In the northern lower reading room of the Bodeleian, I read a really interesting chapter on ecology and conservatism by Roger Scruton, from the University of Buckingham.1 He makes a surprisingly solid argument that a greening of conservatism would be more of a return to its roots than a departure into uncertain territory. He evokes the position of Burke that all living people are involved in a trusteeship involving both the living and the dead. The moral onus is to maintain, resist damage, and pass along that which has been inherited.
The problems with this position are twofold, and both problems arise from the parochialism of conservative environmentalism. I have always admired the sensible conservative caution about grand projects and the building of utopias. That said, encouraging enclaves to behave in environmentally responsible ways does nothing to protect those within from their neighbours (or those across the world) who do not behave similarly. When the greatest environmental threat in the world (climate change) arises from collective economic activity, a love of one’s home and country, and the fervent desire to protect both, will come to nothing without international cooperation and the changing of behaviour, using some combination of consent and coercion.
The second problem is that of material equality. Protection of what you have inherited for those who are to follow may be a noble individual pursuit (think of the shame attached to those who squander fortunes and wreck empires), but it is not a path towards greater global justice. Now, greater global justice may be exactly the kind of Utopian project that conservatives are smart to be wary about. That said, there can be moral impulses strong enough to make us embark upon difficult and uncertain projects, simply because it would be profoundly unethical to behave otherwise. When it comes to extreme poverty and the deprivation and danger under which so much of the world’s population lives, I think those impulses are justification enough.
Strategically, it seems essential to foster an emergence of green conservatism in the political mainstream. We cannot oscillate between relatively responsible governments and those that act as wreckers. Moreover, once both sides of the mainstream have accepted how vital the environment is, and the sacrifices that must be made to protect it, there is a better chance that the debate and policy can move forward. If one group is forging ahead with more far-thinking ideas, they risk excessive electoral punishment. If, however, the thinking of both politicians and the population as a whole evolves towards a more serious way of thinking about environmental management, there is a much greater chance that the push will be sustained and effective.
 Scruton, Roger. “Conservatism.” in Dobson, Andrew and Robyn Eckersley. “Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2006.