Conservatism is about preserving intrinsically valuable things—economic capital, social capital, and natural capital. I use the word “capital” deliberately, for its opponents say that conservatism is nothing but the apologetics of capitalism. That is absolutely right—provided you understand that capital embraces many things that are not translatable into economic terms.
So why have conservatives been so slow to capture the environmental cause and the agenda that has been built around it? And why have their opponents been so eager to prevent them?
First, the damage done to our environment is connected in many people’s thinking, and to a great extent in reality, with the activities of business. You don’t do damage if you are not interested in changing things, and the usual reason people change things is to make a profit. And undoubtedly some of the big players in various markets that impact the environment have been extremely unscrupulous—even if their profits usually depend on their ability to meet demands made by the rest of us.
The second reason the environmental cause has been avoided on the Right is that ecological degradation is on the whole a byproduct of prosperity. After all, when people are too poor to turn the world in their favor, they leave the environment alone. And prosperity is a product of capitalism, the old enemy of the Left. To be a right-wing environmentalist is to risk obscuring what was once a clear confrontation, and who, at a time of confusion, wants to do that?
There is a third and I think more interesting motive for the Left’s capture of the environmental cause: the cult of the victim. There has been a tradition on the Left, going back to the 19th century and to Marx in particular, of judging every form of human success in terms of its victims. It is assumed that when someone makes a profit, someone else must suffer a loss. This idea of human society as a kind of zero-sum game, in which every benefit is matched by someone else’s cost, is dear to a certain kind of left-wing thinking. And in the Earth, we have a wonderful victim—one bigger than any human being, who suffers the results of all of our profiteering.
The fourth reason the environmental movement has been appropriated by the Left is that it is a paradigm of a global cause. What is going wrong with the environment is going wrong everywhere. The world is an interlocking and mutually adapting system. If there is damage in one place, it will emerge in another. There seem to be no solutions to environmental problems that don’t involve transgressing national boundaries and linking people across the globe. This connects to a longstanding desire on the Left to abolish nations and national governments—those centers of loyalty and power that seem to be at the heart of human conflicts—and to replace them with some kind of transnational, multinational, or even global government.
The most articulate environmentalist in Britain, George Monbiot, is also a well-known advocate of global democracy. He tries to envisage institutions that might work on the global level, so as to absorb information from every relevant source of data around the globe and deliver a single collective solution. This recalls the old Communist Party agenda, explicitly stated by Marx. For Marx, the nation-state is made necessary by the local needs of capitalist exploitation and would vanish once the proletariat, the victim class, unites across the world.
Environmental issues seem to lend themselves to statist solutions. The problems seem so large, so diffuse, so without local definition that the only way to solve them must be by some gesture of control from above in which enlightened intellectuals direct the benighted profiteers. That is a cherished motive on the Left: the hope that progressives will be able to take hold of the state and use it to dictate to the rest of humanity, supposedly for the benefit of everyone.
There are religious feelings behind such conceptions; as with communism, the environmental movement has also crystallized into a faith. One form is James Lovelock’s famous Gaia hypothesis, which presents the Earth as both an object of care and of worship. It is not that Gaia is a person exactly: persons are poisonous. Nevertheless it, or she, is an organism of which we are all parts—the source of life and the highest form of life. Mother Earth fills the place vacated by God, though in the form of a goddess wounded by our mortal carelessness.
Religious aspects also emerge in what one might call the odium theologicum of the environmental movement. “Theological hatred” was a phrase coined in the Middle Ages to denote the mutual antipathy to which theologians were tempted by their tiny disagreements about matters that could be neither resolved nor understood by rational argument. We have seen this kind of hatred in the leftist movements in Europe and especially in communism, which was preoccupied with heresies: deviationism, Left infantilism, social fascism, Trotskyism, and so on. Mao Tse Tung was particularly good at inventing heresies of this kind. And being denounced as a heretic was very bad news: you often paid with your life.
Environmentalists are not quite as vindictive. Nevertheless, we have seen sustained vilifications of people who have been judged heretical. The Danish environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg, who may be completely wrong and probably is, caused a scandal in the environmentalist movement by saying that many of its favorite theses, such as global warming, have not been established. Rather than engaging with his contribution, as scientists do, the environmental movement in Europe has tried to silence him. He has been marginalized by his own university and not allowed to speak in its name, and anti-Lomborg websites come up on Google well in advance of sites that include his justifications for his controversial positions.
This kind of heresy hunting appears wherever beliefs become locked into a form of social membership. To give up such beliefs is to give up your home—to become a lonely wanderer in the world. That is why religions are much more interested in killing heretics than those who entirely reject the faith. The heretic is the enemy within, the one who disrupts the comforts and certainties of home.
