I agreed to meet Sylvia (not her real name, which is Gertrude, so you can see why she prefers Sylvia) at the Starbucks on Connecticut Ave NW just off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. I'd heard through a mutual acquaintance that she was a conservative who also cared about the environment.
I've written features on a vegetarian who managed a Sizzler Steakhouse, a South Korean performance artist who defected to North Korea, a building contractor who in 25 years had never cheated anyone, a teenager who grew up in Boston and became a Yankees fan and a millionaire who insisted on paying double the tax he owed every year, so I'm known for this kind of thing.
Sylvia is about thirty, pretty with bushy brown hair, large green eyes and an athletic figure. She's single, works as an architect and is from Poughkeepsie, New York. She was raised by normal, loving parents in a good home, but says she came to realize she was a conservative while an undergraduate at Yale.
"I was kinda bored one day, and I saw this column in the newspaper by this African-American guy I'd never heard of, Thomas Sowell. I read it and thought 'Whoa, this makes a lot of sense.' I read more by him, and felt deeply conflicted," she says. "He was talking about things that seemed to make a lot of sense but which went against my political beliefs, like fiscal restraint, making sure voters are American citizens first and why cities with rent control have the highest rents."
"Anyway, my boyfriend at the time had gone to a couple College Republican meetings, so I talked about it with him, and we thought I might actually be a conservative. After some counseling I knew it was something I had to accept, especially since, I'm sorry, Joe Biden just creeps me out."
Sylvia speaks quickly in a low voice, cutting her eyes around the cafe. I ask her how she reconciles her conservative philosophy with caring about the environment.
It's All About Striking A Balance.
She sighs and sips her coffee. "Look, let's all agree that humans have to live on the planet in something other than mud huts, and eat something other than roots and berries. Okay? The earth isn't going to remain pristine. It can handle a bit of home construction and some roads."
Holding up a hand, she nods. "I know, I know. It's about striking a balance. Nobody wants to live in a parking lot. Although with the number of so-called greenie liberals who live in concrete jungles in New York City, here or San Francisco, well, you wonder sometimes how much somebody's actual practice lines up with what they say they value.
"It's like a rock band jetting across the country, getting into SUVs at the airport to go and use a massive amount of electricity to play a concert dedicated to 'raising awareness of global warming,' where thousands of people get in cars to drive to the concert and buy thousands of plastic water bottles. That's one huge carbon footprint that wouldn't happen if the concert didn't happen."
I sense that I'll scare Sylvia off if I point out the obvious flaws in her logic, so I nod and wait for her to continue.
'Conservation' and 'Conservative' -- Same Word.
"We conservatives like going to Yellowstone, we're glad that's there. We don't want to put up a McDonald's or an apartment complex there. We don't want to eradicate the redwoods. We like national parks, we go camping there all the time. We like clean water and air and spotted owls or whatever -- 'conservation' and 'conservative,' same word."
Her phone rings, and she excuses herself for a minute, speaks softly into her iPhone, then hangs up. "All we're saying is there needs to be some development to give liberals the things they demand, like houses and cars and movie studios and ski cabins and flights to Paris and Ani DiFranco concerts and books written by Al Gore. Trees have to die for those books about how to save trees too, you know."
I sense she's open to a gentle dialogue. "Yes, Sylvia," I say, "we understand that conservatives aren't totally, completely evil in all aspects, we..." I search for something that's true yet gentle, as I don't want her pulling out a handgun here.
"Of course all sensible, rational, decent people are in favor of the environment. I certainly am, and it sounds like you are. Aren't you embarrassed by all the conservatives who don't care about the environment, who think corporations should be allowed to pollute as much as they want and rape the landscape for profit?"
Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Nicolas Sarkozy -- Greenies All?
She sighs and rolls her eyes, clearly uncomfortable at the beliefs of so many of her fellow conservatives. I begin to wonder myself just why anybody would choose to identify with a group that's so diametrically opposed to what they say they care about. I start to wonder if I'm the only sensible, intelligent person she's talked to in a long time.
"I'm proud of conservatives' record on protecting the environment, all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt," she says, "In Britain, the Conservative Party in the 1960s created
one of the world's first environment ministries, under Margaret Thatcher the government passed in laws to protect the countryside and got rid of leaded gas. And the Reagan administration led the international drive to ban chemicals destroying the ozone layer. Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in France has a strong record of curbing chemical pollution and promoting wildlife and organic farming. I'll take that legacy."
Her eyes blazed with an intensity. "Where some people make a mistake is in taking the attitude that because you don't agree with a lunatic prescription, that you're opposed to any constructive approach to the problem. It's like if a doctor tells you that you have pneumonia, and says now you have to stay in bed for a year in a room with no light. Of course you think that's nuts, but you're not saying you don't have pneumonia or that you don't want to work to get rid of it. You're just saying the proposed method for dealing with it is wrong, there's something less extreme that would work.
"I mean, in most cases, when conservatives oppose liberal environmental policies, they're pushing for less extreme measures. They're like a nurse saying to the doctor the patient has a broken ankle, I don't think you need to amputate the leg, we can just set the ankle, and the doctor turning around and accusing the nurse of wanting the patient to die."
Fortunately, She Isn't A Typical Conservative.
She leans forward and points to me with her half-empty cup, and for a second I wonder if she's going to throw her coffee in my face. But fortunately she isn't a typical conservative, she's probably learned to acclimatize from living and working in D.C. Instead she continues talking.
"Just because we don't favor extreme measures, just because we don't worship the earth as if it were an untouchable god, doesn't mean we don't want to responsibly take care of the earth and leave it nice for our kids," she says. "Take water and air purity standards. Just because we don't believe in fanatically low levels of acceptable pollution doesn't mean we're opposed to any limits at all. It's clear that there is a level of pollution that doesn't harm anything and still lets businesses operate, making things everybody, liberals and conservatives, demand."
She looks out the window. "All we're saying is that there's a balance. There's a compromise. No, if we want the industrialized lifestyle urban liberals seem addicted to, we're not going to have the environment like it was in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes you get the strange feeling that liberals don't understand that if they got all the environmental regulation passed and enforced they say they want that they'd have to live in treehouses, but they slam conservatives for pointing that out."
Finally Getting Her To See Reason.
Hoping to steer her back to coherence I ask "Are there any specific proposals green conservatives... sorry, that just sounds so funny, you know, like 'Christian atheist.' I chuckle and wait for her to join in, but she must have missed my remark, as she doesn't laugh along. "Are there any specific proposals green... conservatives have to protect the environment as something other than the oil and mining companies' toilet conservatives see the environment to be?"
Sylvia gets a pained look on her face, and I realize she must be experiencing indigestion or some other stomach ailment.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, we do think there's much that can be done by government to help ensure that the environment is protected while we build homes for people to live in and make products people need. I'd believe liberal greenies if they actually reduced their lifestyles to cut out the things they say they oppose, but of course they don't, they don't see any hypocrisy in Al Gore having one of the highest private residence energy consumptions in the state of Tennessee while telling you to turn your lights off."
I can't contain myself any longer, even though she's obviously deluded she still needs sense spoken to her. "Al Gore's personal energy consumption isn't the issue. He needs to get the word out that excessive energy consumption is bad, and yes, that's going to require some power. Besides, there are carbon offsets that take care of that. I'm sure he buys enough. Yes he has a huge carbon footprint, but it's for a good cause -- reducing carbon footprints."
Sylvia smiles for the first time today, and I'm glad I've been able to get her to see reason.