Why It's a Bad Time to be a Conservative
21 Jul 2021 · 7 min read
All of us humans, both individually and collectively, have to strike some reasonable balance between doing what we’ve done before (safe but boring) and trying something new (exciting but risky).
And when considering these two alternatives, of course, doing what we’ve done before generally wins. Because we know that what’s been done before has worked. And because we also know that lots of things don’t work; in fact, many things fail spectacularly. And so, very wisely, we generally stick with things that have been shown to work.
George Santayana nicely summed up this wisdom for us back in 1906:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained… infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
In other words, if we can’t remember what worked and what didn’t before, then we’re likely to repeat the stuff that didn’t work – with equally disappointing and often disastrous results.
This tendency to repeat what has worked before is well known in business. And, as Santayana pointed out, it’s generally a good thing. But at times it can hold back progress. This is one reason why founder Jeff Bezos always insisted that every day at Amazon would be Day One. And it’s also a reason why many business improvement leaders look for what they call a burning platform to motivate change: because often people won’t try something new until they’re forced to leave their old ways behind.
So how does all this apply to politics? In the New Oxford American Dictionary the first definition for conservative is: “averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.”
In a similar vein, Wikipedia defines Conservatism as the “outlook that embodies the desire to preserve existing things, held to be either good in themselves, or better than the likely alternatives, or at least safe, familiar, and the objects of trust and affection.”
So far, so good. Repeating the safe things that have worked before is a universal human instinct, and a valuable one.
So what’s the problem with being a conservative in the 21st century?
Just this: everything has already changed, and it’s continuing to change at an unforgiving pace.
Let’s put the history of humanity in a little context.
- We live on a planet that has existed for over 4.5 billion years.
- We’ve had life on this orb for at least 3.5 billion years.
- Human ancestors have been around for about 6 million years.
- Modern humans, in the form of Home Sapiens, have existed for a little over 300,000 years.
- Civilization as we know it is only about 6,000 years old.
- We’ve had industrialization for just a little over 200 years.
- We’ve only had digital technology for a little over 50 years.
And now let’s turn our attention to population levels, just focusing for now on the United States.
- Prior to colonization, about 4 million humans lived in the lands now part of the US and Canada.
- By 1800, we had about 5 million people counted by the US census (which at this point excluded Native Americans).
- It took only eighty years for this number to grow tenfold, to a total just over 50 million, in 1880.
- By 1920, our population size had doubled, to a total just over 100 million.
- In another 50 years, by 1970, our population had doubled again, to just over 200 million.
- And in the next 50 years, by 2020, our population had grown again, this time by over 50%, to a figure topping 330 million.
And although I’ve been focusing on the US, a similar story has of course been playing out in the rest of the world.
So the important point to be made here is that, when we look at any sort of historical timeline involving life on Earth, we cannot help but observe that, in terms of both technology and population levels, the degree of change we have seen in the last two hundred years is both staggering and unprecedented.
And so, for one wishing to be a conservative, we are forced to ask: if you’d like to keep things the way they are, or the way they were, how do you propose to undo, or even slow, the rapid pace of population growth and technological change?
Now of course one might argue, as many have, that all of this change has generally been for the best, and that the steady and continued flow of progress depends on hewing to the same principles that have brought us this far: things like private ownership, free enterprise, social values based on God, family and hard work, and so on.
And here’s where we run into the particular problem with being a conservative today: because it is becoming increasingly apparent to all that, through a combination of our ever-growing human population and our rampant industrialization, we have brought the only planet we have to the brink of ecological collapse.
For quite a while the signs had to be sought out, but now they are staring at us from every day’s headlines:
- Unprecedented heat waves;
- Historic flooding;
- Glaciers melting;
- Rising sea levels;
- Growing droughts;
- Reservoirs drying up;
- Increasing size and scope of wildfires;
- Crops literally being baked in their fields;
- Skyrocketing prices of housing, with ever-growing numbers of people trying to cram into the same limited geography;
- Species extinction;
- New forms of pollution, such as micro-plastics, plaguing our environment.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
And so, when we look at what we like to call progress over the last few hundred years, it’s easy to see that it’s been fueled by the following factors:
- Invention of new products and services for consumers;
- Invention of new tools and processes used to make more, better and cheaper things for consumers;
- Advances in sales and distribution of the items identified above;
- Rising wages and employment levels, turning citizens into workers and workers into prolific consumers;
- Competition and free markets, forcing companies to continuously innovate and improve or to be replaced;
- Capitalists willing to invest their resources in new and often risky ventures (that generally involve selling more and better things to even more consumers).
And all these forces have brought us to the point at which, looking at today’s headlines, I see:
- News of a wildfire in Oregon that’s so big and hot that it’s generating its own weather;
- Reports of Jeff Bezos, the richest human on earth, returning from a flight to space and declaring “Best day ever.”
I’m not sure how anything other than this obscene juxtaposition could better encapsulate the failure of free enterprise to address our growing environmental crisis.
And in truth, we are now at a moment in human history when the production of more and better consumer goods is not what we need. If individuals could purchase some individual shelter from the effects of ecological collapse, then no doubt our innovative capitalists would devise new products and services to meet the demand. If Bezos could sell me my own individual biosphere, that contained everything I needed to sustain friends and family well into the future, then I would probably have one sitting on my doorstep about now. But our environmental crisis is global, and solutions must be global. This perforce takes individual consumers out of the picture. There is no way we as individuals can consume our way out of our current problems, and hence no way that producers of consumer goods and services can innovate our way out of our environmental crisis.
And so, no matter how we choose to define the conservative position, whether in terms of a general tendency to preserve the current order of things, or a more focused political definition involving the defense of free enterprise, private property and traditional social norms, it is hard to see how any of this will do us much good about now.
This is perhaps why, when we read about the newly formed Conservative Climate Caucus, we are unsurprised that it has nothing of substance to offer. And also perhaps why the American Conservative movement has devolved so dramatically into what it is today… for it is not so much that this particular crop of conservatives has turned out badly, but more that conservatism as a whole has been backed into a corner by our current situation, and simply has nothing in its bag of tricks that will help us out of the spot we find ourselves in today…
…huddled together on the burning platform of planet Earth, and being forced to consider trying something new.