Environmentalism certainly has the character of a movement, something you join that offers membership. It also has a militant wing. Aggressive organizations like Greenpeace, corrupt and unaccountable though they are, nevertheless appeal to young people because of their image of purity. Their publicity says, “Join us, and we will offer you salvation from environmental sin.” The redemption that they offer resembles initiation promises throughout history, from the knightly orders of the Middle Ages through to the jihadists today.
Left-wing movements appeal because they offer three things that people need. They promise a justifying cause, in the form of a victim to be rescued. In the 19th century, we rescued the proletariat, and then in the 1960s, we rescued youth. We rescued women, and then we rescued animals. Now we rescue the Earth itself—a cause so noble as to justify all activities performed in its name.
These movements also provide an enemy, and enemies are useful for defining your place in the world. While it is difficult to share friends, you can easily share enemies, since hatred is far less demanding than love and requires no shared judgment—only a common target.
Such movements provide a dynamic experience of belonging, in which you are engaged in doing something and doing it collectively. They offer a balm for loneliness and alienation.
On the other hand, they exemplify what Engels, following Hegel, referred to as the “labor of the negative.” The cause is too vague or vast or beyond the reach of human nature to form itself as a concrete goal. The only certain thing is the enemy you can destroy rather than the goal you can achieve.
This explains why crimes committed in left-wing causes tend to be excused or overlooked, while misdemeanors on the Right, however identified, are impossible to live down. Compare the careers of György Lukács and Martin Heidegger. Lukács was a very clever literary critic, who took part in the Communist revolution in Hungary after World War I and joined the government of Béla Kun. As a political commissar, he was responsible for purges, executions, and cultural suppression. When Kun’s government was overthrown, he fled to Vienna, returning after World War II to assist the revolutionary Communist government in purifying Hungary of dissident intellectuals. His career is one long history of crime and deception, yet he has been consistently revered as a leading left-wing thinker: the person who showed us how to apply Marxism to literary criticism and how to understand literature as a genuinely revolutionary force.
Heidegger was also involved in totalitarian movements, though never in government. He joined the Nazi Party and was made a rector of his university by the Nazis. After the war, he was disgraced for this and has never really been rehabilitated. Given the left-wing myth that Nazism was “on the right,” the explanation is simple: Heidegger belonged to the wrong set of criminals.
Likewise, when a radical Left movement becomes discredited, there is seldom an act of penitence. There is rather a sideways migration to another movement with the same emotional structure. During the ’70s and ’80s, therefore, as the reality of communism could no longer be denied, people began to migrate from red to green.
The problem is that when an important issue like the environment gets captured by a left-wing movement, this disrupts the possibility of developing a proper political approach. Fertile disagreement gives way to imposed orthodoxy and viable solutions to impossible utopias. Political approaches are distinguished by the fact that they have no single goal. A political solution is worked out by taking into consideration all the competing interests and trying to reconcile them. Its characteristic outcome is a compromise, not an absolute dictate.
For this reason, political approaches don’t identify enemies. Unlike revolutionary movements, they are not conceived in quasi-military terms. They try to initiate a discussion against a background of social unity and social harmony, such as is provided by shared membership in a single nation-state. Working for a political solution means working for a modus vivendi among competing interests. The political process does not offer membership in any dynamic sense. Unlike movements that say, “Join us, and you will be redeemed,” political approaches say, “We are assuming that we are all citizens together. Let’s sit down and work out a solution acceptable to each of us.”
One problem with allowing the environmental cause to be captured by the Left, therefore, is that it is then radicalized and cast as a movement. This tends to militate against the possibility of genuine political solutions. And when radical movements enter the political arena, they also have a natural tendency to move in a statist direction. There is a collective goal, which is to rectify all environmental damage, to return the Earth to its equilibrium. Collective goals require collectivist policies, and when the plan for achieving them is put in the hands of bureaucrats, it promptly ceases to be adaptable.
As Mises and Hayek pointed out some 80 years ago, plans in the hands of the state do not adapt to changes in their information base. We saw this with the Communist five-year plans, which were never fulfilled, and also with the planned economies of Western Europe, most of which are now close to collapse. Although most of the communist economies have vanished, we know that communism has been the cause of far greater ecological disasters than we have witnessed under capitalism. Nor is this surprising. When the state takes charge of everything, it is not possible to effectively oppose or adjust its plans. Gargantuan projects, like the diversion of rivers in the Soviet Union, were forced on people who were unable to protest. And this weakness in the statist approach of communism is replicated in some capitalist economies—notably here in the United States with the unscrupulous and often corrupt use of eminent domain.
The desire to take charge in this statist way is precisely what we don’t need, for it requires concentration of power in a single agency, which then becomes the greatest threat to the environment. No economy based on private enterprise could ever have embarked, for example, on the Nile dams, which not only destroyed vast archeological treasures and the ecology of the lower Nile, but also did nothing to produce the power that was promised to the Egyptians.
