Why don’t Conservatives like Conservation?

A good friend of mine is considered on the right of the political spectrum. He is a member of that rare, though persistent, subfaction of generation-Y political junkies that decide to apply their youthful fervour to the example offered by Jacob Rees-Mogg rather than Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. In the majority of cases I share his views on questions of current affairs. I appreciate that he doesn’t arrive at his conclusions lightly, testing the range of available positions of a given issue against his central set of political principles on how British society should operate. Principles such as free trade, low taxation and minimised government intervention. I don’t sport quite the same dark shade of blue as he, so we occasionally disagree. But this disparity is normally quantitative in nature, or instead is more jovial as he jokes in that exaggerated, anachronistic way employed by posh Tory politicians to buffer their brand image. More often than not, I value his opinion as one informed, measured, and pragmatic, and playing a useful advisory role to my own. There is just one topic, however, on which I find myself strikingly at odds: the environment.

This friend sees nothing wrong with the continued intensive use of fossil fuels. For him, and many others who apply their minds to this issue, climate change is an overstated media tool and holds no real credibility. The preservation of species similarly has no value and shouldn’t be considered when making public policy. Many stalwart conservatives (or in the US the entire Republican party) seem to stay true to this. But I honestly can’t figure out why. Fortunately for us in the UK the Tory party is pretty up to date on the matter, but the opposition camp is sizeable around the world, members of which often hold positions of great power. Why would someone who claims to be a conservative favour such a destructive path as that which we are currently on?

To be clear, I am no expert on political philosophy. This will most likely reveal itself throughout the text. This is more of a short entreaty to those who know better than I to offer decent and digestible answers to the question given above. From what I am aware, a central figure of conservatism is the Irish statesman Edmund Burke. He is the closest thing to a Marx or John Stuart Mill in his importance to the philosophy. Religious arguments aside, Burke made some pretty profound and captivating comments on what he regarded as the nature of societal progress. For him, historical experience was a foundational source of knowledge for a community, with traditions and institutions acting as extra-generational repositories of this accumulated wisdom. As a result people should be hesitant when it comes to making reforms in society — they should be slow and piecemeal, without revolutionary abolition. The key idea is that these things are not ours to destroy, but belong to future generations as much as to the current, as did they to the previous, in a form of social contract. Instead we are more like stewards of what we have inherited and don’t have the justification to sign it away on our descendant’s behalf. You see where I’m going with this.

I actually really agree with this take. I do think that we should be hesitant with our approach to what we have inherited in our society. I do believe that traditions and institutions often encapsulate something beyond my 22-year long, 21st century, middle-England understanding of the world. Similarly I don’t think that abstract reasoning of the present and the way things ought to be should always be given precedent over what they are. And these are exactly my sentiments towards the environment. I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a country of green fields and meadows, visit rainforests and swamps and reefs, and spent 3 years at university studying the natural world. The planet is simply not mine to give away through myopic decision-making, and furthermore the burden of responding to a troubled, volatile atmosphere should not be one dumped on our grandchildren. It is no coincidence that this parallels the recent Tory approach to austerity. Both ideas are rooted in the same conservative principles. An unsustainably growing national debt is indeed a significant intergenerational transfer of responsibility, as is continued and accelerating exploitation of the world’s resources. In both cases the following applies: the best time to stop making the situation worse was years ago; the next best time is today.

The conflict seems to be that conservatives aren’t comfortable with the sacrifice that comes with protecting the environment. Subsidising clean energy whilst heavily taxing conventional fuels, or leaving areas of land unexploited for the sake of its purity and biodiversity, are policies that don’t sit well on the conservative palate. They appear to be interferences in the market, inhibitions to an individual’s ability to pursue their own economic welfare, or at least handicaps of economic growth. Now this is where I need help from some more educated political scientist. Why is this such a big deal when it comes to fuel usage or protecting the rainforest? Don’t we have interferences in the free market going on all the time, things that we don’t bat an eyelid at anymore? I’m all for holding the right of individuals to further their prosperity as inalienable, and allowing businesses to establish themselves and trade with limited regulation. But we don’t allow this principle to run unconstrained. I doubt, for instance, that many of even the most staunch conservatives would reasonably oppose laws that forbid the employment of young children in dangerous, manual jobs; or what about the reserve requirement of central banks; or emission standards for cars. Do those that think green economics is a waste of time also think that drivers in England should be allowed to drive the cheapest, filthiest car engines they can find? All these would have been met with fierce opposition from free-marketers when the legislation was introduced, but we now take them for granted. It is entirely possible that current environmental policies will be viewed in the same way.

The truth is that there is value to things that are not quantifiable. And don’t worry, I am fully aware that this is not a particularly insightful point. I don’t have to appeal to some deep aesthetic philosophy to show that we value much of our natural surroundings beyond its economic value. I wonder how many Tory MPs and supporters go on safari or diving or hiking or horseback-riding holidays. To go back to the idea of Burke’s that organic, enduring features of our society often represent a collated wisdom that exceeds that of the individual, it can be said that we rarely fully perceive the advantages of existing and ancient institutions, whereas it is easy for us to see the current disadvantages. That being said, in Britain we seem to have a proud history of upholding stable institutions because of this conservative instinct. We recognise that present value can be substituted easily, but the results are rarely equal, and we oppose this. We could quite conceivably take the funding granted to the Royal Society every year and inject them into fossil-fuel industries that will almost certainly return more $s in the near future than a lab full of biologists testing fish navigation capabilities. But we don’t. Perhaps there is some glaring inconsistency with this point that I have not noticed. Perhaps only human institutions are worth conserving? Perhaps they are the only ones that carry wisdom for us. Perhaps there is no intrinsic value in biodiversity. You tell me. However I anticipate that all this sounds like the sort of abstract pontificating that conservatives normally abhor.

I think there may be a simpler explanation for all this. The deeper distaste that conservatives have for the green movement stems from the fact that it feels instinctively too lefty-liberal. Think about it: there’s a helpless victim of people’s greed in the “earth” or “mother nature”, and a militant group of young vanguards sticking up for it. These protestors are often disdainful, righteously and arrogantly throwing recently-acquired facts in the face of those less-concerned or less educated. And should you disagree or misunderstand, you will receive derision and denouncement from that enlightened youth. I get that. I hate that. To some, this all carries the same sanctimonious stench as much of the social justice movement, and most likely repels any person carrying reservations about climate science to the sympathetic nostalgia of, say, the GOP. However the inclination towards denial of climate change as the single greatest threat to our planet’s future, and a callousness towards to the natural world in favour of big business and trade seems to be the Right’s own example of identity politics. It doesn’t fit neatly in with core principles, but instead has been muddled up to appear like the logical next step.

To have skepticism concerning environmental science doesn’t make one a philistine, just as marching through the streets of London or D.C. with a placard reading “I’m with science” doesn’t make one Francis Bacon (neither, for that matter, does writing pompous essays on social media). But when coming to one’s position on environmental issues, the important thing is this: take a look at the science, think about what you have to lose, and discount this for all of the future generations of your country and of others. I shouldn’t be able to guess the result based on how you voted.

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