Conservatism and the environment


in Economics, M.Phil thesis, Politics, The environment

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.

[1] Scruton, Roger. “Conservatism.” in Dobson, Andrew and Robyn Eckersley. “Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2006.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan November 3, 2006 at 7:41 pm

I sent Professor Scruton an email asking about the two objections above and got a response in less than two hours. Ah, this internet age.

Scott Davy November 3, 2006 at 9:13 pm

Completely unrelated but a worthwhile read and somewhat related to a post a couple weeks back…

Milan September 3, 2008 at 1:52 pm

See also:

Conservativism and science
September 3rd, 2008

“One of the most regrettable things about contemporary conservatism – aside from forgetting Edmund Burke’s notion of humanity as stewards of the natural world – is the unwillingness to acknowledge basic scientific realities. Sometimes, this is because of ideological conflicts; acknowledging the immense danger posed by climate change basically means admitting that government regulation is required. Sometimes, it is because of religious beliefs at odds with the basic knowledge we now have about the universe. It is simply embarrassing that there are still people in developed countries who do not understand evolution, or who believe the Earth to be a few thousand years old…”

. September 8, 2008 at 6:17 pm

At the same time, conservatives need to ask ourselves some hard questions about the trend toward the Democrats among America’s affluent and well educated. Leaving aside the District of Columbia, 7 of America’s 10 best-educated states are strongly “blue” in national politics, and the others (Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia) have been trending blue. Of the 10 least-educated, only one (Nevada) is not reliably Republican. And so we arrive at a weird situation in which the party that identifies itself with markets, with business and with technology cannot win the votes of those who have prospered most from markets, from business and from technology. Republicans have been badly hurt in upper America by the collapse of their onetime reputation for integrity and competence. Upper Americans live in a world in which things work. The packages arrive overnight. The car doors clink seamlessly shut. The prevailing Republican view — “of course government always fails, what do you expect it to do?” — is not what this slice of America expects to hear from the people asking to be entrusted with the government.

. October 3, 2008 at 5:39 pm

“Going green is not some fashionable, pain-free option. It will place a responsibility on business. It will place a responsibility on all of us. That is the point. Tackling climate change is our social responsibility – to the next generation.”

David Cameron
Conservative Party Leader
October 2006

. March 13, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Why Rush is Wrong
We need an environmental message. You don’t have to accept Al Gore’s predictions of imminent gloom to accept that it cannot be healthy to pump gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We are rightly mistrustful of liberal environmentalist disrespect for property rights. But property owners also care about property values, about conservation, and as a party of property owners we should be taking those values more seriously.

. March 17, 2009 at 11:48 am

RNC head Steele: “The supposed warming, and I am using my finger quotation marks here, is part of the cooling process…. It was once called Greenland for a reason…. Oh I love this.”

The titular head of the GOP is one Michael Steele, who coined the phrase “Drill, baby, Drill”

In a recent interview with Bill Bennett, Steele revealed he is an unusually ill-informed global warming denier — if that isn’t too redundant:

“We are cooling. We are not warming. The warming you see out there, the supposed warming, and I am using my finger quotation marks here, is part of the cooling process. Greenland, which is now covered in ice, it was once called Greenland for a reason, right? Iceland, which is now green. Oh I love this. Like we know what this planet is all about. How long have we been here? How long? No very long.”

What can one say to this litany of disinformation?

. April 9, 2009 at 4:40 pm

“We have a problem and we’ve got to get it solved. The politics of energy are such that it actually shouldn’t be a political question. Let’s get to a different point in the discussion about what American needs, and what this country really needs is something where it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. … California went through that transition in the 1970s. That’s why their per capita energy use has remained flat over the years, because both parties became convinced that this was something that was very important. I think a similar feeling has to emerge in the general population of the United States, that this is a problem. Our national security, our economic prosperity, our climate issues are really not ultimately political questions.”

—Energy Secretary Steven Chu

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: