One of the oddest political developments is how certain concerns are seen as the exclusive property of one side or other of the Left/Right political divide, almost regardless of the nature of the issue or the reality of a party’s record.
Green issues, for instance. The general assumption is that being concerned about these puts you on the left side of the axis. Take this quote.
“…..consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”
Who might the author be?(*) George Monbiot? David Attenborough? Caroline Lucas, perhaps? It is certainly a sentiment with which they would agree. The belief that the selfishness or indifference of existing (and past) generations has damaged (perhaps ruined) the next generation’s prospects and the planet is one widely felt amongst many in the Green movement. It is summed up in the description of our “contemporary lifestyle” (a consumer capitalist lifestyle naturally) as “unsustainable”. Implicit in it is the belief that only state action can put matters right.
Both assumptions have a great deal of truth in them but need a rather more critical eye than they generally get. Some of the worst environmental damage has occurred in countries where the collective was considered far more important than the individual, where a consumer lifestyle was an unattainable dream. The Soviet Union – in its determination to industrialise and exploit its natural resources – was a perfect example. Its consequences affect Russia and surrounding countries to this day: some of the worst air pollution in the world, contamination of the earth and groundwater in Dzerzhinsk, a former chemical weapons production centre, Lake Karachay now radioactive, having being used as a dump for nuclear waste, rivers so full of chemical pollutants that they cannot freeze even in sub-zero temperatures, the loss of 90% of Lake Aral etc. Resources may have been owned and managed by the state for the People (in theory) but the interests of actual people in having clean water, clean air and not being poisoned by harmful substances dumped where they lived were, in reality, ignored. All this has incalculable, long-lasting and harmful consequences for the natural environment, current inhabitants and the unborn. Nor is there much chance of this changing, despite Communism’s disappearance. Putin thinks climate change a Western theory invented to hold back Russia’s development.
No economic model has a monopoly on selfishness and unsustainability, it seems. But too often some in the Green movement give the impression that only Western capitalism is at fault, that punishment, blame and attacking the bad guys are almost more important than finding workable solutions to put matters right. The real criticism of groups like Extinction Rebellion is that their irritatingly stupid attempts to disrupt public transport, their desire to make people feel strongly about the issue (“Emotionality is the only way you can get people to do something” as one of their co-founders has said) risk provoking an equally emotional and opposite reaction in response. If being green is seen as a desire to impose a sort of ascetic hairshirt mortification on people, rather than a genuine attempt to find workable solutions, it will likely repel those whose support is needed if effective measures are to succeed.
Still, the similarity between Putin’s views and Trump’s determination to ignore scientific evidence about climate change and environmental harm, to view it as a conspiracy against American economic interests, is striking. It is one shared by a number of right-wing / conservative governments who seem to view green issues as a pretext for an attack on capitalism, growth and individual liberty, an excuse for state control over both economy and people. Hence the description of Greens as “watermelons”: ostensibly green but really reds under the bed (or your car) itching to ban your holiday flight.
If so, this is perhaps in part because conservatives have not as seriously engaged in the debate as they should (Mrs Thatcher’s 1990 UN speech notwithstanding) some preferring ad hominem attacks on the messengers demanding action or pointing out the undoubted hypocrisies of the “Do as I say not as I do” brigade. Time has been spent contesting the science rather than on R&D. Or they have presented the argument as one between those wanting economic growth to help the poor and those rich enough not to worry grandly telling others what to do. It is a false – if superficially attractive – choice. An unsustainable economic model or lifestyle risks short-term growth followed by bust, which rarely benefits the poor. (Cynics might wonder at the remarkably convenient focus on the poor by those wanting no change to a system which suits them very well indeed.)
On one reading, it is very unconservative to think that only economic growth, regardless of the consequences, matters, that only financial inheritances count. Edmund Burke described society as “a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born”. This beautifully encapsulates why we should want to preserve the best of the past, both man-made and natural, why we should consider ourselves temporary guardians of our world holding it in trust for the future, why we have an obligation to sustain it so that it can be passed on in good order, why we should not be so arrogant as to think we can use it as we want or so selfish as to ignore the considerations of future generations. Our politics should reflect the “democracy of the living world” (to misquote G.K. Chesterton) and not just the people currently in it.
Conservation – of buildings, natural habitats, plant and animal species, ways of life, traditions and activities rooted in a love and understanding of place and our dependence on nature, developing sustainable – rather than wasteful – ways of living – should not be seen as “Green crap” to be discarded when it all becomes too politically difficult or inconvenient. Being green is not just about saving polar bears or stopping fires and floods in faraway countries. It is about, for instance: housing developments at home being intelligently designed and built with sustainable community and transport infrastructure; people living in well built energy efficient homes; sustainable farming using natural processes producing high quality food (rather than Monbiot’s latest idiotic idea to put the Googles of this world in control of providing us with artificial food); discouraging waste – and not just bad stuff like plastics but material which could be used (why, for instance, don’t we value and use the magnificent wool from Herdwick sheep here rather than importing pashminas from thousands of miles away or using foam insulation?) and much else besides. Being green involves changes in attitude (less waste, repair not throwing away), individual daily actions and collective action by individual states, acting on their own and with others. It involves making some difficult political and economic choices – taxing air travel, for instance.
The dangers of appearing to be a (possibly reluctant) latecomer to an issue which now appears to be higher up the public’s agenda than before is that you are fighting on ground which has been defined by others. The issue is seen as a cause. Intensity of belief matters more than coming up with practical solutions. Criticisms may be viewed as arising from a lack of commitment rather than from evidence-based objections. You risk having no alternative practical solutions to put forward. Your conversion to such policies may be seen as a gimmick (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), inconsistent or as good intentions to be abandoned at the slightest political pressure. (How confident can anyone be that, if the price of an FTA with the US is to reduce UK environmental standards, that price would not be paid.)
It need not be like this. The sustainability and fairness of our economic model, what growth means, whether it is possible to develop without despoiling, how to come up with practical action on climate change and the environment – not merely talk – are key political issues and ones on which the intelligent (small “c”) conservative voice should be heard.
(*) Pope Francis.