The real cause of the environmental problems we face is not so much large private enterprises or the pursuit of profit or even capitalism as such. It is the habit we all have of externalizing our costs. Consider air travel. If somebody offers you cheap flights, you will take them rather than the more expensive flights offered by a company that puts some of its profits into rectifying the environmental damage caused by airplanes. This is human nature: we try to ignore the damage done by our unnecessary journeys by air if someone else bears the cost of them.
Similarly, suburbanization forces millions to go to work in cars everyday when they might have been walking. It requires vast acreages of the countryside to be covered with buildings and roads, destroying natural ecosystems. Yet it goes ahead because it is something that people want, and the cost can be easily externalized onto other generations or people in other parts of the world.
Then there is nondegradable packaging. Those who live in cities don’t see the effect of this because street-cleaners gather it up and push it into landfill sites. But in the countryside, where trash blows around unpursued, you see it in every yard—a plastic bottle or a piece of packaging—and you can foretell that since these bits of rubbish are immortal, one day the entire world will be covered with a layer of plastic, and there will be no life beneath it.
Normally, if someone tries to force another person to bear the cost of his own misdemeanors, that other person retaliates, either by filing a lawsuit or by throwing the rubbish back over the fence. This conflict immediately opens the way to political solutions. If two people are in conflict, and if they have been brought up in a democratic culture, they will recognize that the best way to solve their problem is through a sustainable compromise rather than a lawsuit or a shootout.
For instance, there are no rubbish collections in Rappahannock County, Virginia, where I live. People were in the habit of dumping trash wherever they could find a hole, sometimes even leaving it in the fields. One of the good things about nondegradable wrappings, however, is that they soon become eyesores. So residents decided to do something about it. They established the Rappahannock Dump and invited people to bring their stuff, with a view to exchanging what was usable, recycling what was convertible, and burying the rest. Neighbors recognized immediately that this was a solution to what was otherwise a potentially inflammatory conflict.
There are more sophisticated examples worth considering—the bicycle regime in Amsterdam, for instance. At a certain point, it became so obvious that cars were ridiculous that all the canals were turned into bicycle lanes. Cars can go along them if they really have to, but what happened instead was that all Dutch people from 5-year-old schoolchildren to 80-year-old grandmothers got onto bicycles. They are fiendishly dangerous to pedestrians—it is the only aspect of Dutch culture that seems to give full scope to aggression—but nevertheless, it has solved the problem of transportation in Amsterdam in a way that has also preserved the city’s ecology.
English planning laws are another example. They were a compromise solution to the sudden growth of population between the wars and the increasing prosperity that enabled people to move out of cities and build houses along the roads. People were appalled by this for a variety of good and bad reasons. Aristocrats were disquieted to see ordinary people presuming to own a piece of land, a gesture of unprecedented vulgarity compounded by plaster gnomes in the kitschy flowerbeds and dreadful lace curtains in the windows. City dwellers were also horrified because they could no longer gain access to the countryside. Every road was simply another extended ribbon of houses, each forbidding visual access to the fields behind, while businesses were fleeing to the edges of the cities causing the town centers to decay both economically and socially. Farmers, too, were unhappy. Farmland was being destroyed, fields were being broken up in agriculturally unsustainable ways, and rental costs were soaring as speculative builders made bids for the tracts by the roads.
The solution—agreed upon by the political parties and still in operation—was the Town and Country Planning Act of 1946, which had the consent of the majority and was an attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests. New development in towns was to be within the city limits, and towns were to be surrounded by a green belt. There should be no development in the countryside except that legitimately required by farming.
Such cases show people working together toward an environmental compromise, solving problems politically rather than through dictatorship, and recognizing the imperfect nature of political solutions and the impossibility of utopias. There is a deeper problem, however, that politics cannot, in itself, address.
Political solutions represent agreements among the living, but our real problems are transgenerational. At present, we are externalizing our costs not to people who can complain but to unborn people who can’t. Democratic politics, Burke and Chesterton pointed out, has an inbuilt tendency to disenfranchise the unborn and the dead.
So what is to stop us from externalizing our costs onto future generations? Within our own families, we recoil from doing such a thing. I don’t want to dump the costs of my life on my son, even though I shall be dead when he feels them. Nor would I wish my grandchildren to pay the price of my selfishness.
