Our guest at this week's Rubicon "all-hands" meeting was Benji Backer, a young and emerging leader in the environmental movement. Benji has been involved in public policy since a very young age. Now in his early 20s, he has brought us back to the genesis of how the environmental movement started, which is from the free market. We caught up with Benji while he was in Florida, touring the Everglades to assess its environmental impact.
I talk a lot about my personal hero, President Teddy Roosevelt. He was one of the earliest proponents of the environmental movement in America. Roosevelt created the National Park Service, preserving hundreds of millions of acres of this country's most beautiful landscapes for future generations.
In the spirit of President Roosevelt, Benji Backer took it upon himself to organize thousands upon thousands of young people to build the American Conservation Coalition. It is not just the Left that will win on the conservation movement; it is the people in the middle and on the Right. People who are asking: How can business and the free market step up to solve some of the country's biggest challenges?
When we started Rubicon looking to bring reform to the waste industry, a sector that had witnessed little change in thousands of years, I asked myself, "How can we use the free market to solve some of these challenges?" That is the same spirit that drove Backer to create the American Conservation Coalition, which drives him to this day.
Given how the environmental movement has become so ingrained with the political Left of this country and alienated from the Right, I asked Backer how this came about.
"This issue should not be partisan," Backer said. "We all agree that is the case. We all share the planet. We all share a stake in the environment."
Backer added that the environment and the economy are intertwined and that you can only destroy the environment for so long before the economy takes a hit.
The problem is that today, nearly half of Americans don't consider themselves environmentalists. If you go back to the 1990s, that number was closer to 90 percent.
"I speak at a lot of conferences," Backer said. "I speak at conservative conferences and liberal conferences. When I speak at conservative conferences, I ask people to raise their hands if they care about the environment. Almost all hands go up. When I ask who considers themselves an environmentalist, almost no hands go up."
According to Backer, The word "environmentalist" has a political connotation. Like all issues today, we are locked into political extremes. Right-of-center people are skeptical and see that the issue only has left-wing proposals involving big government programs that are the bane of fiscal conservatives. Ultimately, people right-of-center care about the problem but dislike the proposed solutions.
"Most people think they cannot make a tangible impact when it comes to environmental issues," Backer said. "They think it is too big and too bad, and it is not going to be solved by them."
Backer believes the solution is re-instilling individualism in regards to environmentalism. Getting people involved, either where they work, volunteering on the weekends, or donating to political candidates who share their values. Whatever people can do — as individuals — to reconnect with the idea that they can make a difference.
The American Conservation Coalition was created after the 2016 election when Backer was still in college.
"As an organization, we serve as a home for Americans who want common sense, pragmatic environmentalism," Backer said. "Market-based and limited government, instead of the sort of typical environmentalism, which is looking at what the federal government can do immediately. We say, 'What can the market do?' If the market cannot tackle the problem, we look at local government, then state government, then federal government. People know how to solve problems in their own backyards better than anyone else. We feel there needs to be an environmental movement around that mindset."
Backer said he started the coalition after throwing an unauthorized party at his parents' house. He got caught, of course, and as punishment, his parents told him to interview 30 successful people about what makes them successful. One of his interview subjects told him he should strive to do something meaningful while he was in college to take advantage of the freedom students have to try new things.
"Three months later," Backer said, "I founded ACC."
Finally, I asked Backer about his personal plan, where he saw himself years for now, and what he planned to do.
Backer told me he has been approached about running for Congress but is uncertain if that is a good path for him. He would like to be in the business world because his parents were entrepreneurs, and he sees that as the quickest way to enact change. Ultimately, though, he intends to focus his attention right now on ACC because that is where he can have the most impact.
"I feel like whatever I can do to make the most impact is where I will be," he said.