What’s the Difference Between an Environmentalist and a Free Market Conservative?

Actually, not that much.  Both are children of the Romantic tradition, but whereas one is enamored of nature, the other is enamored of capitalism. One posits leaving nature (with its natural selections) alone; the other posits leaving the market (with its Invisible Hand) alone. Either nature or markets are believed to possess an organic logic that must not be messed with without incurring sin–and catastrophic consequences. Both think of tinkerers as indulging in hubris. Whether one identifies as an environmentalist or a free market conservative, either nature or capitalism are reified as sacred and possessed of an intelligence greater than any arrogant individual. And both notice local victims of rationalist hubris, and highlight their plight (the redwood tree or the out-of-work redwood logger).

But, even as each “acts locally,” they also mean to make their particular version of hands-off management a universal law for all of humankind–to “think globally.” In this sense, both the environmentalist and the free market (free trade) conservative are subversive of national boundaries. Both are internationalist in ways that get cultural and economic nationalists screwed-up.

Does this mean that the libertarian environmentalist is an oxymoron? To be coherent, must one be a tree hugger or a Friedrich Hayek hugger–or simply reject both Romantic paradigms?

Why do environmentalists and libertarians so curiously shadow each other?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to What’s the Difference Between an Environmentalist and a Free Market Conservative?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I think you give neither the environmentalist or the free market advocate due credit in this comparison. Many people advocate for approaches that could be described as ‘environmentalist’ or ‘capitalist’ based on some value system outside of a new age gaia theory or unbended reverence to the market. Sometimes positions may appear to be directly related to values to an outsider, but are in fact pragmatic or utilitarian positions based on some underlying value system that is not so apparent. Certainly there are brands of environmental and market advocacy that are incompatible, but we should not reduce the terms to a presupposition as to why individuals hold a particular positions.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Individual self-interest is just the inverse (in my view) of the ecological insight. Whether it is selfish human actors in an economy or selfish genes in an ecosystem, both are generating, collectively, a dynamic system devoted to competitive replication and production. Maybe the reason environmentalists and libertarians shadow one another is that biology and economics shadow one another (the insights from one naturally connect to insights from the other). How to bring the two together in a mutually sustainable fashion is an interesting question. Don’t shit where you eat seems like a start.

      Darwin, as is well known, read Smith and Malthus in the year running up to his evolutionary insights. The irony is that big government liberals tend to love Darwin and distrust Smith while small government conservatives love Smith but distrust Darwin.


      • andrewclunn says:

        I think seeing them as inverted is merely a result of the current political forces at play. Absent that there’s no reason (at an ideological level at least) why the two should be mutually exclusive.

  2. Cody says:

    Interesting connection. Both purport to upholding a natural order that would be perfect if only we left it alone. I would point out, though, that the mentality that free market capitalism would thrive if only left alone seems to be a myth in a manner of speaking. Would capitalism function well as a system, at least for a while, if left alone? Probably. Would it last indefinitely? Probably not. I think we’re starting to see that now in a lot of ways. Unfettered capitalism protects the interests of those who control the means of production, which is generally not the interests of the working class or the environment. It has been shown that a small board of executives will generally do harm to the working class and damage the environment if it increases their profits.

    All in all, I would argue that capitalism and those who argue for its benefits have fallen prey to the internal myth that capitalism is the best of all possible economic worlds. If you get down to a basic Marxist interpretation of socioeconomic structure, it’s clear that the ideological superstructure reinforces through ideology and culture the legitimacy of the economic base. Think American exceptionalism and rugged individualism. In essence, I think that’s what’s going on when people argue for laissez-faire capitalism.

    This is in contrast to general environmentalist theory, which seems to be true. Nature does seem better of if lived with as opposed to struggled against. There are limits there as well.

    Interesting post, Professor.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      I’m wondering what you mean when you say that nature seems “better off” left alone. Better off for whom or what?

      I think that both nature and capitalism produce productive and stable systems, but their ends are unpredictable. Some ecosystems, for example, do quite well in making mosquitos that spread malaria, and some economies grow even as they value professional baseball players and dogs more than funding, say, theoretical physics. I guess I’m suggesting that it depends on what you want. Is it worth tweaking an ecosystem or an economy to some purpose other than the one it naturally and contingently gravitates to? When do larger concerns trump local ones?


