Don’t Conservatives Want to Conserve?

This posting started out as a letter to a conservative friend, whom I have respected deeply for nearly 40 years. To help you understand the basis of our long friendship, she said to me in 1971, surveying the radical campus we were both attending: ‘isn’t it funny, there are just as many bastards on my side of politics as yours; and just as many good people on your side as mine’. She accurately named examples of all four categories. This insight has served me well ever since.

One of the things I have always  understood and respected (though not necessarily accepted as well founded on a particular issue) about conservatives is that they are deeply sceptical of radical change. They believe institutions that have stood the test of time like the military, church, nation have fundamentally strong qualities, and we should be wary of just turning them upside down. This profound precautionary principle seems like a good anchor to stop the sort of stupid things happening like abolishing an institution without something better to replace it. In trying to argue for change, it is good to have such push back: what is the case, the evidence etc that it will work?

What I do find strange is that in all the environmental causes I have worked with, or known about over the last 30 years, there has not been a single conservative there fighting alongside us. Yet Ed Mishan is a conservative economist  (I assume he is still with us) who first made me into an environmentalist in 1968 with his book ‘The Costs of Economic Growth’.

I know of the Goldsmiths in the UK who are an exception. Margaret Thatcher, to her profound credit, was the first major politician in the world to accept global warming, and wanted a major nuclear program to address it. Though unusually for her, she got cold feet, when someone told this might open the gate to ‘socialism’. Nevertheless, a recent commentary stated: ‘Thatcher’s environmentalism is founded on Edmund Burke’s conservative view of our inheritance as being worth defending.’

But these are exceptions. And no doubt there are individual conservatives in many organizations associated with the natural world like the Sierra Club or the NSPB and others.

But it seems strange to me, that as we move to a planet of 9 billion people, which will almost inevitably destroy much of the institutional timber of our lives, that there are so few conservatives in the front line? And so little conservative political thinking about solving environmental problems when the world in awash in conservative think tanks? Damaging man-induced climate change is say about 80% probable, and yet I understand that 80% of recently elected UK Conservative MPs, few of whom have any scientific training,  say it is not happening or that we don’t need to do anything about it. (I hope these figures about MPs are wrong by the way.) Only 60% of the British public care about this in the latest survey and a downward trend is present in the UK and other countries.

The issue isn’t really whether  something like climate change is happening, but the issue of whether one is open to the fact it could be and the downside risk is huge. Water shortages, species extinctions, exhaustion of fossil fuels all pose immense problems and risk of provoking conflict. Exactly the sort of situation that normally triggers conservative precautionary instincts to defend what exists. Even the Pentagon has written strategy papers about the possible effect of climate change on military security. With or without climate change, it is highly likely we are doing irrevocable things to the natural world that presumably we all love and depend on? It is as if, because the likely changes require more government regulation (and assumption I wish conservatives would challenge by inventing really dynamic market-based solutions), it can’t be happening so we don’t need to regulate. We have a hot summer and my conservative rural neighbours in the UK say: ‘roll on global warming’,  or ‘it is all a Labour Party hoax’. What I call policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy. The comment column in the normally very responsible UK Financial Times, every time the former vice president of the US Al Gore or climate change is mentioned, is deluged with conservative foamers raging about a conspiracy. Though one of their core arguments is that climate science is uncertain, they are nevertheless certain that human induced climate change is definitely not happening. I doubt there is a qualified climate scientist amongst them, and I suppose most think tobacco has no link to cancer either. But hey I am prejudiced.

