This is the Life: Understanding the differences between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’

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A news story caught my attention shortly after I read an article on the Tyee (, one of my favourite Internet news sources. A CBC Radio news report said that the federal government will not move to ban neonicotinoids, the insecticides which are being blamed for at least part of the growing death of bee populations around the world.

A federal government spokesman said that Canada will continue with its own study until 2018 before it determines if any action is warranted. This decision comes despite a recent European ban on the nicotine-based substance, and studies that indicate the insecticides might also be killing birds, mammals and soil organisms.

The Tyee article (link here), by Geoff Dembicki, is titled “How to Talk to a Conservative about Climate Change. He begins with the obvious, that climate change debate has become a left-wing issue, then goes on to reveal ways in which important issues become marginalized by the way they are perceived by people with different “moral foundations.”

Research by New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt breaks down human morality into distinct categories, he writes.

“People who identify as politically liberal tend to have strong emotional reactions to questions of ‘care/harm’ (protecting vulnerable elements of society) and ‘fairness/cheating’ (making sure that justice is upheld).”

And “conservative morality tends to emphasize questions of ‘loyalty/betrayal’ (staying true to your cultural group), ‘authority/subversion’ (upholding long-held institutions) and ‘sanctity/degradation’ (fending off defilement).”

Note that Dembicki is not talking about morality and immorality, but simply about different types of morality. This argument fits in with my puzzlement about why leaders haven’t been able to rouse the public into action to take on issues that seem obvious to me, mostly environmental and economic.

And it reminded me of a quote from a former high-ranking U.S. elected official who said that when man cuts down the last tree on Earth, God will step in and resolve the problem.

It sounds facetious to a non-believer, but a very large proportion of humans have a conservative morality that makes them loyal to the status quo and gives them a strong belief in institutions. To suggest that humans are responsible, or at least major contributors, to climate change, or even that there really is climate change, is an affront to their morality.

Perhaps it is useless to attempt to convince conservatives about the need for economic and environmental police changes. After all, the very conservative approach of bailing out banks and saving themselves from their own stupidity seems to have worked, doesn’t it? So why risk imposing changes on how they operate? Same with the environment. Impending environmental disaster has been promised for more than a generation now — several if you go back to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The oceans haven’t begun to boil, the surface temperature of the planet hasn’t soared, low-lying populated areas like Manhattan haven’t been covered by rising water levels. The arguments go on and on. Things that seem patently obvious to scientists (97 per cent of environmental scientists believe human activity is responsible for measurable, if not especially obvious, climate change) and liberals simply make no sense to conservatives.

People do change their morality. I was once a conservative and I eventually concluded that it no longer suited me. As a liberal (not Liberal), I think we could be doing better in many, many ways, and I don’t trust a free and unfettered marketplace (“a long-held institution”) to make those changes.

Perhaps I need to take solace in areas where small changes are being made, and people are proving that different approaches can work. I spent some time at Summerhill Pyramid Winery recently, talking at length with Ezra and Gabe Cipes, who are completely committed to farming in a way that does not sap the soil of nutrients or require the use of poisons to control pests and diseases. One can choose to look at them as a couple of kooks, but when Ezra said, “This is farming,” I was reminded of how not so many years ago the earth’s population was fed without the reliance of things that we know make us sick. If the population explosion has come as a result of our refusal to act in ways that benefit humans and their health instead of seeking endless ways to create wealth for a small proportion of the population, then we must also recognize that we are on an unsustainable path.

I’m left to wonder, though, if liberals are pessimistic and believe we are doing irreparable harm to our environment, and conservatives believe that the status quo is fine and that it will all work out in the end, why can’t we tell the difference between these opposing moral views when we walk down the street. Shouldn’t one group look happier than the other?

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.