      • Cody says:

        Mainly, I was trying to draw a distinction between the literally natural system of the natural world and the falsely natural system of capitalism.

        Of course nature can get “out of control” from a human point of view. Nobody wants to get swept up into a tornado, but, as you said, it is productive and stable. Capitalism is productive but unstable, and its productivity means little if it’s tending to produce wealth in the hands of capitalists and merely sustenance on the part of the proletariat. I think it’s socially irresponsible to liken laissez-faire capitalism to the natural world and call it fair and the best of all possible worlds. I suppose this could turn into a discussion about the nature of capitalism itself, which I would be willing to have.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        I guess my analogy is that the wealthiest 1% are akin to mosquitos in the Amazon: the capitalist environment serves them well and in a stable way, but the question is the following: is that the kind of social ecosystem we want to be oriented toward–do we want to produce 1% “mosquitos” and consumer goods? Is this the highest end of man? In Lancaster, for example, B. Dalton’s Bookseller on Ave. K closed and what replaced it was a See’s Candy store. The capitalist system “worked” (out with the old, in with the new). Something better fit to the stupid local environment prevails, but is that what we really want–a city without a general purpose bookstore?

        I tend to disagree with you that capitalism is unstable: the system works extremely well for certain purposes (efficient food production, for example, which is no small matter). Marx thought bourgeois capitalism would be overthrown in the 19th century, yet it’s still going strong today.

        The question, in my view, is not whether capitalism should be replaced (I don’t think it should), but to what degree government should tweak capitalist directions so that we don’t just end up with candy stores and few or no bookstores in the world. Libertarianism is a temptation to me. I see its virtues. But I also wonder what kind of world, completely oriented to the mercantile, will be delivered to the next generation.

        I think of the scientists who devote their careers to theoretical physics, for example. There’s no economic benefit plausibly to be applied in the near future to the subject’s pursuit. Therefore, if governments don’t fund it, it pretty much doesn’t happen. The next high-energy collider will cost many billions of dollars–many more than the current LHE, and there’s no guarantee that the energy levels reached will find any new particles. The current collider in Switzerland found the Higgs, but it’s unlikely to find much else.

  3. Cody says:

    To continue following the analogy, I think calling the economic 1% “mosquitoes” is not quite there. The economic elite are far more influential in the macro trends of a capitalist system. For example, I’ll pull from a book I recently read, ‘Occupy the Economy,’ by Richard Wolff (City Lights Books). Wolff talks about how, because of their exorbitant wealth, the economic elite are able to exert a huge amount of influence on how they’re treated by the state. Wolff writes, “in the 1950s and 1960s, the top income-tax rate that the highest income-tax payers had to pay was 91 percent…something happened between the 1950s and today which can only be described as a mammoth tax-break…to the richest Americans.” The highest income-tax bracket now is around 35% and it gets even lower when you can afford to hire the best accountants money can buy.

    The wealthy essentially dismantled all the pro-worker legislation put into action in the Depression era and immediately following it. The problem is not that capitalism doesn’t “work.” As you mentioned, it closed down a bookstore and opened a candy shop (I loved frequenting that bookstore when I was a teenager). The problem is that capitalism is not a system that “works” for the largest number of citizens. It works for the wealthiest citizens.

    As you also mention, a market economy does have its benefits, like food distribution, which is an excellent example, I think. A capitalist market economy distributes food efficiently with minimal planning where a more socialized economy would require far more organization. While it may do some things well, that doesn’t mean it’s the best of all possible systems.

    Although you don’t seem to share my socialist leanings, I think we can agree that our society would greatly benefit from increased democratization. As opposed to a system where political leverage is counted in campaign dollars, a system where direct-democracy was in place and corporate sponsorship was banned would benefit the poorest Americans and the middle-class Americans alike. I think that is the reform or “tweaking” you’re talking about. If all our bookstores started selling chocolate bars instead, this would be a sad place indeed.

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