Author of new book The Conservative Environmentalist says conservation, love of environment is at heart of conservatism

Chamber Business News sat down recently with Benji Backer, the founder of the American Conservation Coalition and the author of The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future, which will be released Apr. 16.

Here’s part 1 of our conversation. Portions have been edited for clarity.

Chamber Business News: What is the American Conservation Coalition?

Benji Backer: The American Conservation Coalition is an organization I started when I was at college at the University of Washington. The last 16 years I have been active in politics. My other passion is being in the outdoors, which led me to move to Arizona. I fell in love with the outdoors here. To me, when I’m in nature, the environment itself doesn’t seem political or partisan. and I became super frustrated that the narrative in environmental politics has been and was at the time basically like this Green New Deal alarmist, “the world’s gonna end”, or we need huge government action to overhaul the economy, or we should be doing nothing – that there’s no problem at all.

So, the American Conservation Coalition and this book aim to fill that gap by creating a grassroots community of young people like me – 40,000 of us now over 200 communities – in chapters that are pushing elected officials, business leaders, and decision makers to prioritize the environment in a way that is good for humanity, good for our economy, good for our individual lives, and allowing us to have individual liberty and prosperity at the same time. It’s basically creating an alternative environmental movement.

CBN: Do you anticipate the Coalition making its voice heard in the presidential election?

Backer: We feel like the presidential election this year and previous years has been an encapsulation of part of the problem, which is that the narrative is still kind of this doom and gloom. “We need drastic action,” versus “these issues don’t matter.” 

We feel like, regardless of who wins, we need to make progress, and we need to do it in a common sense, realistic way. So, we’re not going to be weighing in on endorsing a candidate in the 2024 election.

We will be endorsing some congressional candidates – ones that have prioritized the environment and prioritized this kind of common sense, pro-economy approach. But at the presidential level, we just feel like it’s another election where, unfortunately, even though most Americans don’t believe the denial versus alarmist narrative, that’s unfortunately the narrative that we’re kind of having to buy into by choosing a candidate. So we’re just setting our sights on what we can accomplish after the election at the state and federal levels.

Benji Backer, Founder and Executive Chairman, American Conservation Coalition

CBN: Why do you believe conservatism, properly understood, goes hand in hand with conservation?

Backer: The conservatives used to lead environmental progress. You look back at Teddy Roosevelt, to Richard Nixon, to Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, those four presidents, all Republicans, led the most historic environmental initiatives of all time. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, creation of the EPA, creation of the National Park system as we know it, the largest marine sanctuary and public lands protections of all time. Those are all under those presidents.

Conservatism used to have conservation as a core pillar of its value system. But most importantly, there’s a reason for that. And the reason is, conservatives who tend to  be freedom loving Americans who appreciate the beauty of our country, love to recreate in nature. They’re often the hunters and fishermen and women. They’re the ranchers and the farmers. They’re the hikers and skiers and people who just love spending time outdoors. Of course they want to protect [the environment]. And, you know, conservatives tend to be more often than not located in rural areas, which are nestled in nature itself.

When you think about Arizona, or you think about any of the states in the West, the most conservative parts are parts in nature, and they have a personal stake in protecting the environment. So, what my message is, is that this issue used to be one that conservatives led on and it can be again. It’s an authentically conservative position, but it’s authentically a nonpartisan position as well. To me nature is nonpartisan – to me the environment is something that we all share.

CBN: Can the views and agenda of the American Conservation Coalition and those expressed in your book still have a home in today’s version of conservatism, which tends to be defined by the views and attitudes of the former president and his supporters?

Backer: I think the conservative movement has absolutely lost its way on these issues. This is a new problem, and it’s one that is so avoidable and unnecessary. 

The reason why Trump supporters and conservatives are so skeptical of environmental action is because they perceive that the only solutions are ones that are going to hurt them and take control of their lives. And what I’m trying to tell conservative leaders and voters is that that’s not the case. Just because you don’t like the other side’s ideas doesn’t mean that you can’t propose good ideas of your own. You should be playing offense and proposing good ideas.

I don’t think that it’s too late to turn the tide by any means, but I do think that it’s harmful when the president talks about the environment as basically a consumer good, and that we can just kind of tap into it as much as we want and that there aren’t any repercussions. I think he’s very misguided in that, and I think if he wants to show young people that he actually cares about them and this country, he changes his tune. 

This issue is going to be important past the time that Trump is relevant. This is going to be something that we have to fight for for decades, and my generation’s right and left isn’t going to tolerate environmental inaction.

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