What's in a name?

Andrew Sullivan links to a post by Professor Jonathan Adler at The Volokh Conspiracy about a poll that shows people are much less likely to describe themselves as “environmentalists” than they were 20 years ago.

Adler is correct, I think, when he writes: “Does this mean that Americans are less supportive of environmental protection than in the past? I doubt it.”  Indeed, if you look at the poll itself, it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a whole lot of data to support that contention.  In what strikes me as a bit of wishful thinking, however, Adler then surmises:

One possibility is that an increasing percentage of Americans reject the idea that the environmentalist movement has a monopoly on what it means to be "pro-environment." Americans who support environmental protection may feel uncomfortable with either the tactics or policy prescriptions embraced by establishment environmental groups. If so, it should not be much of a surprise.

A decade or so ago --back in my own activist/think tank days -- I commissioned polling work on what Americans believed it meant to be "pro-environment," finding that many Americans saw "conservative" approaches to environmental protection -- e.g. decentralization, protection of property rights, non-regulatory measures, etc. -- as "pro-environment." (See summaries here and here.)

I believed then -- and believe now -- that this and other polling data suggest that establishment environmentalist groups lack an enforceable monopoly on what it means to be "pro-environment." Insofar as conventional "greens" dominate the field, it is by default. Conservative and libertarian types generally -- and conservative politicians in particular -- have largely ceded the field. They either endorse conventional policies on the cheap, or oppose establishment environmentalist proposals outright without proposing a positive alternative.

As I’ve written about before, the fundamental problem with this line of reasoning is that it mistakes the environmental movement for one that can be easily assigned a place on the conservative-to-liberal spectrum.  While that may well have been true at one time, I don’t think it’s nearly as true today as it once was.  In fact, “establishment environmental groups” are far more pragmatic than most commentors give them credit for and are more than willing to embrace the kind policy prescriptions that Professor Adler mentions—if they work.  Look at the mainstream environmental support for a cap-and-trade mechanism (which is, at its base, a market mechanism) to control global warming pollution.  Or the support by some groups for individual fishing quotas (a property-rights approach to the tragedy of the commons). 

But—and here’s the crucial difference with many of those who try to create “conservative” environmental agendas—environmental groups in my experience don’t reject or accept solutions to environmental problems based on how they fit into a predetermined ideological spectrum.  Do many within the environmental movement have biases and preconceptions?  Of course.  And do some of those biases make them skeptical of  things like “decentralization”?  Mine certainly do.  But if you have to ask whether an environmental policy is “conservative” or “protects property rights” in order to support it, then I would suggest that your agenda has more to do with something other than protecting the environment.

So why the poll result?  As Frank Luntz famously pointed out in his 2003 memo to Republicans about how to communicate about the environment: “‘Environmentalism’ can have the connotation of extremism to many Americans, particularly outside of the Northeast.” 

Such things do not happen by accident, of course.  Just like the term “liberal”  and “religious right” did not spontaneously acquire negative connotations, I believe there has been a concerted effort to brand “environmentalists” as extremists, self-righteous, nature worshippers, etc., by our political opponents.  That effort is the more likely explanation for ABC’s poll results than a need for a “conservative” environmentalism.