Newt Gingrich explains why red staters must turn green

In 'Contract with the Earth,' Gingrich argues that conservatives should embrace environmentalism

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Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman says environmentalism today suffers from being seen as "liberal," "girly," "unpatriotic," and even "vaguely French."

That doesn't sound like the kind of movement that would appeal to any self-respecting political conservative.

But now Newt Gingrich, the fierce and incendiary conservative speaker of the US House of Representatives in the 1990s, has co-written a small book that aims to gently coax his fellow conservatives into the environmental camp. It's OK to be green, argues Gingrich and his coauthor, Terry L. Maple, a former president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta and professor of conservation at Georgia Tech. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly called the school Georgia Tech University.]

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A Contract with the Earth aims to play off the "Contract with America," a set of political promises made by Gingrich and his fellow Republican candidates that helped vault the GOP into power in Congress in 1994.

But "A Contract with the Earth" is much less dynamic and bold than its predecessor. It seems more interested in being inoffensive than calling for radical change. Environmentalists may find its recommendations fall far short of revolutionary.

Platitudes sprout like toadstools. "The fate of people, wildlife, and habitat is linked in important ways," the authors remind readers. More truisms abound. "We need leaders who can unite us, not divide us," they say. "We should be willing to consider and evaluate any good idea, regardless of its origin."

Who can argue with that? Much of the tiptoeing involves calls for conciliation between liberals and conservatives in order to protect nature. But the argument that conservatives belong in a big tent of environmentalism begins to sound more like the voice of a savvy politician who realizes his political philosophy has drifted into near irrelevance on a crucial issue and is eager to get back in the game. "Currently, liberal politicians operate as if they own the issue; in their reaction, conservatives appear to disdain it," the authors concede.

Modern conservatives should remember, they say, that a century ago a man's man of a Republican, President Theodore Roosevelt, he of the assertive "big stick" foreign policy, was also one of the greatest environmental presidents. Teddy protected millions of acres of American land from development and founded the National Park Service. (They fail to mention that, even as recently as the 1970s, a GOP president, Richard Nixon, made a huge contribution to the movement when he established the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Environmentalism needs conservatives, Gingrich and Maple say, because they are optimists, not doomsayers. "The environmental challenges are real, but our imagination and innate creativity give us confidence that humanity, against all odds, can and will prevail," they write.

Liberals, Gingrich and Maple suggest, may have good intentions, but they're still a bunch of gloomy sourpusses. That attitude is just not going to save the planet, the authors say. "Instead, joyful, inspirational, optimistic environmentalism," such as that displayed by the Walt Disney Company in its operations, are what's needed.

It's quite possible to be a "green conservative," Gingrich and Maple say. "Free enterprise is not the enemy of the environment. It is the engine that will drive promising alternatives." Yet their calls for cooperation between business, government, and private philanthropy seem outdated, since such arrangements have long formed the backbone of the environmental movement.

Readers looking for the unexpected will find tidbits. Despite conservative distrust of government, the authors recognize it "... plays a necessary and fundamental role in environmental protection." Prizes, they say, should be offered for the best ideas on how to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions because these emissions "may [emphasis added] be contributing to the pace of global climate change."

Nobel Prize-winning environmental activist Al Gore rates one quick mention. And this year's reports from the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – which verified the immediacy and severity of the global-warming challenge and the role of humans in it – rates nary a reference.

Perhaps, the authors reckoned, such information would have been just a little more than their conservative audience was ready to hear.

Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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