So why is this? Why don’t most conservatives see it as perhaps the number one priority for their politics: to conserve the most fundamental, long established structure we have: the natural world? I am not talking David Cameron here, or the leadership of the UK Conservative Party, or even moderate Republicans,  who seem to get it. It is the rank and file conservatives in the UK and US. What happened to their conservative precautionary principle that we now need? I have a number of theories and welcome additions or commentary, especially from conservatives:

  1. Reverse engineering: all the solutions to environmental problems involved more government; we don’t like more government, so the problems aren’t happening. This could be a major cause.
  2. End Times: some religious conservatives are expecting the Rapture and actually don’t care. I can’t believe this is the real cause and so many conservatives are saving, putting their kids through college etc which presumes the end times aren’t any time soon?
  3. Constellatory Construct: Environmental concerns are associated with abortion, gay marriage, state medical care etc in terms of the people that support them, so as a conservative I am against any concerns supported by those who support the issues I don’t like.
  4. Minority of All Political Believers really accept environmental  problems. This suggests that only a small minority on either side of the political divide care about environmental issues, but on the conservative side for some reason they have no voice. (See Special Interests). On the liberal side in contrast there is an alliance of environmentalists with other interest groups.
  5. Special Interests: A variety of special interests like the utility and oil companies, Fox News have embraced anti-environmentalism and use their influence on the conservative side of any debate to skew perceptions there.
  6. Conservatives really focused on having more material goods than their neighbours. They are therefore in an evolutionary arms race and won’t be deflected by the consequences of their drive for more than others. In terms of this blog, they are positional thinkers in any conflict: they want to win, to have more than the other side, rather than wanting what they need and not being influenced by what others have.
  7. In-Group/Out-Group: They think probably accurately that the first victims of environmental disasters are people in poor countries or the poor in their country and they really don’t care about these people as they are not in the conservative in-group. This does not tie with the fact that conservatives on balance give more to secular charities than liberals.
  8. Respect for Hierarchy: Corporations and rich individuals who conservatives respect tell them all will be well
  9. Technological Hubris: A magic silver bullet will appear that solves all energy, conservation etc problems. Only big government is blocking this miracle.
  10. Free Market Fundamentalism: If environmental problems are really happening they throw very negative light on the core conservative belief in the free market and this is simply unacceptable.
  11. Humans cannot have a big impact on our world by definition I have heard this one but can’t really begin to understand it when we have changed the planet so much for good and evil. Indeed the atmosphere is likely created by microbes who are not big on species arrogance?
  12. Humans were created in God’s image and can do what they like to the planet Hmm, hard one that; omniscience is a real tough nut to crack, though I have met my fair share of the doubt free.

Footnote: This blog does not publish abusive or mindless rants, conspiracy theories or personal denigrations of politicians of any hue. Though it is not a great fan of Al Gore. But it is very interested to hear from measured conservatives, or others, to better understand the under-pinnings of their environmental beliefs: ‘What do they think is happening?’ and ‘What can be done about it?’. And how in their view does this tie into other issues like energy security, manufacturing competitiveness (energy cost being a huge part of costs) and personal responsibility to behave for the greater good of society that I have found so strongly in the military, churches and other institutions that conservatives revere.

Even better, if someone can let me know of significant conservative environmental problem-solving initiatives to help redress my ignorance of them where they exist. Faith based, Veterans, free market, hunters: just drop me a post. Thanks.

PS I just noticed the conservative UK Daily Telegraph has started a campaign to save bees from extinction in the UK, so there is one immediate example, as bees pollinate many of the crops we live off and it is thought that they are the victim of pesticides we use in agriculture.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Economic Conflict, Environmental Conflict, Philosophy of Conflict, Types of conflict, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Don’t Conservatives Want to Conserve?

  1. Victor says:

    Hayek defines the conservative view on these matters– he was a good friend of Karl Poppers and they share similar experiences of socialist oppression and the same views as on how to escape its tyranny– National Socialist, Soviet Socialist and modern derivatives — such as Eco Fascism

    Friedrich August Hayek CH (8 May 1899 – 23 March 1992) — born “Friedrich August von Hayek” — was an Austrian-born economist and philosopher best known for his defense of classical liberalism and free-market capitalism against socialist and collectivist thought. He is considered to be one of the most important economists and political philosophers of the twentieth century.[1] Hayek’s account of how changing prices communicate signals which enable individuals to coordinate their plans is widely regarded as an important achievement in economics.[2] Hayek also produced significant work in the fields of jurisprudence, neuroscience and the history of ideas.

    In 1974 Hayek shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics (with Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal) for his “pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and [his] penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.”[3] He also received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 from president George H. W. Bush.[4]

    Hayek lived in Austria, Great Britain, the United States and Germany, and became a British subject in 1938. He spent most of his academic life at the London School of Economics (LSE), the University of Chicago, and the University of Freiburg.

    His view is that such movements are started by well meaning socialist but that the human drive for power attracts the thugs who inevitably take over– Stalin, Hitler, Mao and their modern derivatives who want to control peoples lives and enslave them.
    Welcome to the new boss—same as the old boss

  2. Well I guess that puts you in my first category of conservative: we don’t like the solutions, so environmental problems can’t be happening. This is roughly what every conservative has responded so far in my personal conversations.

    Which is a pity because the environmental problems are happening and we have limited fossil fuels regardless of Hayek. Moreover, I actually think that moderate conservatives have a lot to contribute and might actually help us with a non-authoritarian set of solutions: using the market price system to price in externalities and avoid the need for some of the regulation. They might even help us get a sensible safe nuclear power program.

    What a pity you use ‘Eco fascism’ which is one of those unthinking terms (like ‘Femi-Nazi’) used by people who have never lived under real fascism, like the Jewish kids that turned up in my school in the 1950s or the Portuguese and Soviet victims of torture we tried to help in the 1960s. Or my friends’ great aunt who has the tattoo on her wrist from the concentration camp.

    Roads to Serfdom: hmm Stalin, and Mao were trying to do something to modernize unbelievable poor countries and they killed tens of millions in the process. I have about as much time for them as Hayek had. But to elide their approach over onto say Sweden or Canada is nonsense. Countries with a Gini Index of .25-.30 may or may not be economically most efficient (it depends how you count well being), but they are the least likely to become authoritarian in my view: think Norway or the Netherlands. Almost every country in the world, outside failed states like Somalia, is in practice socialist. We all have a socialist military, roads, in some cases health care, schools, universities, pension systems, scientific research etc. All enough to make Hayek puke and make nonsense of his road to serfdom. Social provision is no more an automatic road to serfdom than clean water is. And if you are anti-state: go live in Somalia.

    There is always the risk with any political system of the descent into authoritarian regimes. Highly unstable capitalism gave us Hitler and today’s China is a strange mix of hyper capitalism and authoritarian statism. It is no more socialist than the USA if you look at its GINI index: it is way more unequal than the USA and has few social safety nets.

    I find it unproductive to debate whether Hitler’s use of the term National ‘Socialism’ was anything more than a brand game against the Communists. He was not the product of a drive to socialism in the German state, whose ‘socialist’ pensions and health care etc was created by conservative Bismark. Hitler was the product of denial of military defeat in war (scapegoating Jews and Communists for the stab in the back, when the defeat was military), misrepresenting the scale of reparations (which were less than imposed on and paid by France in 1870), market economic collapse, hyper-inflation, high unemployment, and his solutions were a mix of statism, in/group war hysteria, antisemitism, and revanchist nationalism. You could arbitrarily call all that socialism. But I think it is more like a certain form of extreme nationalist conservatism, quite unlike the conservatism we see in the US and Europe these days. The conservative Hindu fundamentalist RSS in India comes closer and also kill, but on a smaller scale. (They killed Gandhi). Moderate conservatism and moderate socialism are neither of them roads to serfdom, though both carry that risk.

    Winston Churchill is one of my heroes. He was a conservative (and Thatcher hero) who under pressure of war/threat of extinction made Britain into an almost totally socialist state: rationing, Defense of the Realm act, workers being told what job they were to do, military conscription, very high income tax etc. Hayek could not have noticed when he was at the LSE that this did not lead to Stalin. Once the emergency was over, without any coup by thugs, it was dismantled and we had Attlee, Churchill, Eden, Macmillan etc. who were hardly power grabbing thugs. There was never any risk of this in Britain as far as I can see. The only place where European social democracy has been abused is Italy, and that is where the conservative Berlusconi has used his media power to dominate politics.

    Saint Thatcher of the Markets, by the way, despite all her Hayekian bluster did not manage to reduce the percentage of UK economy that the state represented. She sold off state owned businesses, after proving they could be run efficiently by the state, but caused such devastation to manufacturing by running a North Sea Oil funded high exchange rate that she had to spend hugely on social benefits to stop even more social unrest. Net effect: the state grew. And the regressive Poll Tax reform did her in. And she founded the surveillance state so strong these days in the UK. Not very Hayekian in practice, like Bush the Lesser who also presided over a massive growth in the state and the deficit, especially compared to (the morally dubious) Clinton and Bush was not what you might call exactly libertarian.

    Road to Serfdom type approaches do nothing to help us solve real dilemmas like combining growth and sustainability, freedom and rules. Often one person’s freedom is another person’s enslavement and the more we realize that and go beyond slogans, the better in my view. But thanks for the contribution: we need to be vigilant against the abuse of power from wherever it comes. As Lord Acton said: ‘Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’. The concentration of economic power including media power and political corruption/lobbying has to me as much potential as a road to serfdom as the thugs you rightly denigrate. And I always like to use Popper’s approach to try to falsify Popper and Hayek. 🙂

    Adam Smith as I understand it, was against the extension of state power because he thought it would inevitably be used by the rich to screw the poor. Now there is an interesting twist! You might also find the Political Compass at

    helps make your perspective less linear and see the potential for alliances of people with your approach and my approach to get stuff done, (as Churchill and Attlee did in the UK in 1940-5) and see off threats to our well being and liberty from whatever extremist direction they arise. Libertarian-Authoritarian is a separate dimension from Egalitarian-Free market, Hayek not withstanding. Combos of the two dimensions are what is useful analytically.

  3. PS There is another enormous threat to our liberty that neither side of the political divide seems to notice: organized crime, which is now a growing proportion of world GNP, is violent, authoritarian, corrupting of both governments and corporations, tax evading, source of narco-terrorism, and a cause of the collapse of states and law and order. Why this blindness?? And why no work on its roots: what causes it and what to do systemically to root it out?

  4. Victor says:

    Interesting analysis.
    Now that communism is dead and buried we have seen the emergence of State Capitalism in Russia and China, in both countries you if you travel far from the capital cities, you will find that a lot of the economy is ,in fact, controlled by gangs.
    I find Hayeks warning about socialism incisive– they inevitably lead down the road to serfdom.
    Adam Smiths view was that the mutual pursuit of self interest leads to reciprocal transactions and value creation– his ideas were born in a Christian context– which provided for the the care of the frail and the weak– take away the Christian context and you may have capitalism red in tooth and claw– if you want to see what that looks like see what China is doing all over Africa these days.
    Re Eco Fascism– there are many groups of ” deep ecologists” in the US and Europe who argue for letting Africans die of disease and malnutrition, draconian population control policies at home and an end to all immigration from the developing world.
    Professor Paul R. Ehrlich @ Stanford author of The Population Bomb has espoused such ideas in his lectures and talks.

    Let me give you a small example of how things can get out of hand.
    In our town we encourage recycling– but in the last few years the City Council has become obsessively green .
    They recently tried to introduce enforced recycling.
    It looked like this, they hired a new garbage company called green technology.
    The garbage men were to be call environmental inspectors.
    They would be empowered to inspect and digitally photograph domestic garbage.
    If they found an article in the wrong bin they would send a photograph and a warning.
    A second offense would involve a fine in the $100s to be split between the city and the garbage company, with incentives for individual inspectors, fines escalated after that.
    Further offenses would mean suspension of service and the publication of identity, photo evidence and address on the City Web site and local papers– and social pariah status– they believed that school children could help enforce public shame by talking with the offenders children in school.
    This was the plan they devised, a lot of it behind closed doors– for the good of the planet.
    Fortunately when it became public there was enough outrage to table it — for a while–but the green activists see nothing wrong with it– this is madness–their next proposal was for forced composting of all organic garbage in our gardens– never mind the rodents and stink.
    This is a small example of how things can quickly turn into a form of eco- fascism at a local level.
    In SF they actually have some of these policies in place– the green police.

