Conservation and conservatism

Image of Harry Eyres

The green movement is hardly unique in being prone to splitting. Hardly had Christianity got going as a religion before the divisions started appearing: you might start with the Antiochian schism of 362-414, long before the Catholic Church’s crusade against the Albigensians, the Reformation and ensuing wars of religion. The same thing happened with the First International (murderous suppression of anarchists by communists in Russia and Spain), and with psychoanalysis (character assassination rather than murder).

One split in the green movement has divided more pragmatic “light greens”, prepared to work with existing institutions, above all with capitalism, and ideologically fervent and uncompromising deep greens. Shortly before her murder by her partner and fellow German Green Gert Bastian, Petra Kelly wrote that “eight years of self-destructive infighting among our various factions had paralysed our political activity”.

Now there are signs of rapprochement – at least at the journalistic and non-governmental levels. The coming together of the two British environmental magazines Resurgence and the Ecologist, both founded in the 1960s, generally friendly but representing different wings of the movement – the former spiritual and artistic, the latter activist and political – seems a welcome development. In the lively first joint issue, published recently, former Friends of the Earth director Charles Secrett calls for environmental NGOs to move beyond their tired tactics of advocacy and opposition.

The Resurgence-Ecologist merger also represents a friendly dialogue between two individuals, Satish Kumar, still indefatigable at 76, and Zac Goldsmith, 37, now British MP for Richmond. Politically the two are quite distinct: Kumar is a Gandhian, committed to non-violent protection of the earth and its people, while Goldsmith, an English Conservative, is a member of a party not known for its pacific tendencies.

There have been long links between strands of environmentalism and the far right: for example, the conservationist Dave Foreman, co-founder of EarthFirst!, once urged the suspension of food relief to Ethiopia to “let nature seek its own balance.” Does what is happening now represent a marriage of mainstream conservatism with environmentalism?

The trouble with this, in my view, is that mainstream conservatism is not really conservative, in the profound, Burkean sense of opposing thoughtless destruction, both of the natural world and of life-giving traditions, and of seeing society as a compact not just between the living, but also with those yet to be born.

Mainstream political conservatism, both in Britain and in the US, believes only in the unfettered market; it is less in love with conservation than with the creative destruction of capitalism. I had a conversation recently with a minister in the UK coalition government, who has written persuasively in Resurgence magazine about the desirability of bringing beauty back into political debate. He has an earnest wish that Britain should be a green and pleasant land, and have a commitment to decarbonising the economy; but I suspect his views do not count for much against George Osborne’s desire to build runways and fill the green belt with houses.

As for the US Republican party, in its current manifestation it appears committed to unbridled exploitation of the earth. The loudest applause during Mitt Romney acceptance speech recently at the Republican convention came when he mocked Barack Obama’s promise (in 2008) to “begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet”.

An eloquent and philosophically sophisticated defence of conservative environmentalism has recently been made by Roger Scruton in Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet(2012). Scruton wants to break what he sees as an unhelpful bond between environmentalism and “the left”: he wishes to restore the link between conservatism and conservation, not just etymologically but ideologically: “conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal”.

That sounds good, though it might be news to Osborne and Romney, and there is much to commend in Scruton’s advocacy of small-scale solutions to environmental problems based on what he calls “oikophilia”, the love of one’s (local) home.

But Scruton places too much trust in well-meaning volunteers. A love of the British countryside is not sufficient to save the swallow or the hobby, which summer in England but winter in sub-Saharan Africa. Most importantly, it will hardly be enough to combat global warming.

Scruton also makes too sweeping a dismissal of the state. Both it and the market, dumping pollution on to the poor, across borders and into the future, have failed when it comes to protecting the environment. But the state clearly has a role, for instance in passing clean air legislation or creating national parks. Both state and market need to be greened. Environmentalism is not the preserve of either the left or the right.

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