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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Respect for Hierarchy: Corporations and rich individuals who conservatives respect tell them all will be well
- Technological Hubris: A magic silver bullet will appear that solves all energy, conservation etc problems. Only big government is blocking this miracle.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.