Why you should care about environmental policy, even if you don’t care about nature

Current Location: London, UK

A few weeks ago the Conservative Party in the UK released a 25 year plan for environmental policies. In the United States, environmental policy is generally relegated to liberals. In my opinion, most American liberals generally support pro-environment platforms because they feel like it is the progressive thing to do. Conversely, conservatives generally are against or do not prioritize environmental policy because this is the conservative stance. In other words, I suspect many Americans toe the party line without really feeling strongly one way or another.

People don’t see environmental issues as a gradient; political stances are viewed as either pro- or anti-environment, when in reality there are many levels of environmental policy and regulation. This is why I feel torn about the UK Conservative Party’s move towards claiming environmentalism: on the one hand, I support making environmentalism nonpartisan and elevating it on the public agenda. On the other hand, I worry that their seemingly pro-environment stance may not have enough substance to it, and that this environmental policy will be used purely as a box checked for political purposes.

Why are substantive environmental policies* so important?

The loudest pro-environment voices tend to be those who place an intrinsic value on nature, which may obscure the fact that there are many reasons to care about environmental policy even if you don’t personally give a shit about trees or birds. That this ‘tree-hugger’ mentality persists is a failure in communication. I take a more human-centric view: environmental policies protect and manage the services that the environment provides to human beings. This can include a range of services, including essential biological functions like regulating water systems, ecosystem maintenance, organisms that support soil quality for agriculture, the value we derive from wildlife and natural parks, etc.

I became interested in environmental policy because I am motivated by improving human wellbeing. I recognize that not everyone will intrinsically value trees and birds, but I’d like to think that everyone cares about people. With that in mind, here are five pro-environmental arguments that are not based on nature, animal welfare, or anything that does not concretely and directly affect humans.

The Race/Gender Argument (for anyone who is passionate about racial injustice, inequality, and female empowerment)

Pollution disproportionately affects people of color and women. Even when controlling for factors like income, in the United States, African American communities are more likely to be located close to hazardous sites and exposed to the impacts of pollution. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that historically disenfranchised communities are the most vulnerable to the environment. Women are also most likely to suffer the effects of indoor air pollution from biomass powered cookstoves in developing countries, and I’ve mentioned in one of my previous posts how women’s rights are tied to conservation.

The Neoliberal Argument (for anyone who has taken one intro economics class and likes to throw around the word “markets”)

You like free markets? Awesome, same, I’m an (aspiring) economist! Here’s the problem — markets only function efficiently under a really specific set of conditions, and most of the time when the environment or natural resources are involved there are externalities which cause markets to “fail.” Environmental policies like taxes are actually market-based mechanisms which correct the market failure and allow markets to function more efficiently. Environmental policies and regulations are not inherently against free markets, but rather recognize where markets do not work and aim to correct them to achieve a more optimal outcome.

The Future Argument (for anyone who plans on living in the future)

The UN defined sustainability in 1987 as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As individuals, we do lots of things every day to protect our wellbeing in the future, and as citizens we support public policies that invest in the future. We put money into savings accounts, we will assets to our children, we invest in infrastructure, we spend time building up human capital (going to school) and more. There’s no reason that should not include the environment and natural resource management as well.

The Poverty Argument (for anyone who believes in reducing income inequality and protecting those who are most vulnerable)

There are so many ways in which environmental quality, conservation, pollution, etc. impact the lowest income countries and populations that I cannot cover this in a pithy paragraph. Developing nations will face the greatest repercussions of climate change because many have a strong emphasis on climate sensitive sectors (agriculture), are located in already warmer climates, and have the lowest capacity to adapt to changing conditions. I could go on and on about the health impacts of pollution on vulnerable populations (in both developed and developing countries); ever heard of Flint, Michigan?

The Tourism Argument (for anyone who feels strongly about developing local economies or likes to go on nice vacations)

This is the closest I will come to discussing the intrinsic value of nature. Many regional economies are highly dependent on income from tourists that come to view wildlife, marvel at nature, go swimming, etc. You may have seen in the news “bleaching” of coral in the Great Barrier Reef from rising ocean temperatures. Natural areas vulnerable to the impacts of climate change or other environmental damages will have severe impacts on the communities that rely on their existence. Furthermore, if you value the ability to vacation on clean beaches or in smog-free cities, then you value environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me which argument influences you. As I said, I don’t expect everyone (or anyone) to share my values or preferences. And while I certainly respect those who value nature intrinsically, I don’t think a reasonable approach to promoting environmentalism is to try and force everyone to share that value. What matters most to me is that more people understand that caring about environmental policy, climate change mitigation, and sustainability is in everyone’s best interest.


*This is clearly a generalization for simplicity’s sake. “Environmental policy” here encompasses a huge and diverse number of activities which generally shouldn’t be lumped together.

EDIT: I’ve been berated by a fussy Brit for not capitalising [sic] Conservative Party in the original post, which has now been corrected.

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