A Conservative Idea Conservatives Hate

Any conservative knows to preserve an endowment rather than consume it. The idea is to live off the dividends that the endowment’s capital generates. If you consume the capital, dividends diminish. That forces you to consume ever more capital to maintain the same lifestyle. Eventually, you end up burning the floorboards to heat the mansion.

Endowed capital should only be used to invest in other, better assets that will produce more sustainable dividends. In other words, it should be conserved. “Conserve” is the verb from which the adjective and noun “conservative” derive.

Fossil fuels are Earth’s endowment to us. How it’s “conservative” to consume that endowment is beyond me.

In hindsight, the found treasure of coal, oil, and natural gas had a place and purpose in history: to bootstrap modern technological civilization. There’s no way computers, telecommunications, medical science, renewable energy, or any of the other wealth markers of the modern world would exist—not to mention today’s prodigious human population of seven billion—if it hadn’t been for oil and coal.

But now that we’ve recognized the acute problem of climate disruption, the prudent, conservative act would be to stop consuming the endowment and reserve it for those critical investments for which there is no substitute. This means strategic applications, mostly military and research.

The atmosphere is also an endowment. We’re consuming its capacity to sustain life, often for the sake of nothing more than entertainment and diversion. Day to day it’s not obvious that we’re drawing down the account. It takes a little effort to see the signs that our spending is outstripping the dividends—that is, we’re putting carbon into the air faster than the biosphere can remove it. We aren’t analyzing the account statements as we should. We’re a bit like trust-fund babies with no respect for the gift we’ve inherited, so comfortable with spending that we’ve come to see it as an entitlement rather than a privilege with an attendant responsibility.

When did “conservative” come to mean profligate? When did “conservatives” come to ignore consequences? To flout responsibility? To disregard posterity? The answer is: they’re not conservatives.

More next week.

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