Conservatism and the Environment

Conservative Home - March 2013

 There is no political cause more amenable to the conservative vision than that of the environment. For it touches on the three foundational ideas of our movement: trans-generational loyalty, the priority of the local and the search for home. Conservatives resonate to Burke's view of society, as a partnership between the living, the unborn and the dead; they believe in civil association between neighbours rather than intervention by the state; and they accept that the most important thing the living can do is to settle down, to make a home for themselves, and to pass that home to their children.

Oikophilia, the love of home, lends itself ­ to the environmental cause, and it is astonishing that the Conservative Party has not seized hold of that cause as its own.

The problem arises because the agenda has been set by the globalisers. Global problems, we are told, require global solutions, and global solutions are trans-national solutions, involving the loss of sovereignty and the surrender to treaties that tie our hands. There may be reason to fear what is happening. But much more important for the activists is the political use to which that fear can be put – which is to destroy national sovereignty and to exert a top-down control by the self-appointed experts over the ordinary activities of mankind.

Moreover, by concentrating on climate change the activists have managed to distract attention from the many other environmental problems that could be, and often have been, solved by people acting in the conservative spirit. Environmental problems arise when homeostatic systems break down – in other words, when the feedback loop that establishes equilibrium is, for whatever reason, destroyed. The homeostatic system that has been most studied is the free market, which returns to equilibrium in changing conditions, provided the participants bear the costs of their actions. Left-wing thinkers refuse to accept this, and constantly invent bogeymen – 'neo-liberalism', 'corporate greed', 'market failure' – in order to justify the intervention of the state, and therefore control by socialists. But intervention by the state is the major cause of disequilibrium, and the environmental consequences can be seen all across the former communist world – in the Soviet case in the form of total devastation. The market ceases to deliver solutions to environmental problems when participants can externalise their costs – in other words, when they can escape the internal rules of the system. It is this that gives rise to 'the tragedy of the commons'.

The solution is not automatically to call on the state to intervene but first to look for the social mechanisms that cause people to bear the costs of what they do. That is what the common law of tort has done in our country, acting often in conjunction with the law of trusts. It is what oikophilia naturally prompts us to do, as Elinor Ostrom has shown, when we are permitted to regard 'common pool resources' as shared by a defined and localised community. It is what the conservative instinct for trusteeship spontaneously urges upon us.

If we look at the history of the environmental movement in Britain we see those conservative principles working successfully, not through the state, but through the civil initiatives that challenge the state, beginning with the protests on behalf of the forests in the 17th century, initiated by John Evelyn's Silva, and leading to the creation of the National Trust at the end of the 19th century.
Vital to this conservative environmental movement has been the love of beauty. Through art, literature and local activism the British people have given voice to the idea of beauty as a shared resource, an irreplaceable fund of 'social capital'. Beauty, they have recognised, acts as a barrier to the top-down brutalities of the exploiters and the social engineers.

But the environmental demagogues are determined to brush such obstacles aside. Littering the landscape with pylons and wind-farms appeals to them not because it has any scientific authority – for the science, such as it was, has been exploded – but because it refocuses the problem as a global one. To destroy the home that we have built over centuries is to afflict conservatives in the heart of their way of life. It is to deprive people of the primary source of oikophilia, and to make conservatism – the only political outlook that has ever done anything for the environment – irrelevant.

Moreover, it is through the pursuit of beauty that we could solve our most pressing environmental problem, which is the need for new homes. People resist large-scale development, because they know that it will produce an eyesore. Conservative-minded architects like Leon Krier at Poundbury and John Simpson at Swindon have shown that this need not be so, that we can learn from our traditional architecture how to build in ways that enhance the neighbourhood, and in ways that produce affordable housing too. People protest at the faceless estates that destroy the view from their window. But no-one protests at Poundbury except the modernist architects who sense the threat that it poses to their monopoly game.

The sad thing is that the Conservative Party has said so little to clarify what is at stake. Why do those old-fashioned words like trust, settlement, beauty and home so seldom pass the lips of those who are now, nominally at least, in charge? And why is the agenda still set by those for whom climate change, renewable energy and global warming define the problem, and for whom the favoured solution involves the total destruction of the things we love?

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