The Whale

What Would Roosevelt Think? (Who knows, he's dead.)

This is a cross-post from our new Substack letter, The Whale. For The Whale we have four writers who will be posting respective weeks. Posts will reflect their unique takes on all things environmental, be relatively short and sweet, and usually include links to further reading.

If you’d like to check it out you can find it here, or you can read on through this piece and towards the end there’s an option to subscribe.

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December 14, 2022 - Simcoe County

For all the current antagonism between Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party and environmentalists, you may be surprised to learn that both share roots more interwoven than is commonly known.

– A short essay on conservatism, conservationism, environmentalism and why all of the above are important. –

As a long-time student of nearly everything environmental (I did both my undergrad and graduate degrees in the environmental field) one of the first things I learned was that modern environmentalism has its roots in the conservation movement.

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.

A key figure of this movement was the 26th President of the United States, Theodor Roosevelt, a Republican, who, while a progressive on that side of the political spectrum, was, nevertheless, not a bleeding heart granola cruncher. (I love crunchy granola, by the way. It’s the worst when it’s soft.) 

Roosevelt, in addition to being rich and a soldier and historian and a writer and a president, was also a naturalist. (The clothed sort as far as I know.) When he was eight he obtained a seal’s skull that washed up in New York, and over the years he gained additional disparate specimens, with which he created what became, in 1867, the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.

There’s a spark of curiosity at play here, an inquisitiveness that drove him to broaden and deepen his understanding of the natural world. This openness to creating new ways of understanding and engaging with the world led to the creation of the U.S. national parks system, the first of its kind in the world.

Photo by Ansel Adams, titled The Teton Range and the Snake River.

Protecting these parks required a process, of course, a method of determining which lands should be protected and the form that protection should take. This process, the identification of something valuable and worthy of protection, is, or at least was, pretty central to conservatism. There is some degree of effort involved with maintaining something over time, after all (everything decays in time, weather worn pyramids and allusion to Ozymandias here) and so the process of deciding whether the value of doing so is worth it is important.

One can quibble, I suppose, about the different types of conservatism, whether traditional or fiscal or social or some other slice of the pie, but the central premise of each is the same as what’s outlined above, that determination of something which it is desirable to maintain, to hold on to and preserve.

For the traditional conservative this may be practices that characterize their culture; for the fiscal conservative it’s likely to be keeping spending low…for Roosevelt his conservatism was exemplified, at least in good part, by his belief that places like Yellowstone National Park are worth keeping.

A detailed pictorial map of Yellowstone National Park, by Henry Wellge.

But here’s the kicker, the good is deemed worthy of protecting based upon some degree of knowledge of it, an understanding of the utility and value of it. At least, it seems to me, it should be based on such.

Conservatism, according to this, is rooted in identifying things that are believed to be important and then, accordingly, the protection or preservation of those things. 

The way that the identification of what is important happens is crucial. It’s the fond to the pan sauce, to borrow something a better chef than me might say. Using a faulty process for this or simply basing it on one’s opinion, which may not be shared by others, is bound to wind up in tension and disagreement. (We’ve all got some weird ideas that set us apart, right? I like to listen to jazz when I’m making dinner but my wife and kids will have nothing to do with it.)

So, the point I’m making is that the process is important in determining the quality of the outcome. And, the quality of the process rests upon the accuracy of the information it uses. Bad information and you wind up with an error riddled outcome – the Windows Vista of reasoning.

To bring this all back to environmentalism, the way we navigate our world as a species is a process of information gathering, analysis, and consequent action. Environmentalism extends this process to the natural world because it is the most basic building block of life, including what we require for our survival as a species.

But the processes we use to determine what to protect and conserve are being broken. Environmental regulations are being cast aside or seen as simply perfunctory. Ecological systems, which are fundamentally interconnected (think of the organs within the body and how they work together to create a greater whole) are seen as dumb components that can be swapped out and replaced. Nature, in other words, is seen as a sort of technology.

The sad irony of this is that, in this province at least, much of the hammer swinging is being done by those who claim the mantle of conservatism, by those who, given the roots of the political ideology they appeal to votes from, should be deeply concerned with identifying that which is valuable for us as a society to hold on to.

There is the old saying, though, that I think indicates what’s happened, and is happening, here in Ontario. Ours is a government that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. When all you want is power for the sake of power you have no compass any longer. You shift your values to align with whatever you think will get you what you want. That isn’t conservatism, it’s greed and opportunism.

About the Author

Adam Ballah

Adam Ballah

Adam has worked with SCGC since, almost, its conception. He holds a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies from York University, and is deeply interested (and concerned) with intersections between risk, vulnerability, and security when it comes to climate impacts.
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