Neoliberalism can be broadly defined as the elimination of all government functions, other than law enforcement, security and defense, in the service of corporate-controlled governance. It’s a radically reactionary political viewpoint that’s consistent with Mussolini’a definition of fasicsm“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

It bears no relation whatsoever to the conservatism my grandparents, parents and I (prior to age 21) subscribed to. Like our role model Barry Goldwater, we were staunch fiscal conservatives who believed in allowing other people total freedom to make their own lifestyle choices, provided they didn’t interfere with someone else’s freedom.

Ironically some of America’s strongest neoliberals are so-called liberals like Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. This can be seen in their aggressive promotion of pro-corporate globalization treaties, privately run charter schools and other initiatives to privatize public education and their support for scaling back and privatizing welfare, Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security.

The Concept of Sustainable Economics

The confusion generated by political labels is especially problematic for sustainability activists who believe that economic and monetary reform are the centerpiece of building a truly sustainable society. This relates in part to the fiscally conservative nature of the specific economic and monetary reforms we seek. Examples include

1. An end to the drive for perpetual growth.

Sustainability activists take the position that industrialized society is exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity and has caused serious depletion in many essential resources. The price of oil and natural gas are skyrocketing because we have nearly used up the cheap stuff. What remains is difficult and expensive to extract and refine. Likewise, we have nearly exhausted the ocean’s fish stocks, much of the earth’s topsoil, and, in may parts of the world, fresh water.

Human beings need to commit – quickly – to living within their mains, a basic principle of fiscal conservatism.

2. The replacement of debt-based money creation by private banks with a reserve-based monetary system run by a publicly accountable governmental body.

Elimination of debt is part and parcel of living within one’s means.

3. Improved efficiency of production and distribution through economic relocalization; i.e., reducing energy and transportation costs through local production and sourcing of food, energy, clothing, and building materials.

In the case of electricity, there is a 30-40% enegy loss in the process of generation and transition. We can recoup this lost power by creating local distributed generation systems. “Waste not, want not” is also a basic principle of fiscal conservatism.

4. Community-supported initiatives to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Another variation on “waste not, want not” that flies in the face of high pressure consumerism and messages that promote a “throwaway society” mentality. Only purchase what you really need. Darn, mend, sharpen and repair to extend the lifespan of clothes, tools and appliances. Pass on what you no longer need to someone else who can use it.

The Day Goldwater Called Himself a Liberal

A few years before he died, Goldwater himself acknowledged that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” had ceased to have any meaning. In 1996, he joked with Senator Bob Dole, who also resisted the takeover of the Republican Party by neoliberalism and the religious right: ”We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party,”

Stuart Jeanne Bramhall is a retired American-trained psychiatrist and long time citizen activist living in New Zealand. Substack page Email her at: Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne.