Economics/Class Relations

How the Sustainability Movement Defies Conservative/Liberal Labels

By Stuart Bramhall

My decision to focus my activism in the sustainability movement has nothing to do with the horror stories climate change and Peak Oil aficionados tell about the horrible future my children and grandchildren face. I have never found terrifying or guilt-tripping people an effective way to engage them politically. It always seems far more likely to generate demoralization and apathy. I choose to focus my time and energy on sustainability-related issues based on the conviction that people who wish to survive coming economic and ecological crisis will need be extremely well organized. After thirty years of organizing, I find that sustainability engages people at the neighborhood and community level in a way no other issue can.

My friends and neighbors get it. They are all affected by the skyrocketing cost of fossil fuels, mainly because high energy and transportation costs make everything more expensive. They are all acutely aware that something in society has to change drastically. This realization makes them open, to varying degrees, to trying new, less energy intensive ways of doing business and meeting their families’ basic needs.

The only stumbling block I face in organizing around sustainability is efforts by the corporate media to demonize us as liberals or “greenies.” I can see why they do this. Corporate media coverage of climate change and sustainability-related topics is heavily dominated by the fossil fuel industry, which has a vested interest in discouraging people from reducing their use of oil, natural gas and coal.

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

Labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” are totally meaningless when it comes to implementing less energy-intensive lifestyles. This relates in part to the bastardization of the word “conservative” by neoliberals, which started with the so-called Reagan revolution in the 1980s. 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’s 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 the strongest adherents of neoliberalism as 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 the scaling back and privatization of welfare and now social security.

The confusion generated by political labels is especially problematic for sustainability activists like myself who believe that economic and monetary reform are the centerpiece of building a truly sustainable society. Especially as the specific economic and monetary reforms we seek are fiscally conservative in nature. Below are some examples:

1. An end to the drive for perpetual growth.

Sustainability activists believe human beings must commit – quickly – to living within their means, a prime example of fiscal conservatism. They 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 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 many parts of the world, fresh water.

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 by producing and sourcing food, energy, clothing, and building materials at a local and regional level.

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.

I also heard many variations on this principle growing up. 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” (see Conservative pioneer became an outcast).

Leave a Reply