|Why environmentalism is a conservative concern|
|Written by Administrator|
|Monday, 15 November 2010 12:13|
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In the US, anti-environmental beliefs have gained traction on the right, which views action on climate change as "big government". Indeed, such views are considered "conservative". But they are not conservative beliefs.
The reality is that conservative thinking provides a deep well of arguments for protecting the environment and tackling climate change. I would argue the long political and philosophical heritage of environmentalism is in essence, conservative rather than radical. If the action needed to enhance the security of our own and future generations seems radical, that is merely a reflection of the extent to which we have collectively lost touch with the conservative tradition.
The right in the US has abandoned this tradition. But it is a tradition to which the leadership of Conservative party here in the UK seems to have returned. Being the "greenest government ever" is consistent with a conservative creed. But, crucially, the case for looking after the planet is rarely put in terms that appeal to the right or centre right.
Good government has always been concerned with improving people's quality of life and protecting their futures. This responsibility to safeguard the resources we have inherited is a feature of conservatism that has been more often associated with the preservation of political and religious institutions, finances and culture. Yet the same principles apply to the environment.
As the grandfather of modern conservative political thinking, Edmund Burke, put it: we are "temporary possessors or life renters" of this world and have a moral obligation not to squander our natural inheritance, lest we "leave to those who come after … a ruin instead of a habitation." Respect for the past and responsibility to future generations creates a duty to conserve our resources and protect the environment.
The actions now required to protect the future also have more immediate benefits. It supports our national security. A shift to decentralised, renewable energy sources makes the UK less dependent on foreign countries and less susceptible to the changes in energy markets. It is a self-sufficiency that would undoubtedly appeal to the conservative.
A shift to greener energy sources also creates big opportunities for business. This year, for the first time, investment in renewable energy outstripped investment in conventional energy. Our economic competitiveness is bound to our ability to become leaders in green technologies. The green agenda is the growth agenda.
For centuries, political momentum has been primarily concerned with raising people's standard of living, which has focused overwhelmingly on material advantage. We have come to a point in history where we can no longer view the good life so narrowly. Protecting the environment is about protecting and improving the quality of people's lives. This task not only includes defending ourselves against global threats like climate change, it also means taking responsibility for more local environmental problems such as flood risk, graffiti and litter.
A conservative argument for championing environmentalism involves marrying the principles of responsibility, conservation and security to an emphasis on the local environment. It is about guarding our green spaces, the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we live and work on. It is the environment people see, experience, enjoy or hate – but in any case it is the immediate context of all our lives.
Our local environment influences the way we behave, the respect – if any – we have for our communities. Restoring a sense of community is a crucial part of what David Cameron calls the "big society". It is not just about getting people engaged in the way their local areas are run, but the transformation that comes when people do care.
All of these arguments stem from what could be described as traditional conservative values.
But these arguments will only have resonance if the way the government goes about taking action on the environment is tied to the way people actually want to live. People are acquisitive, they want to better themselves. The goal of policy should be to provide incentives for people to do this in green ways. That is, progress will only come from solutions that harness markets and encourage, not bully, people to do the right thing.
Whilst recognising the need for political and policy leadership, policy-making must reject statist penalties and punishments which will not bring about the changes we need and will only put people off. We must go with the grain of human nature.
Preserving our natural heritage, the beauty of the landscape, the farmed environment; promoting social justice by beautifying urban spaces and greening energy supply; enhancing public health, national security, economic competitiveness – these are all challenges that require action both in the UK and the US.
But until they can be put into the natural language of conservatives, progress on these issues will suffer. And if the Tea Party were willing to think about the environment from a true conservative perspective, who knows, it just might suit them.
• Paul Foote is director of the Conservative Environment Network
|Last Updated on Saturday, 19 March 2011 17:24|