    The scientific and economic solution for our community would be to dump all garbage into one can, ship the garbage to a central facility where it is sorted out robotic-ally and recycled where it make economic sense— this approach would save 1000s of hours of residents time, save money and energy.

    The green “police approach” was attractive to the politicians, both as an additional revenue source— but the main motivation was the intoxication of social control, with recycling as a quasi pious ritual enforced through our children in the local schools.

    A local example of the road to serfdom

  5. Interesting perspective.

    But I just don’t see the parallel between pesky garbage inspectors and the OGPU, KGB or PIDE or whoever. Just doesn’t compute. I would not lose much sleep from the green police. Indeed, in my experience Switzerland has always been like this and they are not exactly socialist relative to anywhere else. Small scale stateless anarchy would have the same issue, no doubt.

    Yes, there are some (on left and right) who want the poor in Africa to die; I don’t mind the use of the term eco-fascist for them. Seems proportional, if they are Eichmann like. But let’s not put the marvelous folk here who really do work to save the environment with their own hands and send money to Darfur, in the same camp.

    Interesting question I heard recently: who is more a threat at the global level to our security or liberty: Chavez or Rupert Murdoch? I don’t like either but it is an interesting question. All you say about the abuse of power under socialism applies in mind to great inequality of economic and political power too.

  6. Victor says:

    I gave the example of our local green police to illustrate simple initiatives can quickly get out of hand — even in a liberal town, it is clearly not on the scale of Chinas Cultural Revolution, Soviet, Iraqi or N Korean terror and surveillance
    1/ Inspecting, photographing citizens garbage and posting them on public forums is a invasion of privacy — though technically legal in the US, once you put something in the garbage it is no longer private property.
    2/ Using children to enforce green police policies on their parents is a slippery slope.

    Re Switzerland– Gun politics in Switzerland are unique in Europe. The personal weapon of militia is kept at home as part of the military obligations. Switzerland has one of the highest militia gun ownership rates in the world.
    Up to 3 million guns– most of them military assault rifles in homes.

    Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and the ” Deep Ecology” movement are quite ruthless when it comes to the lives in the 3rd world, Peter Singer @ Princeton supports infanticide, the movement has a veneer of academic respectability unfortunately.

    Neither Chavez nor Rupert Murdoch are a threat, the main threat is from radical fundamentalist Muslims and Zionists, partly from what they are likely to do to each other — genocide– but also from the terrorist acts their conflict may provoke on the US and Europe.
    The loss of an American city to a nuclear device– probably a dirty bomb– which is quite possible—will unleash the most draconian measures, suspension of civil liberties and nuclear retaliation and a collapsed world economy.
    For example if Israel bombs Iran then Iran will retaliate launching missiles from Lebanon on Israel who will nuke Tehran.
    The Iranians will attack US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, then go on to Saudi Arabia. The whole region will go up in flames and all oil and gas from the region will end. Iran has terrorist sleeper cells in the US and Europe and could activate them rapidly.
    The end of energy from the Mid East will destroy Chinas economy and throw the US and Europe into a major depression — there will be fierce conflict for remaining available energy resources and one EMP bomb exploded over the US will put us back to the 19th century, with no power transmission, no computers, telecommunications etc for months or years.

    The right wing government in Israel has declared its intent to bomb Iran with either conventional or nuclear weapons so the above scenario is quite likely to occur— whether it goes so far as China or Russia launching an EMP bomb over the US is another matter– less likely.
    Another possibility is that a desperate and crazy N Korea could attack S Korea, in which case Japan would assemble its nuclear weapons and change its constitution to allow war– the last thing China wants is a nuclear armed Japan.

    The stability of the Cold War was predicated upon MAD, but MAD was predicated upon 2 rational actors.
    These days we have multiple nuclear actors and not all of them are rational so MAD does not apply.

    The main tinder box is Israel/Palestine, I am interested in how you would apply your model to resolving that conflict.
    Once that is resolved by either a one state or a two state solution then the international community could denuclearize the whole region, Israel, Iran, Pakistan and India.
    China, Russia and the US are rational actors– that would just leaves N Korea to de-fang.

