WHEN it comes to protecting the environment, conservatives have been fighting a losing political battle for years. That's not surprising, given their consistent opposition to most protection measures - an image more that of Reagan administration obstructionist James Watt than Republican conservationist Teddy Roosevelt.
Recently, however, there has been some rethinking in conservative quarters, and it could help cool the rhetoric all around and lead to sensible solutions balancing ecological protection and economic well-being.
One such thinker is Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey and now president of Drew University in Madison, N.J. Speaking to the right-of-center Heritage Foundation last fall, Mr. Kean warned conservatives that "if you neglect this issue, if you surrender it to the far left, if you relegate it to the back of your policy files, you will hurt yourselves politically, you will leave the issue to be captured by extremists, and, worst of all, I believe you will allow the environment to suffer."
The environment, said Kean, is a "vital domestic issue we need to keep on page one of every conservative agenda." To those conservatives who consider themselves religious, Kean reminds them of what Solomon says in the Bible: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever." (Ecl. 1:4)
John Shanahan, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst, is even more direct with his conservative brethern.
Environmentalists, he concedes, "have had the high moral ground" over the years on issues like pollution and species protection. "To protect the economy, we conservatives have fought the environmental movement step by step, and we have lost step by step," he told a meeting of the Lincoln Caucus in Phoenix last November.
"Through it all - and you're not going to like this - we conservatives often were on the wrong side of the fence, the wrong side of an emotional issue," he said. "And through it all - and this is painful for me to say - we often were on the wrong side of the environment."
One can imagine the muttering and feet shuffling in the crowd, but Mr. Shanahan is right, and he's done some good thinking about how to change that image and the reality behind it.
The new conservative message should be "make the polluter pay," he says. While business and industry should "reap rewards for conservation and environmentally sound practices," they should also "bear the total societal cost of resource use and environmental degradation." The most potentially explosive word in that statement is "total."
For example, he suggests that local governments should tax autos according to how much they pollute: That is, old cars and those in need of an engine tuneup would pay more.
Shanahan also suggests that the best way to protect natural resources is through private ownership. He gives a number of good examples: privately held fishing rights on the rivers of Scotland and the protection of endangered elephants in countries like Zimbabwe where villages own and control the land on which the animals graze.
It's true that "The Tragedy of the Commons" (as University of California ecologist Garrett Hardin called it) is that when everybody owns something, the incentive for the individual is to use it up before somebody else does. But as Richard Manning's new book on logging in Montana ("Last Stand") makes clear, private ownership does not necessarily equal good stewardship. Simplistically put, that's because the bottom line on the environment may not appear for generations.
Joan Berkowitz, managing director of a strategy development and market research firm, predicts that "environmental protection is destined to be one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global economy well into the 21st century." Writing for the Environmental Law Institute, she notes that the US government and industry are spending more than $100 billion a year to comply with environmental standards - a figure that will more than double over the next decade.
"Market forces and consumer demand are making it clear that the environmental challenge represents vast new opportunities for far-sighted companies," reports Tomorrow magazine.
That in itself should be enough to generate conservative interest in environmental protection.