Five brands of Conservatism and Their Environmental Thought

Jesse Callahan Bryant
6 min readNov 19, 2022


As some of you know I’ve been on a bit of a recent bender trying to find good resources on how Conservatives (used to) think about the environment. It’s still a bit of a mystery for me why the right has done so poorly in supporting environmental innovation throughout my life. On the surface there are easy answers, at least for the Republican Party. Too much money in politics, too many Boomers who don’t care cuz they’ll be dead, too much narcissism, things are pretty good anyway, whatever. But I’m still fascinated by the puzzle of why can’t Conservatives be champions of the environment?

Maybe I’m an optimist.

I don’t have big answers, I did find a really nice typology that further clarifies for me the connections between the environment and specific sub-ideological categories within the enormously nebulous political banner of Conservatism. A few days ago I found this super clarifying legal paper by Barton H. Thompson Jr. called “Conservative Environmental Thought: The Bush Administration and Environmental Policy.”

In this awesome legal paper, my boy Barton charts out five different conservative political traditions and their tendencies toward environmental problem orientation. Conservatism is heterogeneous on what constitutes an environmental problem and as innovation in the first place. Also, while Conservative voters often espouse environmental values, Republican politicians have grown increasingly hostile toward environmental policy. So in a sense, agnosticism toward environmental issues is less of a Conservative problem and more of a Republican problem.

In something I wrote recently I contrasted Libertarianism and Burkean Traditionalism (and their combined ideology Conservative Fusionism!). Here though, there are the five subcategories, each with their own environmental predilections: Libertarians primarily emphasize individual liberty; economic conservatives emphasize maximizing economic welfare; Jeffersonian conservatives emphasize the localization of environmental intervention; Hamiltonian conservatives emphasize national regulation to support economic growth; and Burkean conservatives emphasize prudence and caution.

Thompson writes that “These five strands of conservatism are sufficiently disparate in their underlying philosophies that it may seem odd at first to group them together in the single political category of ‘conservatives.’ Yet these otherwise diverse groups form a ‘conservative’ coalition that has been instrumental in the election of recent Republican administrations and in the formulation of administrative thought and policies.”

Libertarians tend to be focused on pollution and direct impacts on individuals. The environment is a legal issue rather than a policy issue, thus focusing on common law over regulation. Clear evidence of harm over precautionary principle. Less amenable to government conservation and preservation. Specific animal rights over general biodiversity. Environmental protection via reducing government reach. Government commits environmental harm. Privatization is a solution.

Economic conservatives can be generalists, but tend to believe that environmental harms should be dealt with through better accounting of externalities. It’s all about correcting for negative externalities. Where libertarians may outlaw any harmful pollution, EC’s would only prohibit it if the risk outweighs the reward. Focused on incentives, disincentives, subsidies, taxes, and privatization to internalize the cost of environmental harm. Advocate for market creation rather than regulation.

Jeffersonian conservatives favor the delegation of environmental decision making to the smallest possible unit of authority — ideally local government. Specific means are less of an issue than who decides. Localization gives a) individuals more say over policy, b) it avoids enormous bureaucracies, c) it fosters local creative solutions, d) it provides local problem orientation, and e) generally, these folks believe that rural people in touch with nonhuman life know better. The role of the federal government is to provide resources to local governments that do the thing, almost like a capitalist bifurcation between the money-giver and the doer.

Hamiltonian conservatives are hostile to strict environmental regulation of business and believe that national power should be used to promote economic growth, even at the expense of the environment. They often believe that increased GDP, consumption, development, and liberalization lead to healthier environments. They are skeptical of the public, and when it comes to the environment, they tend to believe power should be in the hands of elite, rational, scientific decision makers. Businesses should be involved in environmental regulation and management.

Burkean conservatives oppose innovation and novelty and instead advocate for stability and incrementalism. Sort of like Jeffersonians, they are not necessarily opposed to any particular policy, but instead to any sort of revolutionary or overly-progressive process. Sustainability and intergenerational awareness are key, as is security. They demand a higher burden of proof that change is needed.

Two actual self-portraits by G. W. Bush.

The paper ends with a sort of application of this framework to the second Bush administration. Basically: the administration has funded a handful of environmental programs — subsidies to private landowners (libertarian), new environmental markets (economic conservative), and localized policy responsibility (Jeffersonian). Otherwise, they’ve been pretty bad.

While Libertarians and economic conservatives want to eliminate subsidies, Hamiltonians and Burkeans within the administration were opposed because of the effects of a quick elimination on businesses. Providing information to the public split the administration too, with Hamiltonians and other elitists thinking that the public is too stupid to form good opinions. Localization processes obviously split Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. To summarize: environmental reform split the right within the Bush administration. I think the important thing to point out here, which is kind of the thesis of my last little letter, is that the environment is not just polarizing between our big parties, but also within them. This is especially true for the Republicans who, despite being more monolithic than the Democrats, also are in some policy realms dealing with a ton of internal ideological tension. It just so happens that the environment seems to be one policy domain in which the Republicans just cannot figure it out.

The reforms that did happen under Bush II across the board benefited the regulated sector’s bottom line — they were focused on reducing corporate costs and increasing economic activity. This suggests that Hamiltonians dominated the administration.

And for me it’s a bit of a shame, because as a sort of Libertarian-Left political person I can sort of get down with the Jeffersonian localization, the Libertarian focus on specific harm to specific people and communities (is this not just environmental justice?), and with the incrementalist economic conservative desire for more clarity and transparency around the very real environmental externalities of our industrial world, especially in poor rural communities and in communities of color.

I think the important takeaway for me is that there are in fact generative ideas on the right about what to do about our environmental conundrum. The question is less about which ideological predilections are best, but instead which ways of orienting to environmental problems are best for dealing with which environmental problems. For instance, the tendency of Jeffersonian conservatives toward local solutions might make sense in dealing with the reintroduction of native species, but it seems wildly idiotic in reducing oceanic micro-plastic or in closing the hole in the Ozone layer.

The question becomes, as it should for any mature policymaker, how do we avoid walking around with a hammer looking for nails, and instead effectively align environmental problems with the best environmental solutions? For instance, there’s a chance carbon markets are a terrible solution for the reduction of carbon emissions, and instead we should localize efforts, have the federal government provide funds for municipalities to develop their own carbon reduction methods given their local options.

Just spitballing. We need more conservatives helping out with this shit. It’s the slow, existential, unavoidable crisis.



Jesse Callahan Bryant

Jesse is a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of the Environment, creator of the Yonder Lies podcast, and instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.