  7. I think Murdoch is a threat because he dumbs down political discourse in his own interests via Fox News. Nothing wrong with conservative media as such, just the level of prejudice/lack of evidence base there. Look at the UK Daily Telegraph for a better model. Murdoch would likely oppose any sensible Mid East settlement for reasons I cannot quite fathom. Perhaps he is a closet Rapturist? Or he hates America like some say he hates Brits. 🙂 But relative to your scenario he is not a big deal.

    I agree the Israel/Palestine issue is currently central, and yes I think my model could crack it. But then everyone knows what the solution is and yet getting the horses to the water to drink eludes everyone. Positional thinking is the real virus; and interest-based approaches lubricated by Saudi money or whatever could I suspect soon settle matters. The West Bank Israeli settlers want cheap housing and surveys of them see little extremist demand from most of them to stay if they got rehoused sensibly. The West Bank and Gaza needs to hi-tech industrialize and Israel is perfectly placed to do that. Palestinians are some of the most educated people in the mid east based on the ones I know. Turkey could play a role too, though we are forcing her into more Islamic positioning, very foolishly.

    So yes probably two state, and post Arafat, Al Fatah are apparently really providing security in the West Bank and are probably deal-able with. Hamas is in effect the creation of Israeli instransigence. Most young Israelis I know have left because of the Netanyahus of this world, playing on political fragmentation and fear, stop any hope of progress and so they see no long term future for a fortress state. White South Africans came to the same conclusion, though Palestine has no Mandela.

    The real problem is that any attempt by the US to force a solution, results in uproar in the US from both political parties, who don’t realize that the time has come for some tough love of Israel if it is to have any future at all. And our interests in the US and Europe lie with solving this festering sore once and for all for all the reasons your scenario suggests.

    I am more hopeful on Iran than you are. It is possible the same sort of earthquake that toppled the Shah may topple the mullahs…I just don’t know how anyone can start the avalanche. Clearly the current foreign policy of Iran is not in its people’s interests and they know that. I suspect MAD applies to the rulers of Iran more than you suggest. North Korea: hmm, less sure.

  8. Victor says:

    I agree that when Iran gets the bomb then MAD will work, they may be crazy but they are not stupid. Also the majority of the population is under 25 years and the women are particularly mad at the current regime.
    Reform in Islam will be led by women and there are encouraging signs already.

    The block to peace is the current extremist Zionist regime, the opposition is trivial and weak– the radical Zionists are committed to the Greater Israel, if not from the Nile to the Euphrates the at least from the Med to the Jordan river.
    I think it too late for a two state solution, Israel/Palestine is an apartheid state and the settlers will not move— did you see the riots of 100,000s of ultra orthodox last week because they wanted their children segregated from more secular Jewish children in state schools— if they try to move the settlers there will be civil war in Israel.
    Today their foreign minister–Lieberman- said he did not believe in a two state solution any time in the next few years, he said a precondition would be stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship a expelling them to the West Bank– darker forces are calling for genocide in Gaza quite openly and previously outlawed groups like KACH KAHANE are becoming dominant in the universities under different names but with the same racist views.
    Better to face the reality of a one state solution and go through the S Africa transformation.
    The change agent will be the USA, we give Israel a handout of $3 billion per year and supply their high tech weapons– the extremist Zionist lobby has a lot of power in congress– but a new Israeli Lobby– J Street– is gaining strength.
    If Obama threatens to stop the hand outs and arms and prevents Israel from bombing Iran, by threatening to shoot down their planes over Iraq– then Israel will come to the table and a one state solution will ensure enduring peace.
    There are many powerful lobbies in Congress, NRA, AIPAC etc but no lobby is stronger than the US Military– both Gates and Petreaus have told Congress recently that the current situation in Israel/Palestine puts American soldiers lives at risk in the region — that got the attention of Congress and the US voters.
    I predict we will see a one state solution and a rapid transition from apartheid to a modern S Africa like state under NATO and UN supervision.

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