It is here that I think we Anglophone conservatives can show our relevance. The common law of England developed, through the branch known as equity, a concept that has no real equivalent in Napoleonic or Roman legal systems: the concept of the trust. Trusteeship is a form of property in which the legal owner has only duties, and all rights are transferred to, and “held in trust for,” the beneficiary. Through the device of the trust, English and American law has been able to protect the interests of absent generations by compelling the current owners of property to set their own interests aside. The trustees of a bequest must respect the wishes of the testator and in so doing—by holding their own desires and present emergencies in abeyance— will serve the interests of future generations. This form of ownership, and the moral idea contained in it, ought to be regarded as defining the conservative approach. We don’t solve environmental problems by abandoning our attachment to private property or free enterprise, but we can make sure that these notions are shaped by the spirit of trusteeship.
In response to Rosseau’s doctrine of the Social Contract, Burke agreed that society is, indeed, a contract. But it is a contract between the living, the unborn, and the dead. We mistreat the unborn when we take away the legacy that they are entitled to inherit, and we mistreat the dead by regarding ourselves as the sole proprietors of the things that they have left to us. In ignoring and despising the dead, we traduce the unborn: such, for Burke, was the lesson of the French Revolution, and it is a lesson repeated in our times by the revolutionary movements of the 20th century.
In A Political Philosophy, I wrote,
When Burke invoked our feelings towards the dead, he was placing in the center of political order a universal emotion which, he believed, could safeguard the long-term interests of society. But this motive extends no further than our local and contingent attachments. Through institutions of membership and the ‘little platoons’ that shape our allegiances we can extend our social concern beyond our immediate family. Nevertheless, the sense of a shared inheritance does not extend to all mankind, and the respect for the dead – which is the respect for our dead, for those who have made sacrifices on our behalf – peters out at the social horizon where ‘we’ shades into ‘they.’
I went on to say why, therefore, we still have a problem:
Modern societies are societies of strangers. And one of the underlying conservative projects in our time has been to discover the kind of affection that combines such societies together across generations, without risking fragmentation along family, tribal, or mafia lines. Hence the importance, in conservative thinking, of the nation and the nation state.
Environmental protection, like charity, begins at home. Treaties like the Kyoto Protocol will have no effect if we have not already resolved to keep our house in order. Moreover, treaties entered into with dictatorships have a completely different meaning from treaties with democracies. There is no way in which the Chinese authorities are going to enforce an environmental treaty against themselves, and if they condone its enforcement against others, it will be because they see a competitive advantage. An environmental treaty with the Swedes, however, is quite a different matter. They will try to outdo us by showing how clean they are.
Under Mao’s leadership, China threw away all of its social capital—its culture, its philosophy, everything it knew—because Big Brother told it to. China has come a long way since the Cultural Revolution, but what guarantee have we, in a state without opposition and with only patchy caricatures of law, that it won’t do with its ecological capital what it did with its social capital? China has the most wonderful collection of mountains and rivers and forests, but there is little or no attempt to protect these things. Crazy dam projects, deforestation, uncontrolled pollution, and the relentless construction of coal-fired power stations all contribute to the destruction of the Chinese environment, while state-controlled agriculture propels the rapidly advancing desertification of the north. Nor are the towns protected. Old Shanghai is designated a “historic district” not to be destroyed, but street after street is demolished to make room for whatever gigantesque project has captured the whim of the politburo. In the face of decisions made at the top, the ordinary Chinese is powerless, and there is nothing to which appeal can be made that will shield him from reprisals should he protest. Not surprisingly, therefore, the attitude of trusteeship has gone. If one day it returns, it will not be the result of an international treaty but because the Chinese have regained their freedom and with it the respect for the dead and the unborn that is the natural byproduct of freedom.
What then is the conservative solution, if there is one? A revival of trusteeship is the only hope for the future, and this attitude is natural to human beings. They enter the world through no choice of their own, to be greeted, as a rule, by the love of parents and the security of home. The trustee is the one who recognizes that his home, and all that it means, are inherited things, things to be safeguarded and passed on. This attitude exercises itself at the local level in the voluntary associations and small institutions of civil society. It is the core component in that associational genius that Tocqueville discerned in the American people. It is the legacy of a political order that regards people, not rulers, as the source of authority and the fount of responsible decision-making.
Environmental movements on the Left seldom pause to consider the question of human motivation. It is so clear to them that something must be done that they leap to the conclusion that it must be done by state power and imposed by law. The problem with that approach is that it makes mistakes into permanent legacies and provides no incentive to ordinary citizens to do what they are told. Conservatives, on the whole, are more respectful of human nature and will recognize in the attitude of trusteeship a feeling to which we automatically tend, when given the freedom to exercise it.
The job of protecting the environment is one that citizens must undertake, and we will—just as soon as we see it to be ours. The problem is not the lack of state initiatives but the surfeit of them and the general attitude, enhanced by every treaty and every leftist publicity stunt, that state control, not individual freedom, will make us take our responsibilities seriously.
Roger Scruton is a philosopher and former editor of the Salisbury Review.